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The Chaining of America

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The Chaining of America

by Morris Sullivan

art/Marty Kelley

There's a trend in the American economy that is perhaps worse than the stock market crash of 1929. It's probably worse than the communist invasion imagined during the McCarthy era. It's worse than the Y2K bug, even. It restricts your economic opportunities, limits your career options, and impacts on your freedom of choice--and the worst thing about is that you probably haven't even noticed that it's happening.

There's a trend in the American economy that is perhaps worse than the stock market crash of 1929. It's probably worse than the communist invasion imagined during the McCarthy era. It's worse than the Y2K bug, even. It restricts your economic opportunities, limits your career options, and impacts on your freedom of choice--and the worst thing about is that you probably haven't even noticed that it's happening.

Business and social forecasters have started bewailing the difference in the work ethic between those young people now entering the job market and their parents' generation. They're less loyal, they say. They don't work as hard, don't feel responsible, etc. The gurus have blamed this on a number of different factors from drugs to rock and roll to permissive educators to being spoiled (because they're born into more wealth than the previous generation, have fancier toys, and don't think they should have to work as hard).

I don't think it has anything to do with any of that. I think it's a function of the changing American retail economy.

Free-market capitalism has become replaced by an economic structure that is far more pernicious than communism or socialism could ever be. This new socio-political-economic system doesn't even have a name, yet. So, let's give it one: Let's call it Martism. As in Wal-Mart or K-Mart. We could have chosen to call it Max-ism, Depot-ism, or any of a number of other isms, but Martism seems pretty definitively descriptive.

It's not an easy system to explain, but I'll try. Maybe it would be best to start by explaining how the free-market used to work.

Once upon a time in America, if you wanted to buy a quarter pound of nails, you hopped in your Chevy and drove five minutes to the neighborhood hardware store. As you entered the store, a smiling old fella in dungarees greeted you with, "Hi. Can I help you find something?" To which, of course, you responded that you needed a quarter pound of nails "like these ones here." You then followed the old fella down through a maze of aisles, he'd reach into a bucket and say, "You mean, like these ones?" and weigh you out a handful. After that, you'd follow him back to the front counter, he'd ring them up, take your money, and wish you a nice day.

The coolest part of this, too, was that if you got pissed off at your neighborhood hardware store, you could drive an extra five minutes to a different one, where you'd not only get better service (hopefully) but also have the satisfaction of indulging in the old-fashioned American pastime of "taking your business elsewhere." When competition really meant something, that was quite an important activity.

I know this must sound idyllic--perhaps like a fantasy, even--but things really did work like that once. I know, because I used to manage a store that was a lot like that hardware store.

Consider today's equivalent to that experience. You go to Home Depot and wander around until you either manage to find what you need (self-service) or persuade someone to help you. That someone, more than likely, will tell you which aisle to look down, then walk off. You'll eventually find what you need. As you meander through the aisles looking for the checkout lanes, you'll probably pick up stuff you don't need, too. The stores are carefully mapped out to maximize your impulse purchases. When you check out, you may or may not get a smile and a "good day." It depends on the mood of the clerk. And you'll only get out of there after standing in line.

You'll save money on that dozen nails. However, you'll spend money you didn't intend to spend, and the trip will take you, on average, about three times as long as the trip to the corner hardware store would have.

If you get pissed off at the Home Depot people, then what? Take your business elsewhere, of course, to Builder's Square, maybe? You'll get more of the same, I'm sure. It's the nature of giant corporations to offer as little service as possible, because service is expensive, and they owe their market share to price-cutting, and therefore cost-cutting.

At the store I managed, we didn't sell hardware; we sold office supplies. Store policy dictated that before you got more than 20 feet from the front door, someone had to offer to help you. It worked, too. It worked, because the sales people knew that if you got farther than that before they tried to wait on you, the floor manager would kick their butts. And the floor manager knew that if she didn't, I might come out of my office, see an un-tended-upon customer and kick her butt. And if I didn't, the owner might come in, and he'd definitely kick my butt.

