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Adventures In Retail

29 Apr, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

Over the last weekend I had a couple of retail experiences that I found a bit harrowing, even though I benefited from them.

Because I am refinishing some chairs, I had to go to a fabric and craft store to get some upholstery supplies. This was not a neighborhood store, but part of a national chain.

I can remember when you had to know at least a little bit about sewing to get a job at a yardage store. I guess home sewing is a dying art, despite what the Home and Garden channel wants us to believe.

I thought it was just lax service when the woman at the home d?cor cutting table sent me to the general cutting table to have my goods measured so she could continue sorting safety pins or whatever trinkets she was pushing into little piles on the table. But when I got to the general cutting table, the young lady there didn't know which direction to measure the fabric. For those who don't know about yardage, it comes in a handful of standard widths between one and two yards. Since I was buying a 7-yard cut, I could have taken advantage and got the whole piece for the price of the yard-and-a-half width. But I set the salesperson straight and we measured the whole seven yards.

The POS system didn't register the advertised discount on one item so she told me to request it at the register.

Once there, I stood in line for what seemed like ages as two clerks closed their registers and the remaining line stacked up behind a customer with two full carts of Independence Day decorations. When it was my turn I asked for my discount.

First the clerk told me the discount didn't apply. When I pointed out three signs on the yardage table specifying that my goods did, indeed, qualify, she said she would give the discount “this time” – then proceeded to calculate it incorrectly, which gave me more of a discount than I was entitled to receive. I tried to call that to her attention but she was too frustrated and the line was getting too long, so she just sent me on my way.

On the way home I stopped for a burger. In the drive through I announced my combo coupon into the speaker. The food technician got the amount wrong and when I tried to correct her (up $1) she said “fine” and charged the lower amount, then didn't even ask for my coupon.

About now you're wondering what all this has to do with video.

It's not so much about video as the general state of retailing. It happens all over, especially at chains like Wal-mart, Kmart and Circuit City, where corporate management decides the best way to save money is to eliminate minimum skills at the lowest rungs and hire anyone who can fill out the application, often to sell quite specialized items or handle complex transactions.

Most of the time it seems like chains have all the marketplace advantages. But this street-level view proved to me that independents can do a better job of some things, like hiring and training people with at least marginal knowledge of the store's products and policies.

Independent retailers may struggle to pay decent wages, but at least they are involved enough to see what's going on at the customer interaction level. As chains divert ever greater portions of their revenue to senior executives and shareholders, they forget the costs of leaving their businesses in the hands of ill-trained, apathetic minimum wage slaves.

You can bet I won't be buying stock in either of the businesses mentioned here. If they run all their outlets like this, they'll go broke soon.

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