Politics & Policy

Tale of 2 Chain Stores

Adventures in Christmas shopping.

Despite the controversy early this holiday season involving Abercrombie & Fitch favoring super-attractive salespeople over mere mortals, my personal Christmas shopping needs rely more on finding competent, helpful, and cheery staff to make the process of checking off gift lists as pleasant as possible.

Actually, I spend very little time sizing up the physical beauty of the staff in various stores where I shop. (I skipped nudie Abercrombie this year since apparently they don’t even have clothes.) I don’t have the time or the mental energy to figure out the proportions, coloration, and poseur skills that would make people pretty enough to rate hours or ugly enough to lose shifts.

It’s Christmastime and stores are open ’til all hours and they need as many capable people as possible staffing the stores and selling the stuff.

Last week I visited two large chain stores. The first trip involved a mass retailer which I won’t name except to say it was Kmart. I wasn’t under a lot of pressure. It was early in the day so it wasn’t crowded. My children were in school so I didn’t have that distraction. I needed underwear for the kids so I grabbed a few packages of the less bizarre characters–does anyone really want the Hulk on his undies?

I checked the prices–$5.49 for six pair, not bad–detoured into paper products and grabbed a giant off-brand bag of paper napkins because it was the cheapest one and headed for the check out. There were no lines and I was going to be out of there and done.

The young woman scanned, I paid, said “thank you,” “Merry Christmas,” and started for the door, quickly checking my receipt before putting it in my wallet. Well, I’ll be darned if they didn’t overcharge me for all four of the items I’d bought. The underwear by $1.50 a package and the napkins by a buck. I’d just overpaid by a third.

So I point it out to the checkout girl and she tells me she doesn’t do refunds. I’ll have to go to customer service. It still wasn’t that bad because the customer-service desk was right there and there was no line.

So I explained to the young lady what happened and she scans the stuff and says, “No it’s $6.99 each.”

“Well, then why is this package marked 5.49?”

Oh. She scans and does some button pushing and presents me with a gift card for $1.50. The other two packages are not marked. She is unimpressed with my desire to be refunded. Since the kids’ section is very close by, I offer to go get marked packages to make the whole process go quicker. She shrugs.

I push my cart over to undies–yes I got a cart for four items. Of course, none of the other packages are marked. But each display hanger–the metal stick that holds eight or ten items and comes straight out of the wall–had a UPC code and price at the end of it that read $5.49. So I asked another woman working that section what she thought I should do. She took out her scanner gun and pointed at the $5.49 sign. It came up $6.99 on her screen. “They’re $6.99,” she said.

Then why does every hanging hook say otherwise? She shrugged. I knew I’d never get the customer-service lady over to look at this and now I was pressed for time. I removed the entire rack of ten packages of underwear, metal hanging pole and all, and put it in my cart (aha–the cart comes in handy.) I went over to the boys department and did the same thing. I brought the display to the service counter.

“See, why does it say that if it’s not the price?” I stood back and let her take it all in.

She said nothing, handwrote the changes on my receipt and added some more to my gift card.

“And these napkins?” I said, sensing I was becoming a nuisance but not wanting to pay top dollar for crummy napkins.

“How much?” she said, drumming her blue fingernails. “It says $1.89.”

She adjusted that one, too, and I was finally out of there with a store credit for a store I really didn’t want to go back to.

Since my run-of-the-mill shopping trip turned out to be a royal pain, I wasn’t exactly excited about going to a toy store a week before Christmas in search of truly important items. But there were things to be purchased. Not for my kids, you understand. They’re covered by Santa. But coincidentally I had some similar things to buy for…well, let’s just call it a coincidence.

Four youngish moms clogged the Imaginarium aisles at Toys R Us and simultaneously asked a nice young man questions about merchandise at the same time. Three wanted to know if Lego kits are buy-one-get-one-half-price or buy-two-get-one-free. And did Clickit (the feminine-skewed Lego toy) count? I was waiting to ask about Thomas the Tank Engine products.

The Lego offer was confusing so the guy was down on his knees reading the fine print on the shelf sign. He got up and began to explain the deal then suddenly he stopped talking and looked kind of dazed.

“I have epilepsy,” he finally whispered. We all stopped nattering and gave him some room. One mom asked if we should call someone. He shook his head, took a moment, and then he kind of shrugged it off.

We all took a minute to think, “Gee, do I have to have this toy information this second or can I give another human being some patience and kindness?” But once we knew he was fine we continued to pepper him with questions. It is Christmas week after all. He did a great job helping us all. And even though everyone was in a hurry, throughout the store moms and dads yielded the right of way to each other, giving a sympathetic smile to those with overflowing carts or crying babies.

A salesgirl loaded games onto shelves. I asked her about a particular building-block kit. She went over to the computer and hummed a little tune while she waited for the information to come up. I followed her to the correct section where she looked through all the boxes until she found the right one. She seemed almost as happy as I was to locate the toy I needed. “I’m a little loopy,” she said with a grin. “I’ve been here since early this morning. But what are you gonna do?”

At the checkout standing by the door as I left, a woman with a clipboard was saying goodbye to customers and cooing at the little tots practically buried under packages. She saw me coming with a giant box tipping out of my cart. “Are you all right with that? It’s very heavy. Can I send someone to your car?”

A burly chap with fingerless work gloves had already brought it to the front of the store for me and I felt like I could shove it into the minivan myself. Then I recognized the slightly crooked front teeth behind the big smile.

Definitely not Abercrombie material. But I remembered her from customer service a year or two before. I was there with my kids and she gave them all balloons. They were so happy.

I told her everyone was doing a great job. These folks were a little stressed by all the questions and some of them seemed pretty tired. But they were giving it everything in there because next week was Christmas and they knew each question is incredibly important to the person asking. They were working and we were buying and that was good news for all of us.

Susan Konig, a journalist, has just written a book, Why Animals Sleep So Close to the Road (And Other Lies I Tell My Children), which will be published in 2004.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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