The customers knew it, to. If they didn't get the treatment they expected, they'd ask to see the owner, Jim, who usually wasn't there, and they'd see me. I knew Jim well enough to know how he'd want his customers handled, and I'd do right by them--and they knew that, too. And if, after all that, they got pissed off, they could take their business elsewhere. Jim didn't like it when people did that, so we all knew it was important to him--and ultimately to our jobs--to keep them from doing that.

We were all convinced that our customers shopped with us because they wanted fair prices, but most of all because of our excellent service.

So much has changed in only a couple of decades.

In 1987, when I sold my interest in the office supply store, there were over a dozen commercial stationers in the Orlando. Now, just over a decade later, the population of Orlando has nearly doubled, yet the number of commercial office supply stores has fallen to less than half. Incidentally, the number of small hardware stores has fallen at least that far.

Very soon after the doors closed behind me for the last time, an Office Depot opened. Within a year, two more had opened, followed soon after by Office Max. I'm sure that if I had stayed in the business, I would have sat back and smugly stated that we would lose very few customers to Office Depot--they couldn't match our service, and they couldn't carry as many items as we did.

This part is complicated, but I'll try to explain. Part of making money comes from buying at one price and selling at a higher one. The difference is called "markup." Another part of making money comes from "turning over" your inventory--that is, selling it before it sits on the shelf too long. The lower your markup, the faster you have to turn it over, or you run out of money. Making money, then, for the big warehouse operations, is a function of keeping only those items on the shelf that you'll sell in a hurry, so you never have a lot of your funds tied up in inventory for very long.

This limits your choices. For example, we carried ribbons for a variety of ancient adding machines. We didn't sell many, but they were there if someone came in looking for a ribbon for his old Adler or whatever. If the same customer went into one of the big chains, he wouldn't find that ribbon. They couldn't sell enough of them to turn the stock over fast enough. His choice, then, would be to replace the adding machine with a new calculator.

My theory about our customers valuing our service was inaccurate, too. Recent studies have shown that people don't care about that much any more. They shop for price.

Not too long ago, I was in one of the Martist representatives of the New Economic Order, Office Depot. I had picked up some essentials, and noticed a shelf-full of canned honey-roast peanuts. It was way past lunch-time, and didn't look like I was going to get a break any time soon, so I got a can. I was hungry, so as soon as I was in my car, I pulled the yellow plastic top off the can. To my surprise, the inner seal had already been opened and half the peanuts already eaten.

I took the can back inside and over to the customer service desk.

Now, here's what would have happened at my store.
CUSTOMER: Um...I just bought these here, and someone's already opened the can and eaten some.
STORE EMPLOYEE: Oh, my gosh! I'm so sorry. Wait here and I'll get you another. (yelling as he walks to the back of the store for another can) Mr. Sullivan! Come look at this! (returning with another can, which he'd already checked to make sure it hadn't been opened, too) Here you are, sir. I'm so sorry. (handing me the opened can) I think Lloyd put these on the shelf. Do you want to ask him, or shall I?
MANAGER (ME): Lloyd! I need to see you in my office! NOW!!

Here's what happened at Office Depot.
CUSTOMER (ME): Um...I just bought these here, and someone's already opened the can and eaten some.
STORE EMPLOYEE: (eyeing me suspiciously) Well...okay, go ahead and get another one. (giggling as I walk to the back of the store, pick up another, check to see if it had been opened, put the lid back on, check another, put its lid back, finally find one that hadn't been opened already.)
ME: OK...I'll take this one. Here are two others that had been opened.
STORE EMPLOYEE: (giggling) It must be that night crew. Those guys are always doing stuff like that. (to manager) Hey, will ya take a look at this?
MANAGER: (giggle)

Maybe this doesn't seem like a very big deal. However, I recently witnessed an interchange between a customer, service-personnel, and a manager at a foremost example of Martism--Wal-Mart. The customer had bought a bright orange, high-tech off-road bike for his son's Christmas present, and a pedal had fallen off. The customer had dutifully brought it back to the store, found the exact same item in the bike department, and rolled them to the returns & exchanges counter.

