They often earn little more than minimum wage, but retailers believe the nearly 3. 5 million cashiers behind tills around the country are...

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They often earn little more than minimum wage, but retailers believe the nearly 3.5 million cashiers behind tills around the country are working in more than a nickel-and-dime profession.

“Cashiers are really the ones who can take your business and make it or break it,” says Shoreline ARCO AM/PM owner and manager Ahmed Askar. “A lot of it comes down to who is behind the counter. They have to help the customer leave happy and want to come back.”

While entry-level wages for cashiers in the greater Puget Sound region tend to start at about $8.19 hourly, the job does have some clear appeal:

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Nearly half of all cashiers start out working part time. That’s one reason it often attracts students, and adults looking for supplemental or second jobs.

Many are entry-level positions requiring little or no previous work experience. In fact, about half of all cashiers working in 2002 were 24 or younger.

Hiring is hot. Across the country, only four other occupations will grow faster through 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which forecasts that some 454,000 cashiers will be hired in the next seven years.

In the Seattle area the state Employment Security Department expects some 3,565 cashier positions — a 16.4 percent bump — to open up during that same period.

Nearly all employers say that a strong work performance in these often foot-in-the-door positions can earn a candidate the start to a more lucrative retail career.

“If they show good customer service, accuracy regarding money, honesty and loyalty, they can go far, far, far,” Askar says of cashiers he has hired. “They can develop into an assistant manager or a manager, and there is good pay when they get to that level.”

Askar should know. He started as a part-time cashier on the graveyard shift at a Seattle-area gas station/mini-market 10 years ago. Over time, his supervisors rewarded him with promotions. With each step up the job ladder, he learned skills that helped him reach higher rungs — until he eventually purchased his own market.

At 7-Eleven’s corporate level, for example, several division vice presidents started in the company’s convenience stores as cashiers, according to company spokeswoman Margaret Chabris.

While cashier positions are available in nearly every retail industry, 26 percent of all jobs nationwide are in food and beverage stores. Other big employers include gas stations, department stores, various other retailers and restaurants.

The myth about cashiers, 7-Eleven recruiter Jim Cassidy said, is “that these people just stand behind the counter, read magazines and wait for customers.

“In reality, our sales associates are handling 300 to 400 customers in a shift. Not only are they taking their money, ringing up their sales, but they’re doing all of this while making pleasant small talk,” says Cassidy, a human-resources official whose Pacific Northwest three-state region includes 360 stores.

When 7-Eleven cashiers — referred to within the company as “sales associates” — aren’t behind the register, they’re on the floor “managing product categories, ordering for the week, dealing with vendors about new products, making sure there are no shortages or overages, and handling responsibility for the safety of the store,” Cassidy adds.

“There’s more to this job than meets the casual eye,” says Robert Stack, a six-year senior sales associate in North Seattle.

These days, cashiering also requires more high-tech training than it did even a decade ago, says Cassidy. 7-Eleven, for example, is introducing wireless hand-held “mobile ordering terminals” that allow employees to track and order more products.

This means 7-Eleven sales associates can check a computerized weather forecast and “know up-to-the-minute how much more Slurpee syrup is going to be needed,” he says.

And while all three men agree that math skills are still important in cashiering, technology that can be learned on the job is making it simpler to scan purchases and calculate change. That’s why customer-service skills are high on a hiring manager’s requirements’ list.

“In convenience stores, customers are in and out quicker than in a normal grocery store,” says Slack, “so it’s a balancing act between being cordial and making them feel welcome. So if you have four people in line, it’s a judgment call as to how much socializing you can do with customers.

“There will be times where you don’t have anybody in your store for five minutes — then you’ll have 15 people all at once,” says Stack, whose résumé includes nine years driving for Metro and several years working for a soda pop distributor. “The important thing is to be yourself. Be businesslike.”

Even impatient customers are “not a real big a problem if you only have to wait on them for two to three minutes,” says Slack.

If asked for advice by a cashier job-seeker, Slack says he would tell them it’s less about dollars-and-cents, and more about personal qualities.

“It’s about honesty,” he says. “Honesty is an intangible. And it’s about attitude. For the younger folks who are just getting out of high school or are in between jobs, it’s about getting to work on time, having a decent attitude.”

Though a high-school diploma or GED is not required for many entry-level cashiering jobs, most employers would prefer it. And while many employers say previous work experience gives hiring candidates an edge, Askar says he doesn’t require it “because it’s easier to train a new person to adjust to the way we do things.”

Nonetheless, Askar says, it’s difficult to find qualified hiring candidates because so much is on the line for his business owners. Often, he says, he’ll interview 10 to 15 cashiering candidates before he finds someone who is a good fit.

Close to home, entry-level cashiers are hired at about $8.19 hourly, but the average salary in the Seattle area is $10.98, according to state figures. More experienced cashiers make an average of $12.38 hourly. Throughout Washington state, starting hourly wage is about $8.04, while the average hourly wage is $10.45, and the upper end is $11.67 hourly.

Health and medical benefits, and stock-option and education reimbursement plans are part of many full-time cashiering positions, as well.

Depending on the employers, discounts are often available, as well. For example, though it cites no specific examples, the U.S. Bureau reports that restaurant cashiers may receive free or low-cost meals.