(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘business

“They said I was a valued customer, now they send me hate mail”*…

Is shopping therapy… or an occasion for therapy?…

… Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, videos of irate anti-maskers screaming, throwing things, and assaulting employees at big-box and grocery stores have become a social-media mainstay. As Americans return en masse to more types of in-person commerce, the situation only seems to be declining. At its most violent extreme, workers have been hospitalized or killed. Eight Trader Joe’s employees were injured in one such attack in New York, and in Georgia, a grocery-store cashier was shot over a mask dispute. Far more frequent are the accounts of short-fused shoppers becoming verbally abusive or otherwise degrading over slow service or sold-out goods. Earlier this month, a restaurant on Cape Cod reportedly was so overwhelmed with rude customers that it shut down for a “day of kindness.

America’s ultra-tense political climate, together with the accumulated personal and economic traumas of the pandemic, have helped spur this animosity, which was already intense and common in the United States. But it’s hardly the only reason that much of the country has decided to take out its pandemic frustrations on the customer-service desk. For generations, American shoppers have been trained to be nightmares. The pandemic has shown just how desperately the consumer class clings to the feeling of being served.

The experience of buying a new television or a double cheeseburger in a store has gotten worse in your lifetime. It’s gotten worse for the people selling TVs and burgers too. The most immediate culprit is decades of cost-cutting; by increasing surveillance and pressure on workers during shifts, reducing their hours and benefits, and not replacing those who quit, executives can shine up a business’s balance sheet in a hurry. Sometimes, you can see these shifts happening in real time, as with pandemic-era QR-code-ordering in restaurants, which allows them to reduce staff—and which is likely to stick around. Wages and resources dwindle, and more expensive and experienced workers get replaced with fewer and more poorly trained new hires. When customers can’t find anyone to help them or have to wait too long in line, they take it out on whichever overburdened employee they eventually hunt down.

This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that the United States has more service workers than ever before, doing more types of labor, spread thin across the economy—Uber drivers; day-care workers; hair stylists; call-center operators; DoorDash “dashers”; Instacart shoppers; home health aides; Amazon’s fleet of delivery people, with your cases of toilet paper and new pajamas in the trunk of their own car. In 2019, one in five American workers was employed in retail, food service, or hospitality; even more are now engaged in service work of some kind.

For people currently alive and shopping in America, this economic arrangement is so all-encompassing that it can feel like the natural order of things. But customer service as a concept is an invention of the past 150 years. At the dawn of the second Industrial Revolution, most people grew or made much of what they used themselves; the rest came from general stores or peddlers. But as the production of food and material goods centralized and rapidly expanded, commerce reached a scale that the country’s existing stores were ill-equipped to handle, according to the historian Susan Strasser, the author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Manufacturers needed ways to distribute their newly enormous outputs and educate the public on the wonder of all their novel options. Americans, in short, had to be taught how to shop.

In this void grew department stores, the very first of which appeared in the United States in the 1820s. The model proliferated in cities as the 20th century neared and industrial manufacturing expanded. By consolidating sales under corporate auspices in much the same way that factories consolidated production, businesses such as Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, and Marshall Field’s hinted at the astonishing ways American life would change over the next century. But consolidation also created a public-image issue, argues the historian William Leach in Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Corporate power wasn’t especially popular in fin de siècle America, where strike-breaking industrial barons taught those without wealth to mistrust the ownership class. People were suspicious of new types of big business and protective of the small dry-goods stores run by members of their communities.

Department-store magnates alleviated these concerns by linking department stores to the public good. Retailers started inserting themselves into these communities as much as possible, Leach writes, turning their enormous stores into domains of urban civic life. They hosted free concerts and theatrical performances, offered free child care, displayed fine art, and housed restaurants, tearooms, Turkish baths, medical and dental services, banks, and post offices. They made splashy contributions to local charities and put on holiday parades and fireworks shows. This created the impression that patronizing their stores wouldn’t just be a practical transaction or an individual pleasure, but an act of benevolence toward the orderly society those stores supported.

With these goals in mind, Leach writes, customer service was born. For retailers’ tactics to be successful, consumers—or guests, as department stores of the era took to calling them—needed to feel appreciated and rewarded for their community-minded shopping sprees. So stores marshaled an army of workers: From 1870 to 1910, the number of service workers in the United States quintupled. It’s from this morass that “The customer is always right” emerged as the essential precept of American consumerism—service workers weren’t there just to ring up orders, as store clerks had done in the past. Instead, they were there to fuss and fawn, to bolster egos, to reassure wavering buyers, to make dreams come true. If a complaint arose, it was to be resolved quickly and with sincere apologies.