The person at the counter didn't want to make the exchange, and called for the manager. The manager wanted the customer to return on Monday with the bike, so that the same half-wit who assembled it in the first place could "repair" it. The customer wanted to swap on the spot, and couldn't understand why the store's return policy was different for bikes than it was for everything else.

The exchange ended when the manager said, "That's just how it is," turned his back on the still-irate customer, and walked off. I wanted to slap the silly-ass cracker. If I were an attorney, I'd have been over there offering to sue the bastards on behalf of the justifiably irate customer. However, I'm only a writer, so there wasn't much I could do except point out that this was at the WalMart in Bradenton on Sunday, January 18, and that the store manager was a pudgy, pasty-faced white guy and the customer was African-American. (In case any attorney happens to read this and decide to make a big deal out of it.)

You could claim that the manager's rudeness was racially motivated. However, that's a doubtful claim. Probably, he'd have been just as rude no matter what color (or sex, or age) the customer. Why shouldn't he be rude? It's not his customer. The bottom line is that the customer and the business he brings along belongs to the owner.

So where's the owner?

With a big chain like this, there is no owner. Ownership lies in the hands of some vaguely-defined group of people called "stockholders," and the employees don't know any of them. Chances are, at any given date, even the stockholders don't know they own a business. Much of the existing volume of stocks is held by mutual funds and other "pooled" investments. Ownership of those stocks changes hands with the rise and fall of markets, and the decision to own or not own are made with the aid of computer trading programs. Suppose the guy with the bike works for a company with a retirement program that invests in mutual funds. On that particular day, he may well have owned a tiny piece of that Walmart. In theory, that manager was responsible and accountable to that customer--but neither of them knew it.

It's that ignorance of accountability and responsibility that has created the lack of service in our retail world.

Once upon a time, there was a marketplace cliché: the customer is always right. That philosophy has all but disappeared. Many of the people on the front lines no longer feel any responsibility for the consumer's happiness. You can see that every day. Eating in a Denny's, McDonald's, or other chain, for example, if you point out a flaw in the food or service, you are more likely to get an excuse about it, or to hear the "fault" attributed to someone other than the server, than you are to get an apology and an offer to correct the problem.

You really can't give good service if you don't have the responsibility for the customer's satisfaction, and almost no one working for a big retail corporation thinks of themselves as responsible for that.

Shortly before I quit smoking, I went to a 7-11 for a pack of smokes. Cigarettes had just gone up to almost three bucks a box, and I noticed a big display advertising Camels for $2.29. I decided to get Kamel Reds instead of my usual brand, since they were on the display. The clerk scanned them, and asked for $3.15. I pointed out that they were on sale.

"They scanned for $3.15," she said.

"I see that, but the sign says they're $2.29"

She didn't seem to think she was responsible for that. The computer, after all, was her decision-maker, so the responsibility obviously lay with the person who put the price in the computer--whoever that was. They'd probably never seen each other, and never would. The price-programming person probably had never even seen the store, and would never have to wait upon a customer.

I pressed the issue. Muttering to herself, she peered over at the placard above the cigarettes, then pointed at an almost imperceptible line of type. "Oh--this says Œexcept for Reds," she said proudly.

I told her to sell me the regulars, then, but pointed out that they really should either sell the Reds for the sale price or take them off the display. Someone, somewhere, had obviously screwed up, and it was deceptive.

"So sue the cigarette company," she said. "They set up the display."

Now, what she was telling me was that not only was neither she nor anyone else in the building capable of making the decision to either sell me the reds at the sale price or to remove them, but no one at Southland Corporation had the responsibility, either. Someone at R.J. Reynolds was in charge of that square foot of counter space.

It's no wonder you can't get good service, and it's no wonder the children of the baby boomers are considered to be disloyal employees. Who the hell would you be loyal TO?

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