Brenda the 84-year-old checkout ‘hen’ shares thoughts about retirement

Photo of Brenda Palmer

Image: Bruce Manners

Brenda Palmer is a bit of a celebrity. She’s often in the local papers and occasionally in major papers of Melbourne and elsewhere. She’s appeared on television several times.

She lives and works in Malvern, a suburb of Melbourne, and it isn’t unusual for people to stop her in the street to talk to her. Cars will stop in traffic so the driver can greet her. And it isn’t unusual for tram drivers to stop their tram so she can cross the road in front of it.

‘My great-granddaughter and I were walking down the street one day,’ she says, ‘and she asked, “Nannan, how come everybody knows you?”’

Palmer is a Coles supermarket checkout ‘hen’.

She says she’s too old to be called a ‘chick’, she’s a checkout ‘hen’. She has become an identity because, at the age of 84, she has worked in the local Coles for 48 years—since the Malvern store opened.

Over 48 years she has come to know a lot of the people who shop in Coles and is currently serving the grandchildren of many previous customers. To see her at work at the checkout, it’s obvious that she knows a lot of the customers—it’s like watching friends meet.

She plans to keep on working for at least another couple of years until her 50th year—and Coles is encouraging her to do so.

Working life

Palmer was born in Deniliquin, NSW. She lived there until she was seven years of age when, in 1939 when World War II started, her family moved to Malvern and she has lived there ever since.

She married Alan in 1952 and still lives in their home. He died two years ago. He was the ‘one love of my life’, she says.

Before marriage, Palmer worked in the ‘rag trade’ in Flinders Lane in Melbourne city. ‘I had a very good job as what was called a “sample hand”. I used to make up the frocks the models wore for the buyers.’

She quit the job when the first of her children arrived.

She and a friend applied and were successful at getting jobs in the newly-opened Coles supermarket in Malvern in 1967 when Palmer was 36 years old.

She has cut her hours back over the past few years. Currently, she works 17 hours in four shifts. Because she’s an early riser (4.30 am), she prefers the early shift beginning at 6.30 am. It’s a 10-minute walk to work.

Changes over time

‘The greatest thing ever invented is the barcode,’ says Palmer as she reflects on changes since she has been working at Coles.

When she began, every item had to be price stamped. ‘We had to read the price. We had to key it in and key in the department and if we had an overstrike, you couldn’t take it off. You had to write it down in the book as an overstrike.’

She has enjoyed the changes over time, even the technological changes. ‘With every new technology I thought, I must stay here for that. I like the challenge of it. If anybody had told me when I first started here that to pay for my groceries all I had to do was wave a plastic card over the pin pad, I would have laughed at them.’

Thoughts on retirement

Palmer suggests that those wanting to retire need to be certain that that’s what they want to do. ‘I have known people who couldn’t wait to retire. They say they have a lot of plans, but six months after they’ve retired they’re bored to tears.

‘If you do retire, or have to retire, do something voluntary—whether it be working in an op shop or in the children’s hospital—but do something that’s going to keep your mind ticking over and keep you active because you can sit at home and rust out.’

She warns: ‘There are women who are a lot younger than me and, honestly, they have lost the plot and they didn’t need to.’

For herself, she continues to work because ‘I just enjoy the work. I do genuinely enjoy it.’ And that may signal that she could be working for Coles for more than 50 years.

Brenda’s story is a reminder that you don’t have to retire if you’re enjoying what you’re doing. You’ll find more about Brenda and another 12 who have chosen not to retire in Refusing to Retire.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Refusing To Retire

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