News and Tribune


July 11, 2014

STAWAR: Counter-intuitive: Why playing store is appealing

Last week, I enjoyed playing store for a few hours, selling cold drinks to bridge-walkers and Fourth of July parade attendees in Jeffersonville.

There is just something highly appealing and satisfying about standing behind a counter and selling things. I believe this desire begins very early, and like many childhood aspirations, we are never completely free from it.

If you visit any children’s museum or private play facility today, chances are good that you will see attractions where your child can pretend to sell things, such as groceries or ice cream. Our grandchildren have often gone to Totter’s Otterville near Covington, Ky., which features a “Pretend Village Grocery Store” where children “ can play at the “checkout counter complete with working cash registers.”

We lived in a Florida town that was the headquarters of a grocery store chain that sponsored an elaborate pretend supermarket at the local children’s museum. Its big appeal was that kids got to “operate a scanning register.”

“Playing store” can be a cherished childhood memory. I remember my own toy cash register, as well as the one we bought for our own children, complete with play money and plastic coins.

One Christmas when my wife Diane and I were especially ambitious, we decided to make a puppet theater out of plywood for our two older children. It was just three pieces of wood hinged together, but we spent innumerable hours working on the darn thing.

When the puppet theater curtain was pushed aside, a shelf on the bottom of the window made a serviceable counter, so it also could be used as a pretend store or lemonade stand. I always thought they like playing store more than the puppet shows.

Diane and I recently stayed in some cabins with our daughter’s family for a weekend getaway. Our cabin had a dining room with a large pass-through window to the kitchen. There were stools in front of the window and our two youngest grandchildren (5 and 7 years old) immediately plopped down and started placing their orders with the barmaid (Diane), who was standing in the kitchen.

Since they have never been in a bar, I think they must have been channeling their two great-grandfathers,

 Last April a newspaper in Hereford, Texas, interviewed students from nine elementary schools, asking what they wanted to be when they grew up. The top occupational aspirations were: 1. police officer, 2. doctor, 3. teacher, 4. firefighter, and of course being in Texas, the top 10 included cowboy and cheerleader. Down on the list, but still in the top 20 was McDonald’s employee — ranking higher than mechanic, mom and football player.

The Daiichi Life Insurance Company of Japan conducted a similar survey of Japanese children. For boys, soccer player was the top choice, but food-related worker ranked sixth (tied with astronaut). For Japanese girls, food-related worker was first, beating out nurse, teacher and doctor.

Attraction to such jobs seems to be international. Canadian blogger Stephanie Hamm says that when she first started working, “It had been my lifelong dream to be a cashier at a grocery store … As a child, I was fascinated by all the fun buttons the clerks got to press ...”

Birmingham writer Rachel Callahan says, “Besides playing office, playing store was my favorite game as a kid.” She also lists several benefits such as: practice in writing numbers, exercising math skills, learning to assign value, stimulation of creativity, making change and bargaining practice.

I believe the appeal of being behind a counter stems from several sources. First, there is familiarity. This is one of the earliest social interactions that children witness and come to understand. Children see commercial exchanges repeated thousands of times and quickly learn that it often results in positive outcomes such as candy, ice cream or toys.

From their perspective, the person behind the counter is in an enviable position. After all, they appear to own the items being sold and they end up with the money. Also they seem to be in a position of some authority.

This is reinforced by their uniform, name badge and even the counter itself. Finally, they get to handle money and operate all of the wonderful gadgets such as cash registers, scanners and headsets. Who could ask for more?

Like almost 20 percent of the population. I actually ended up behind a counter at McDonald’s in high school. I admit I was excited when they finally let me operate that cash register, instead of making french fries all day.

Later in college, I had the ultimate behind-the-counter job, when I tended bar at a golf course. Like many people, Diane and I’ve also worked behind counters at events like the Harvest Homecoming parade and festival — mostly selling refreshments or handing our premiums.

When our youngest son was in Little League baseball, Diane worked in the refreshment stand. It reminded her of the time she sold hot dogs during a sales promotion when she worked at Arlen’s Department store when she was in college.

I had scoreboard duty instead, where I was subjected to a lot of depreciating remarks from Clark’s mother, who had evidently concluded that I was too dimwitted to operate a scoreboard. I’m afraid it wasn’t as much fun as selling hot dogs.

 — Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at



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