Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tainted Love

Business loves me
This I know
For the advertising
Tells me so

(with apologies to Anna Warner)



I’m so happy. I woke up today and realized I am loved. I stretched my limbs languorously and reveled in the warmth of it. Okay, so it’s not the torrid stuff of tabloid magazines. It’s different than that. It’s subtle and understated—more resonant.

It’s the kind that makes you clutch your pillow and close your eyes in quiet contentment. It’s forever. Or as long as I possess a functioning credit card. Whichever comes first.

Kidding aside, ever heard the expression actions speak louder than words?

You might have heard it was inspired by Confucius. Or St. Francis of Assisi. Wrong. It was inspired by the business gap—the gulf that exists between a businesses marketing and its standard operating procedure.

Take the supermarket chain I work for. It has a big business gap. It spouts its love of customers like a lovesick fourteen-year-old girl writing in her diary. The only thing missing are the hearts drawn in strawberry-scented ink.

Too bad it isn’t true.

Grocery shopping is work. It’s repeated motions, done and undone many times. Put the food in the cart, take the food out of the cart. Put the food on the check-out counter, take the food off the check-out counter. Put the food in the car, take the food out of the car. And so on.

This doesn’t even take into account reading between the lines on coupons, discerning which flavor of frozen entrée is—and isn’t—on sale, hoping you’re in possession of the keychain with the rewards card on it and the reusable grocery bags and remembering the debit card PIN.

Look! Your five-year-old just tore open a pack of Skittles and spilled them all over the floor.

The chain I work for began as a no-frills market, with the gimmick being that along with the warehouse-like environment were the lowest-possible prices. Along with the prices, grocery baggers were cut. Marketing experts determined that bagging your own groceries was just part of the fun.

But by 2011, any appeal that idea held has been thoroughly and irretrievably exhausted. In a world in which most women work (in addition to their traditional responsibilities), grocery shopping is just one more chore. Adding insult to injury, it is also one that must be paid for.

And my employer has adapted. We now have baggers. Technically.

We have baggers as long as they’re not cleaning bathrooms or retrieving shopping carts. Or returning unwanted items to store shelves. Or emptying garbage cans in far-flung corners of the building.

Because my employer is so stupendously and astonishingly efficient, when a bagger is idled for a minute or two because a credit card has been declined or a coupon is being disputed or because of the dreaded price check, they are whisked away.

Honesty compels me to admit that while it does lend an entertaining now-you-see-‘em, now-you-don’t aspect to the tedium of supermarket cashiering, customers with three-hundred dollars of groceries who chose your lane because there was a bagger at the end of it rarely see it this way.

So in addition to bearing the glowering rage of an upset customer, a cashier not only has to scan a massive order, but bag it as well. Which easily doubles the time it would take otherwise, and occurs roughly half the time a cashier is behind a register.

Even with glasses, I can’t find the customer service in this. Never mind the love.

It demands that the modest request of having your groceries bagged be the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Your groceries will be bagged if the bathrooms have been cleaned and shopping carts brought in and garbage emptied and unwanted items placed back on shelves and if the customer ahead of you doesn’t encounter or present a problem.

In other words, your groceries will be bagged only if the sun, moon and stars have aligned in just the right way. Business may love us, but it loves a big, fat profit margin more.

And my employer isn’t the only example. There’s the jewelry supplier who cut call center agents to improve its bottom line—even if it means the customers it says it cherishes will have to wait longer.

And the telecommunications giant who punishes service consultants for poor sales—but not for hanging up on customers. And the retailer who leaves calls unanswered and customers unapproached because staffing must be kept to an absolute, bare-bones minimum.

With profit margins shrinking like a wool sweater in a dryer and middle and lower-class wages skyrocketing the way they are, well, gosh, what’s a poor business to do? Something’s got to give.

And that something would be you.

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