Tuesday, November 30, 2004

A Special Place in Hell, Part 2

If there is retail in Hell I predict it will look a lot like a Wal-Mart.

I have never been a Wal-Mart basher. While the world’s largest retailer has committed their share of blunders and accumulated a long list of adversaries I concluded they simply had become a lightening rod attracting the wrath of those appalled at the dark underside of modern commerce. They have been very successful at what they have set out to do, whether we - or they - fully appreciate the consequences. And I took a measure of satisfaction that a small outfit from middle-of-nowhere Arkansas could take over the retail world, one small town at a time.

Attracting detractors is also just a cost of doing business these days. Wal-Mart is, for all the attention it is getting, simply the logical result of a commercial endeavor successfully carried out with the age-old internal logic of commerce. Sam Walton’s business model would have been well understood by merchants 200 or 2,000 years ago.

My view began to be challenged after moving back to North Carolina. There is a Super Wal-Mart at the edge of town. (Does anyone hear Springsteen besides me?) Because it is convenient, well stocked and cheap I started shopping there. That was when I started noticing the little things, not quite sulphur burning, but close.

First, I have always found it annoying when sales persons choose to chat among themselves rather than interact with customers. My all-time favorite is when your conversation with an “associate” is interrupted by another “associate” wanting to discuss the break schedule. It is the closest to becoming instantly invisible I have ever managed. While I had experienced this at other stores, my new Wal-Mart quickly established itself as world class. I also would often observe clumps of “associates” in the aisles chatting among themselves with great enthusiasm about topics unrelated to where they were and what they are getting paid to do. Maybe they were on “break” making “associates” out of themselves.

Then I began to notice that while the store had a couple of dozen checkout lanes only two or three ever seemed to be operating at any one time. With dozens of “associates” within view, only a few were interested in taking my money. Many visits found me spending more time waiting in line than it took me to shop. I began to have the urge to page a “Member of Management” myself.

Last April I was moved to send the following email to Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters.
Today, along with my “Low Prices" I was treated to the national anthem playing in the background as I shopped in one of your stores. While our national anthem was playing an announcer was providing me with shopping information.

For our nation’s anthem to be reduced to a shopping soundtrack is, in my mind, poor taste. One might also easily find it disrespectful to our county, although I doubt that is what was intended. I suggest that this is someone's bad idea that should be discontinued.

I found it ironic that while checking out I could not help but be confronted with the headlines in one of the "newspapers" you offer for sale that our US troops had shot down an angel by mistake in Iraq. With that revelation and the sounds of our national anthem again playing in the background I left the store and headed for your web site.

Is it possible for your company to offer low prices, convenient shopping, employment opportunities AND a moderate amount of good taste and respect for our country at the same time?

Regards, Bibb

I did not hear the anthem again when I returned. But the “newspapers” still provide entertainment during those long, long waits in the checkout line.

Finally, a couple weeks back while I was carrying a 40-pound bag of dog food from the store on my shoulder I saw a young “associate” walking towards the parking lot to collect shopping carts. I had the bag on my shoulder, not in a cart, because returning a cart to a corral from where I usually parked had become inconvenient. It was inconvenient because there were no cart corrals near by. All were near the front of the store, the closest usually 30 to 40 yards from my vehicle.

Seizing the moment I approached the young man and asked if I could make a suggestion. When he said “Sure” I mentioned the need for additional cart corrals further from the store. He paused while we both looked at the numerous abandoned carts scattered at the edge of the parking lot. He readily agreed and then said that there used to be corrals out there but the first shift crew had moved them closer to the store so they would not have to walk so far to return carts to the store.

I lost it. “Tell those lazy first shift sons-of-bitches to get up off their arses and put them back,” I said as I walked off. I suppose he wondered why that nice older gentleman carrying that bag of dog food said such a thing in the parking lot. I know I did. Maybe I should have just thanked him for his honesty.

I was back at the Wal-Mart at the Edge of Town yesterday. The cart corrals were as far from my vehicle as ever, carts scattered about as usual. Maybe I’ll send another email to Bentonville.

I feel better now.

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