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By Raymond Lesser
In the old Soviet Union, people stood in line for hours for the chance to buy a loaf of bread. Here in America we stand in line for hours for the chance to pay for one.
This is corporate America’s new business model: You go into a store the size of an airplane hanger, filled from the floor to beyond arms reach with huge glossy packages of goodies, manufactured by semi-slave laborers in China, Mexico, or Indonesia. You load up your SUV cart, and squeeze precariously around the aisle displays to the checkout area, where an endless row of gleaming conveyors and cash registers stand ready to process you into the Total Information Database. The problem is that only one cash register is open, and there is a line waiting for the uniformed minimum wage overworker that stretches at least far enough to completely block one of the main interstate-wide aisles. Customers are frantically punching tiny buttons on their pocket organizers. Mothers are screaming at their children to stop screaming. Mostly people are standing like zombies, clutching their discount coupons, waiting.
After companies moved all their factories overseas, we were told that America had been transformed into a service economy. Well, where’s the service? There’s certainly no one to help you in the airplane hanger retail sales city, unless you want to stand in line at the customer service desk and listen to the stories of the promenade of people in front of you who are either trying to return defective merchandise, or are looking for the bus stop, but don’t speak English. At home you can try calling customer service on the phone, if you don’t mind listening to a twenty minute infomercial before finally talking to a barely coherent representative, who doesn’t know how to help you, but can transfer you to somebody who might (if you don’t mind listening to another twenty minute infomercial). Or you can go to the on-line customer service center, where you might be able to help yourself, using the Help Yourself (because nobody else ever will) feature. Unfortunately, the Help Yourself feature only answers questions that were relevant five years ago when it was designed during the heyday of the internet by a 20 year old programmer, who has since been fired along with the rest of the company’s technical support staff.
Shopping is a horror because so many big corporations have decided that the best way to squeeze more profit out of their businesses is to get rid of their employees. Our business manager, George, told of a trip to Home Despot to buy some Venetian blinds for our office. After searching in vain for any sort of sales assistant on the floor he finally stumbled across the blinds himself, but they needed to be custom cut to the right width. He went to the service area, where items like boards and pipe can be cut to size, and found the department as empty as Enron’s pension fund. After calling into the work area, “Anybody there?”, he wandered back and found the Venetian blind cutting machine. Then he read the manual that went with the machine and decided to try cutting the blinds himself. While he was doing this, another customer came up and asked if he could help her cut some blinds. “She even offered to pay me to do it!” Finally George proceeded to the end of the endless checkout line. “While I was there, three different customers came up and, upon seeing how long the line was, threw their armloads of stuff down onto the floor and walked out of the store. They probably need a full-time employee just to re-stock the shelves with the merchandise that people are too frustrated to wait in line to pay for!”
When we were kids we used to go door to door and ask if the neighbors wanted their lawns mowed, or leaves raked. Nowadays enterprising kids could make a good bit of spending money by standing in line at almost any discount super-store, and offering to sell their place to some harried shopper in need of a quick check-out. Then they could go back to the end of the line and wait patiently for their next customer.
Even a short line doesn’t necessarily mean a quick checkout. My friend Clint tells of going to a computer superstore on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. But Clint knew exactly what he wanted, got to the store the minute it opened and was already in line with his new computer monitor five minutes later, with only two people in front of him. Unfortunately he still had to wait for forty-five minutes to get through the checkout because of the hi-tech store’s hi-tech inventory control system, which processed all purchases through a central computer system, in order to prevent possible employee theft. The merchandise in that store is certainly safe—nobody’s going to get any of it out the door, whether they want to pay for it or not.
It won’t be long until the big chains get rid of all their service employees. Special rebates will be offered to customers willing to show up at 9 in the morning to unload the semi-truck when it arrives from the warehouse. A Loyal Shopper’s Card will be issued to customers willing to restock the shelves. Further savings will be available when you check your purchases out at the self-serve checkouts, bag them, and carry them out to your car. Who wants to waste their time standing in line, when we can save money and make everything move along much more quickly by doing all their work ourselves?
• Reprinted from the February 2003 issue.