(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘retailing

“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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“All roads lead to Rome”*…

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity…

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity…

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.

Ancient transportation and travel: “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.”

* The proverb “All roads lead to Rome” derives from medieval Latin. It was first recorded in writing in 1175 by Alain de Lille, a French theologian and poet, whose Liber Parabolarum renders it as ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam’ (a thousand roads lead men forever to Rome)

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As we plot our paths, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.

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“Human nature is like water. It takes the shape of its container.”*…

This story starts with a Swedish business school graduate studying in the U.S. in the early 1920s and seeing something unfamiliar to him: A self-serve grocery store.

We take advantage of it these days, but there was a time when grocery stores required employees to directly package goods for consumers. In the U.S., goods were sold “over the counter” before the early 1920s, when a truly innovative concept, self-service shopping, came about thanks to a grocery store that’s still around today, Piggly Wiggly [see here]. As noted in a trade publication of the era, Piggly Wiggly was incredibly profitable right off the bat…

But while the concept quickly gained popularity with consumers in the U.S., it had yet to cross American borders in 1920 or so. Which is where Ruben Rausing comes into play. Rausing, then a graduate student at Columbia University who had spent time working in the printing industry, saw a self-service grocery store, and it made him realize something: packaging was about to become very important…

After Rausing finished his education and returned to Sweden, he spent nearly a decade at the printing company Sveriges Litografiska Tryckerier (SLT) before leveraging his contacts and knowledge to create a packaging company, Åkerlund & Rausing, with business partner Erik Åkerlund.

Starting with the packaging of dry goods such as sugar and salt, the company began to focus on liquids around the time of World War II, with paperboard the primary tool.

Prior to the refrigerator getting a global footprint, milk was notoriously difficult to store safely. To give you an idea, when Rausing first came to the U.S., the way that milk was often delivered in his native Sweden involved the use of metal containers that were owned by consumers who cleaned the containers themselves, then went to local stores to get them refilled. This was not a perfect system, and often led the milk to spoil. (Refrigeration was not really common even in developed countries until the 1930s or even the 1940s.)

Meanwhile, the dairy industry in the U.S. had landed on reusable glass bottles that manufacturers cleaned themselves, a more sanitary process than consumer-cleaned metal jugs, but one that relied on a delivery method that had allowed dairies to get monopolies over local markets. Unfortunately for them, paperboard had simply proven too efficient a delivery mechanism to ignore.

“Dairies preferred bottles because they effectively created a monopoly where they established their collection system,” writer Gordon L. Robertson wrote for Food Technology magazine in 2002. “Cartons extended the range beyond the 20–30 miles over which a dairy could operate effectively with bottles; enterprising companies saw the potential and moved to cartons.”

Much as with every other major packaging trend that happened in the first half of the 20th century, Europe got there second. But in the process, they may have built the most innovative model for packaging.

Rausing’s contribution was called the Tetra-Pak, and the corporate line was that he was inspired to have the idea after he saw his wife making sausages. While he may have had the spark of inspiration, it was another inventor, Åkerlund & Rausing employee Erik Wallenberg, who followed the idea through. Essentially, the packaging style was stored with the help of geometry. With the help of a couple of quick turns, the container could close with only three seals, minimizing costs of manufacturing with only a couple of twists. The only issue was that the final shape was non-standard—it was a tetrahedron, essentially a four-sided triangle.

This design nonetheless had multiple advantages, including (with the right packaging materials) the ability to store dairy in a sanitary way over longer periods. With the right packing materials, milk didn’t even need to be chilled in a Tetra-Pak. 

Soon, Rausing created an Åkerlund & Rausing subsidiary that was named for the innovative packaging method, Tetra-Pak. And that company, today, is the largest packaging company in the world—and it did so without the benefit of its original form of packaging winning over the U.S. market.

In 1961, the company produced its first aseptic packaging, using a mixture of packaging (plastic, paper, and metal), manufacturing process (a modified form of the tubular packaging that the Tetra-Pak used), and chemical treatment (hydrogen peroxide, to be specific) to allow for a shelf-stable form of packaging that did not need refrigeration and could extend the shelf life of products without the use of preservatives. This was an important innovation whose benefits linger today.

