(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Retail

“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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“I went to a general store but they wouldn’t let me buy anything specific”*…

 

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The hardware store… holds (and organizes) the tools, values, and knowledges that bind a community and define a worldview. There’s a material and social sensibility embodied in the store, its stuff, and its service, and reflected in the diverse clientele. That might sound a bit lofty for a commercial establishment that sells sharp objects and toxic chemicals. But the ethos is palpable. (And profitable, too…)

Headlines proclaiming the death of neighborhood retail remind me of all those articles a few years back that wrongly predicted the end of the library. Despite competition from big-box stores and the internet, many local hardware stores are doing all right. In 1972, the United States had about 26,000 hardware stores. Their number dropped to 19,000 by 1990 and 14,000 by 1996, but for the past two decades it has been fairly steady. Hardware Retailing reports a slight annual drop in the number of independent stores, but sales are strong (even increasing) at the ones that remain.

To understand the hardware store, it helps to trace an earlier genealogy: the rise of the general store…

How the hardware store orders things, neighborhoods, and material worlds: “Community Plumbing.”

* Steven Wright

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As we reach for the hammer, we might recall that  it was on this date in 1937 that George Allen & Unwin published J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.  Widely critically-acclaimed in its time (nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction), it was a success with readers, and spawned a sequel… which became the trilogy The Lord of the Rings.

Cover of the first edition, featuring a drawing by Tolkien

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Nostalgia is, ‘Hey, remember the other mall that used to be there?'”*…

 

Built in the early 1970s, a decaying Midwestern relic of throw-away consumer architecture will be torn down and developed into an updated outdoor shopping space. What is lost in the process?

An era is coming to its end in a mid-size Illinois city few Americans might recognize. Sandburg Mall, the four-anchor shopping arena constructed in 1974 on the northwest corner of Galesburg, is finally being torn down after decades of decline. Located near the intersection of Henderson street and Carl Sandburg Drive, just off the US-34 exit, the shopping center was built during Galesburg’s population apex — nearly 38,000 citizens were registered in 1960 census, dropping only about 1,000 by 1970. Per the city’s most recent census report, that number has dropped to just above 32,000…

Sandburg Mall is now a relic about to disintegrate, albeit one few citizens will probably miss. Its existence has been maligned for most of my teenage and adult life. It taunts and reminds most of a better, more colorful economic past in a town still struggling — and in some places, succeeding — to get back on its feet…

Tag Hartman-Simkins‘ haunting photo essay: “Baby Come Back: Images of an American Shopping Mall Before Its Death.”

* Charles Saunders

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As we shop til we drop, we might send fabulous birthday greetings to Charles Perrault; he was born on this date in 1628.  A member of the Académie Française, he laid the foundations for a new literary genre, the fairy tale, deriving his work from extant folk tales.  He is best known for Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood), Cendrillon (Cinderella), Le Chat Botté (Puss in Boots), La Belle au bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty), and Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard).

Hugely influential (e.g., on The Brothers Grimm, who wrote over 100 years later), his versions became canonical– and thus the basis for other literary tellings, operas, play, and ultimately movies… which is why Disney’s Cinderella (among other incarnations) has to contend with fragile footwear:  Perrault is believed to have confused vair for verre (the commonly-used descriptor in earlier versions), and thus to have given his princess-to-be “glass” slippers instead of “squirrel fur slippers.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 12, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Anyhow, the hole in the doughnut is at least digestible”*…

 

Because of the way foods are mass harvested, factory processed and packaged in the States, the FDA has to allow food companies to include a certain number of “defects” in the final products. The term “defects,” is code for the inclusion of “foreign matter” in canned and packaged foods, including insects, insect parts, rodent hairs, larvae, rodent poop, mammal poop, bone material, mold, rust, and cigarette butts. These “defects” are not dangerous in the quantities they’re allowed, the FDA says, but still: what was that about ignorance and bliss?..

From the “20 maggots ‘of any size’ and 75 mites, per 100 grams” permitted in canned mushrooms to the “30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams” allowed in tomato sauce, “What Defects the FDA Allows in 11 Types of Food.”

[As a bonus (if that’s not a perverse way of putting it), “The 20 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.”]

* H.L. Mencken

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As we eat a peach, we might send a basketful for birthday greetings to Clarence Saunders; he was born on this ate in 1881.  A Memphis grocer, he developed the the modern retail sales model of self service– he received U.S. Patent #1,242,872 for a “Self Serving Store”– and thus had a massive influence on the development of the modern supermarket.  His Memphis store grew into the Piggly Wiggly chain, which is still in operation.

The first Piggly Wiggly store

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Clarence Saunders

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 9, 2015 at 1:01 am

The romance of retail…

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But then, Zippy can console himself that, as recent honoree H.L. Mencken observed, “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

As we revisit our plans to open that book store, we might recall that this is the anniversary of the premiere (in 1954) of Walt Disney’s first prime-time television program (Disneyland, on ABC; later re-titled The Wonderful World of Disney), the second longest running television franchise in the country (as measured in seasons aired), and arguably the nation’s first major full-length infomercial (…though Bonomo, The Magic Clown, which ran on NBC from 1949 to 1954– and which was essentially an advertisement for Bonomo Turkish Taffy– has a defensible rival claim to that honor).

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Your correspondent is headed for points antipodal, where, as it happens, the drains do not spiral in a different direction, but where connectivity promises to be uncertain…  consequently, for the next week or so, these missives are likely to be more roughly than daily.

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