The efforts that Leach identified among turn-of-the-century department-store owners to paint their businesses as the true sites of popular democracy have been successful beyond what they probably could have imagined at the time. Most Americans now expect corporations to take a stand on contentious social and political issues; in return, corporations have even co-opted some of the language of actual politics, encouraging consumers to “vote with their dollars” for the companies that market themselves on the values closest to their own.

For Americans in a socially isolating culture, living under an all but broken political system, the consumer realm is the place where many people can most consistently feel as though they are asserting their agency. Most people in the United States don’t exactly have a plethora of opportunities to develop meaningful identities outside their economic station: Creative or athletic pursuits are generally cut off when people enter the workforce, fewer people attend religious services than in generations past, and loneliness and alienation are widespread. Americans work long hours, and many of those with disposable income earn it through what the anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”—the kind of empty spreadsheet-and-conference-call labor whose lack of real purpose and meaning, Graeber theorizes, is an ambient psychological stressor on the people performing it. What these jobs do provide, though, is income, the use of which can feel sort of like an identity.

This is not a feature of a healthy society. Even before the pandemic pushed things to further extremes, the primacy of consumer identity made customer-service interactions particularly conflagratory…

American Shoppers Are a Nightmare“– and as Amanda Mull (@amandamull) explains, customers were nearly this awful long before the pandemic.

* Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic

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As we reconsider commerce, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that The Wizard of Oz premiered at the Strand Theater in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin– one of four Midwestern test screenings in advance of the Hollywood premier at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (on August 15).

Considered one the greats in the American film canon, it was of course based on the work of L. Frank Baum… who, before he created Dorothy and her adventures, was a retail pioneer. An accomplished window dresser (the equivalent at the turn of the 20th century of television commercial director), he founded and edited a magazine called The Show Window, later known as the Merchants Record and Show Window, which focused on store window displays, retail strategies, and visual merchandising; it’s still being published, now as VMSD.

Back Camera

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“A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*…

Behold, a behemoth…

Take a look at this graph. The blue is Amazon’s share of book sales in the past six years. The orange is where we are headed if their average growth rate (8%) continues. If nothing slows their momentum, Amazon will control nearly 80% of the consumer book market by the end of 2025. Every single book lover should worry. After we’re done worrying, we must change the way we buy books.

Books are a fundamental social good that have an outsized impact on our development, individually and collectively. They move us forward. They have been fundamental to our moral and social evolution, our inner lives, and our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. What they give us is too precious to trust to a single entity for whom they are ultimately just a product, and whose algorithms value them only by the revenue and customers they bring in.

Popular books are so deeply discounted on Amazon that other bookstores have found it hard to compete. Why does Amazon sell books at prices so low they lose money? Cheap books are a loss-leader that devalue books to drive competitors out of business and help Amazon gain control of the market, leaving them with near-monopoly power.

What is lost if at the end of 2025, Amazon sells 80% of books in the US? If one mega-retailer has unprecedented control over what everyone reads?

For one thing, diversity. The vast majority of people will be reading the same top-selling books, as determined by Amazon. On Amazon, as The New York Times puts it, “Best Sellers Sell the Best Because They’re Best Sellers”. Amazon is algorithm driven; the books promoted by Amazon are the ones that are already selling well. That makes it very difficult for new authors to build audiences. It keeps lesser known, unconventional books from reaching the readers who would appreciate them. It narrows our national conversation down to a very fine point, and sands the edges off of human ideas and creativity. It excludes marginalized voices. It does to our culture what losing biodiversity does to our environment.

Authors and publishers need to worry. Once Amazon dominates 80% of the book market, who are authors working for? Authors will effectively be producing content for Amazon to sell on commission, and Amazon will have control over the terms. Everything we’ve seen from Amazon indicates that when they have leverage, they use it to squeeze the most profit for themselves at the expense of their partners.

Local bookstores are essential to a healthy culture around books. Independent bookshops are crucial for emerging authors, who find passionate advocates in the booksellers who hand-sell their books and can make their careers. They are where authors meet readers, where book clubs form, where children discover a love of reading, and where schools and businesses partner to increase the impact of worthy books. Every bookstore is an activist for the importance of books in our culture; they ar ethe fertile grounds where all kinds of wild narratives are nurtured and grow.

f Amazon succeeds in putting bookstores out of business, readership will decline and the importance of books in our culture will diminish. Books will not thrive without the advocacy, passion, and resourcefulness of our booksellers.