The second innovation came in the form of design, with the Tetra Brik taking many of the lessons learned from the original Tetra-Pak design and applying them to a more rectangular package, allowing for more standardized shipping.

The combination of sanitized packaging and a normalized design seemed like a surefire starting point for American success. But there was a problem—Americans were already used to their cartons that required refrigeration, and so were the companies that sold the milk.

“The major drawback to adoption by American companies is the tremendous cost of changing over from present systems of pasteurization and packaging,” one 1968 article explained of the Tetra Brik. “Since virtually every American family has a refrigerator, the need is not so great as in other areas.”

However, there was still a big world out there for the Tetra Brik, and its shelf-stable nature meant that areas where refrigeration wasn’t quite as quick to appear could get the advantages of having milk distributed in shelf-stable ways.

Americans would find their way to this packaging style through another path: the juice box…

The estimable Ernie Smith (@ShortFormErnie) with the fascinating story of a lunch box staple, the juice box: “Tangential Juice Innovation.”

* Wallace Stevens

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As we poke in the straw, we might send shelf-stable birthday greetings to Reuben’s son, Hans Anders Rausing; he was born on this date in 1926. After many years in the family business, he sold his share of Tetra-Pak to his brother, Gad, moved to U.K., and became a philantropist. His daughter Lisbet, a historian of science at Kings College, London, co-founded (with her husband, UCLA history professor Peter Baldwin) one the the U.K.’s largest and most foresightful foundations, Arcadia.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 25, 2021 at 1:01 am

“You just don’t get any perspective if you are looking at a map on a small screen… and the batteries on handheld devices run out, especially in very cold environments”*…

 

Stanford Map

 

Home to the world’s largest collection of maps, travel books and globes, its customers include governments and armed forces from around the world… Based in Covent Garden, in the centre of London, family-owned Stanfords is a 166-year-old British institution. Opening its doors in 1853, it harks back to the great expeditions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Its famous customers from that time included David Livingstone, who explored much of Africa, and Ernest Shackleton, who led expeditions to Antarctica. Even fictional character Sherlock Holmes was a fan.

Vivien Godfrey, 58, has been chief executive and chairman of Stanfords since March 2018, but her connection to the business has been a lifelong one. Her family have been majority owners since 1946, and she is now the third generation to lead the company. She describes Stanfords as having “been part of my entire life”.

However, when she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in geography in 1983, her father wouldn’t let her join the family firm…

Stanford's 2

The story of one of London’s treasures, and the woman who leads it: “The map store boss who took the long route.”

[TotH to friend KE]

* Vivien Godfrey, on the benefits of printed maps

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As we carefully re-fold, we might spare a thought for a cartographer of a different sort, James Grover Thurber; he died on this date in 1961.  A cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, children’s book author, and all-round wit, he was probably best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine (like “The Catbird Seat” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”)– though his Broadway comedy The Male Animal (written in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent), was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.

Q. No one has been able to tell us what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction. – Mrs EUGENIA BLACK

A. I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct.

The Thurber Carnival (1945)

220px-James_Thurber_NYWTS source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch”*…

 

The online site for the National Museum of American History is chock full of cool historical stuff, from advertising to art to communications to just about anything having to do with the history of our great nation. When I stumbled on to a selection of lunch boxes, I was impressed with their wide-ranging collection, from the plain everyday workingman’s box (think construction worker, 1940s) to the fun and highly decorated tin boxes of mid-century America (think Gene Autry)…

Sample the collection at “A Visual History of Lunchboxes“; then dive in.

* Orson Welles

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As we hope for Fritos, we might recall that it was on this date in 1916 that Clarence Saunders, a Tennessee grocer, opened the first modern supermarket, pioneering the retail sales model of self service– he had received U.S. Patent #1,242,872 for a “Self Serving Store”– and thus had a massive influence on the development of modern retailing.  His Memphis store grew into the Piggly Wiggly chain, which is still in operation.

The first Piggly Wiggly store

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 1, 2017 at 1:01 am

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