June 7, 2004

The Happy Faces at Costco

Filed under: Art and About the Everyday — admin @ 10:01 pm

If you ever shop at Costco in Concord, you may have run into Michael, the grinning gentleman who stands at the exit and double checks that the items on your receipt match the items in your cart. Michael has been a leader in the Happy Faces Art Movement at Costco. In lieu of slashing a highlighter line across the exiting receipt to show it has been given the once-over, Michael began drawing happy faces on receipts about a year ago and now the whole Costco door staff follows suit.

Those happy faces bring immense joy to my children, who anxiously await the end of our shopping trip when they can ask the door attendant to draw a happy face. All Michael’s colleagues do it now, and what is delightful for me is that the happy face on our receipt is invariably mirrored in the faces of the Costco employee doing the artwork.

Everyone’s happy face is a little different. Michael does the traditional circle with dots for eyes and nose, and an upturned mouth. But like handwriting, the variations on the theme appear to be infinite. I have learned that any combination of shapes, scribbles, zig-zags and swirls can be combined to make a happy face. Since personally I have never investigated the possibility of developing a signature happy face, I sometimes wonder where my artistic voice would lead me if I got to stand at a door day after day honing a beaming icon.

One trip, my kids and I were privy to a conversation between two door watchers. A young man had decided to break the shackles of convention and draw flowers instead of happy faces on his customers’ receipts. Without missing a beat, his female colleague asked what kind of flower he was going to draw. He thought maybe he would do a tulip with a short stem and two leaves. The woman wondered aloud whether a flower would be as universally well received as a happy face. The man firmly defended the flower idea declaring it was definitely a picture everyone would enjoy. Yes, this was an actual conversation.

The happy faces at Costco are a heartwarming touch of humanity amid the sterile warehouse environment of megastore commercialism. They provide an intimate topper to an impersonal shopping experience among the hundreds of crates and stacks and overfilled shopping carts. Costco is the last place I would expect to make an artistic connection with someone, but with those happy faces, the people who stand at the door instantly change from nameless employees to fellow human beings.

I’ve wondered if the impact of the happy faces would be as significant to me if I lived at a time when communication was still generated primarily by the human hand. I’ve always felt there’s an intangible personal connection when something has been physically touched by another person before coming into my hands, such as a letter or note or piece of art.

My son recently got a handwritten letter from his aunt and uncle asking him if he wanted to become their penpal. A follow-up note to me said that they didn’t mind if the letters were email or snail-mail. For a moment, I thought about how much easier it would be to have my son dictate emails to me. But then I remembered how excited he got when that letter arrived in the mail, and how he carried it everywhere he went. I think through that letter, my son felt his aunt and uncle had physically spanned the 3000 miles to connect with him. That human connection is what life is all about. We will definitely be sending a handwritten reply.