Booksellers are people so taken by the imagination and insights of books that they have dedicated their working lives to them. Only a very special person makes that choice, and independent bookstores are filled with remarkable people. People with enthusiasm and curiosity, who can press a new book into your hands that you would never have discovered otherwise. We need that humanity in the book market, not algorithms.

I created Bookshop.org, a public benefit corporation, to help independent bookstores compete for online sales. Bookshop.org has just hit a major milestone — in the past 16 months we’ve helped bookstores earn $15,000,000 in profit, providing a lifeline for many stores. We’ve made progress, capturing about 1% of Amazon’s book sales. But it’s not enough. We need to shore up the culture around books against the forces of consolidation and big business. We need to make this a movement…

Every Book Lover Should Fear This Graph“; Andy Hunter (@AndyHunter777) reminds us to take our book buying where it matters.

Note that the effect of Amazon’s growing monopoly power on competition isn’t the only concern for readers…

You may own a Kindle full of books, but in reality, the only thing you truly own is the Kindle. Buried in the spaghetti code that is Amazon’s Kindle license agreement is the truth: your eBooks are not yours. You have a license agreement to view those books, and Amazon can revoke it at any time…

Technology Review

And of course, even as we support our local booksellers, we must also support our libraries, both local and global.

* Neil Gaiman, American Gods

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As we vote with our dollars, we might send historically-accurate birthday greetings to James MacGregor Burns; he was born on this date in 1918. A historian, political scientist, presidential biographer, and authority on leadership studies, received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in History and Biography for his work on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, America’s 32nd president, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 3, 2021 at 1:00 am

“One of the advantages bowling has over golf is that you seldom lose a bowling ball”*…

Bowling is easy to shrug off as a mere leisure pursuit—a boozy weekend pastime in which anyone with decent hand-eye coordination can perform well enough. But hardcore bowlers have a very different take on the sport: To them it’s a physics puzzle so elaborate that it can never be mastered, no matter how many thousands of hours they spend pondering the variables that can ruin a ball’s 60-foot journey to the pins. The athletes who obsess over this complexity also understand the debt they owe to Pinel, whose career as a ball designer was just beginning when he attended the Super Hoinke in 1993. Notorious as a bit of a colorful crank, he is also the figure most responsible for transforming how bowlers think about the scientific limits of their sport.

After narrowly surviving two wrecks at a drag strip, Pinel thought it wise to find a safer way to satisfy his yen for competition. So he made the switch to bowling in 1969. He came to view the pastime as a spiritual cousin to drag racing: Both involve a few seconds of precise and rapid travel down a narrow path, and both appeal to those who relish technical conundrums. “A bowling ball is just a gyroscope that’s not on its preferred spin axis, right?” Pinel says when trying to describe his affection for the sport. “So ball motion is one gyroscope operating in the field of a bigger gyroscope, which is the earth.”

Pinel quickly taught himself the game well enough to win small purses at regional tournaments. He soon began to wonder whether he could reach the sport’s next tier by hacking his equipment. His main aim was to tease more flare potential out of a ball—in essence, reconfigure it to create a sharper hooking motion. That hook is essential because of how the sport’s pins are arrayed. There is an inches-wide “pocket” on either side of the front pin that all bowlers aim to hit at the optimum entry angle; if they manage to do so, they have a 95 percent chance of scoring a strike.

When Pinel looked into the discourse around ball performance, he found that most everyone believed that all that mattered was the quality of coverstock—that is, the exterior layer of a ball that is visible to the naked eye. Coverstocks are studded with microscopic spikes, the roughness of which is measured by the average distance from each spike’s peak to valley—a metric known as Ra. The higher a ball’s Ra, the more friction it can create with the lane and thus the greater the potential that it will hook well under the right circumstances. The hardness of the material that underlies the spikes is also an important factor. In the early 1970s, several pros had enjoyed great success by soaking their balls in methyl ethyl ketone, a flammable solvent that softened the coverstocks. (The balls became so gelatinous, in fact, that a bowler could indent the surface with a fingernail.) These softer balls gripped the lane much better than their harder counterparts, and so they tended not to skid unpredictably when encountering patches of oil used to dress the wooden boards. The use of methyl ethyl ketone had increased scores so much that rules were put in place mandating a degree of coverstock hardness as measured by a device known as a Shore durometer.

