Originally posted at Medium.com
Like many Americans, I regularly shop for groceries on Friday afternoon.
A year ago this weekend, shopping for groceries here in Austin, Texas took on a surreal feeling as Hurricane Harvey was no longer the product of an over imaginative staff at The Weather Channel. Harvey took aim at the Texas coast, prompting everyone within 200 miles of the coast to start taking their hurricane preparedness seriously. (Why do it early when you can do it with everyone else at the same time, right before the storm hits?)
I regularly shop at our local H-E-B, which is a privately owned chain of grocery stores in Texas. I’m a big fan of H-E-B. I love their employees, along with their commitment to disaster preparedness and response. On the Tuesday before Harvey made landfall, I topped off my supplies during an evening visit to the store. The shopping excursion gave me not only the opportunity to secure any last minute items we needed, but it also allowed me to gauge how my fellow Austinites were preparing for the possibility of a hurricane, then hundreds of miles off shore.
“I grew up in Houston, so I don’t wait to get prepared for these things,” the young lady serving as my cashier told me as she swiped my purchases across her scanner. “I’ve seen what they can do, and I take it seriously.” I thanked her for her candor and for answering my questions about what she was seeing/hearing from shoppers about the storm — which, on that Tuesday night, was not much. “A few have come through buying a lot of bottled water, but so far, no one has really mentioned it.”
Most people don’t realize it, but grocery store staff can be some of the best sources of intel as to what’s going on in your community that you can find. They are not inhibited by the usual “be advised to stay calm at this time” messaging we often receive from community first response leaders. They see and hear a lot, and when things are starting to go bad in a community, they often have a lot of anecdotal data to share.
Every day leading up to the storm, and in the days thereafter, I made a point to visit that same H-E-B to see how people’s shopping habits changed as it became clear that Harvey would have some impact on Austin. The usual flow of soccer moms and retirees during daytime shopping hours quickly mutated into a crowded stream of suburban dads and working moms taking time off from their workday to buy the usual storm gourmet items — canned soups and pastas, chips, sports drinks, crackers, cereal, bread and peanut butter. Bottled water ceased to be available. Checkout lines grew to thirty minute wait times. Everyone remained cordial, but everyone was a bit put out that “all of these people” were there at the same time they were to buy their last minute items.
Fast forward to this past Friday — when there was no massive storm threatening Central Texas. There was no massive anything threatening Central Texas, as best I could tell. Other than the seasonably oppressive heat outside, Friday was just like any other day in Austin.
I finished up buying a few items for the dinner party my wife and I were hosting for some friends on Saturday. As I pulled my grocery cart into the check out line, I noticed something was wrong. The cashiers, normally whisking customers through the check out lanes by scanning products and occasionally punching things on their keypads, were essentially motionless. I turned around just in time to see a manager tell an employee to open up her register as the lanes were quickly filling up. And that’s when I heard what was holding us up:
“My credit card reader on my lane is down…they all are.”
Commerce at the local grocery store had been brought to a screeching halt because, for whatever reason, all of the card readers were down. The H-E-B staff, always demonstrating agility, began to announce that customers who could pay with cash should move to one of two lanes now set aside for cash-only transactions.
I quickly moved my cart from the lane now stuck with credit card only purchasers to one of the cash only lanes. As others began to bring their carts in behind me, I wanted to make sure they knew what was going on.
The two ladies behind me — we’ll call them Lady 1 and Lady 2 — did not receive the news well. Lady 1 became quite indignant. “Well, they MUST take my charge card,” she insisted, despite the fact that I had just told her what the store staff was telling everyone else — the credit card readers were down throughout the store, and they could only complete transactions in cash. She pointed to the sign above the register with great enthusiasm — “It doesn’t say ‘cash only’ on the sign!” as if I was trying to mislead her.
Not believing me, she skipped ahead of me to ask the cashier herself, who promptly confirmed what I had just told her. Lady 1 could not believe the store would not take her “charge card” (is this term still used these days? I don’t hear it that often). Her frustration was palpable.
Lady 2 had a less expressive response — in fact, it hardly expressive at all. She seemed to struggle to comprehend what I was saying, as if I were speaking in a foreign language. “They aren’t taking credit cards?” she asked, looking puzzled, right after I had told both her and Lady 1 the store’s credit card system was down, and that cash was the only way to continue with your transaction.
I carry a reserve amount of cash on me, in a separate part of my wallet, for such situations. (A friend who passed away two years ago this week suggested I start doing that — thanks Jeff). I paid for my groceries, watching as my fellow shoppers continued to crowd the check out lines while they vocalized their frustration. I quickly left, not wanting to stay cooped up with a lot of upset shoppers.
As someone who regularly advocates preparedness for a wide spectrum of perils, it takes a lot to surprise me when it comes to the lack of resilience we have in America. Friday’s experience, however, was surprising even to me. In a week where the S&P 500 set record highs, Austinites became visibly upset when their grocery stores would not accept their credit cards for payment.
In the bigger scheme of things, this was clearly a first world inconvenience. The card readers eventually came back on line (I’ve been to that store twice in two days since the incident, and the card readers worked just fine.) This wasn’t anything which should have upset people.
But that’s not how people responded. I guesstimated that five percent of the shoppers had sufficient cash on them to purchase their items. The other 95 percent expressed various responses, ranging from C’est la vie to disbelief to downright anger.
This is what happened when there was no crisis coming to our community. There was no hurricane or shortage of food. There was no Bank Holiday of 1933 type of event. What would have happened if the credit card readers had stopped working when something was actually going wrong in our community?
September is National Preparedness Month, and one of the things I am stressing to anyone who will listen (besides getting themselves and families prepared for the possibility of a disaster) is to start carrying cash in the event there’s a larger scale problem with electronic transactions. Carry enough cash at all times to buy groceries and a tank full of gas to get you home.
This isn’t an extreme idea or evidence of a doomsday mentality. Some days, the credit card readers just don’t work for whatever reason. Be ready to take care of yourself and family should it happen at your local grocery store or gas station.
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