Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hallmark Flashback

My sister sent me this birthday card.
So, anyway, I'm standing in line to buy you a freakin' birthday card and the line is like seventeen billion people long 'cause the only thing the dumb teenage boy at the register is thinking about is the dumb teenage girl at the other register, and some dumb lady is turning her purse inside out to come up with "exact change," like she's gonna win some kind of "exact change trophy" or something, and some idiot starts up with his "This item was marked with the sale price" crap, and I just really hope you like this card...

[inside cover]

'Cause I stole it.
Having spent considerable time in retail, this gave me a chuckle because I've stood at the other end of that line; and although I've never stolen anything in my life, I did something that came close, once — and thus my sister's birthday card brings me to True Confessions of a Retail Clerk.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I had been working in the café at Barnes & Noble for about two weeks. After you learn some of the drinks, they start you on the register. This is tricky for two reasons. First, if you haven't memorized each drink by key code, you have to select them from a scrolling menu. And like drinks aren't grouped together. Small, medium, and large sizes don't appear one below the other like you'd expect. The large macchiato might be on the second or third page, after a bunch of unrelated drinks, sandwiched between the medium and large espressos, and you have to scroll down to find it. It ain't intuitive.

The second reason are the books. When I sold CDs, a bar code was a bar code was a bar code, and it was called a Universal Product Code (UPC) for a reason: There's only one. Some books have as many as three. The trick is that your scanner will only read one of them — and although you learn to find the one that says "ISBN," that doesn't always work.

So I was a new hire working the register in the middle of a busy, understaffed Saturday afternoon and I had a line that sprawled out the café entrance into the store. I'd been working the register for about three hours when along comes a woman who, in addition to her large food order, wants to buy a stack of books. Most of them were no problem: romance novels and mass market paperbacks that were easy to scan. But she also had a bunch of oversized children's books, each of which had at least three different bar codes, and I just couldn't get any of them to scan. The store was packed and the customers were restless, so I took my two weeks' experience and made an executive decision: I grabbed her books and stuck them into her bag. "Here you go. Free books."

Barnes & Noble corporate would have said I took the easy way out. But I spent three years as a retail manager, and I know the job better than any middle-manager corporate suit. Their first mistake is what I've just described: They set up a complicated cashwrap system that prioritizes tracking inventory rather than expediting customers' checkout. Jeffrey Gitomer says, "High-level people want to make a profit. Low-level people insist on saving money." Bingo. Store policies are determined by low-level people.

So what's a register jockey to do? You've got two choices: Expedite the problem customer ("flush the drain"), or risk losing the sales that are lined up behind her. She's buying a bunch of children's books with incredibly low profit margins, and everyone else in line wants to pay $3 for a cup of coffee. No contest. Plus, you earn the added benefit of goodwill: Instead of driving away a horde of angry customers, you've made a woman happy by showing her that you value customer service. Everyone wins.

Barnes & Noble gave me a nametag and assigned me the responsibility for checking out sales, and in that capacity I made a judgment call. I was right, and I'd do it again. But it's the closest I've ever come to theft. And I doubt Barnes & Noble would approve.


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