Pinel thought that too much attention was being paid to coverstocks and not nearly enough to what was inside the ball. The hearts of bowling balls, he discovered, were virtually all the same. Each had a round and centered core topped by a pancake-shaped weight block. Based on his experiences with drag racing, a sport in which the engine is every bit as important as the tires, Pinel figured he could change a ball’s dynamics by tweaking its internal structure…

And so he did. “One Man’s Amazing Journey to the Center of the Bowling Ball“: how Mo Pinel harnessed the power of physics to reshape the core of the ball– and the game of bowling itself. From Brendan Koerner (@brendankoerner)

Don Carter

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As we roll true, we might send relaxing birthday greetings to  Edwin J. Shoemaker; he was born on this date in 1907.  In 1928, he and his cousin Edward M. Knabusch prototyped a porch chair out of some wooden slats taken from orange crates; it would automatically recline as a sitter leaned back.  Since it was a seasonal item, his sales improved when he added plush upholstery for year-round indoor use.  Still, his chairs were for the most part locally/regionally sold.  So he designed a manufacturing facility which utilized the mass-production methods of Detroit’s automotive industry– and in November of 1941 went national with the La-Z-Boy recliner.

 Edwin (left) and Edward with their original creation

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 2, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire”*…

In the year 578AD Germanic tribes were warring over the remains of the Roman Empire, an eight-year-old boy named Muhammad was growing up in Mecca, the Mayan Empire was flourishing in Central America, and the world’s longest continuously operated business was founded in Japan. When Prince Shōtoku Taishi (572–622) commissioned the construction of Japan’s first Buddhist temple, Shitennō-ji, Japan was predominantly Shinto and had no miyadaiku(carpenters trained in the art of building Buddhist temples), so the prince hired three skilled men from Baekje, a Buddhist state in what is now Korea. Among them was Shigetsu Kongō, whose work would become the foundation of the construction firm Kongō Gumi.

In the centuries that followed, the maintenance, repair and reconstruction of Shitennō-ji (ravaged a number of times by wars and natural disasters) provided Kongō Gumi’s main source of income, but as Buddhism spread throughout Japan the scope of the company’s work also expanded to include contributions to other major temple complexes such as Hōryū-ji (607) and Koyasan (816), as well as Osaka Castle (1583). Kongō Gumi would continue to flourish under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1867), a period during which Buddhist temples received substantial financial support. The company weathered the pro-Shinto Meiji Period (1868–1912) and its often violent efforts to eradicate Buddhism from Japan, which included the destruction of tens of thousands of Buddhist temples. Kongō Gumi also survived the Shōwa Financial Crisis of 1927, keeping pace with economic and technological developments until it finally succumbed to financial difficulties and became a subsidiary of Takamatsu Kensetsu in 2006, after more than 1,400 years of independent operation.

Although Japan boasts six of the world’s oldest companies and an estimated 20,000 firms over 100 years old, Kongō Gumi’s longevity is certainly remarkable and worthy of study. Fortunately, the principles that guided the company over the centuries have been preserved by the Kongō family itself. The 32nd leader of the company, Yoshisada Kongō, writing during the Meiji Period, left a creed, later titled Shokuke kokoroe no koto, or ‘family knowledge of the trade’, a list of 16 precepts distilled from the company’s successful past and intended to guide and preserve the family’s operations into the future. Western observers might be surprised to discover that while the creed addresses ‘business’ subjects such as quality control and customer satisfaction, it puts equal emphasis on ‘personal’ issues such as how to dress (in keeping with one’s station), how much to drink (in moderation) and how to treat others (with utmost respect). Indeed, the first article of the creed states that minding the precepts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto, and training to use the carpenter’s rule are ‘our most important duty’, suggesting that the standards against which a Kongō measures his life are as critical to success as the instrument by which he measures his work…

Learning from the long-lived: “Building on Tradition — 1,400 Years of a Family Business.”

See also: “The Data of Long-Lived Institutions” from @zander at The Long Now Foundation.

* Gustav Mahler

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that RMS Titanic was launched from the boatyard in Belfast in which it was built, the largest passenger ship of its day. A state-of-the-art steamship, it set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage on march 10th of the following year, bound for New York City.  Four days later, after calls at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, the “unsinkable” Titanic collided with the iceberg that sent it under in the North Atlantic, 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

(For perspective on scale)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 31, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

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As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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