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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Big Store Mystery



By Jane Thibodeau Martin,



**********

I recently went to a "big box" home improvement store for a long list of items for a painting project. The store opens at 6:30 a.m., and I was ready to check out by 7:15. The store was already quite busy, mostly with shoppers who looked like contractors on this weekday morning. As I pushed my cart to the checkout lines, I paused in surprise " and irritation.

While this store has about eight checkout lines, none were attended. There were two "self-checkouts" lit up; with a joint attendant managing them. About three people were in line for each one of the self-checkout units. Regular readers know how I hate the phenomena of lines at one or two open checkouts of a fleet of ten; but this was worse. NO regular checkouts open, at all. This was the escalation of the trend I'd been anticipating, and dreading, for a while.

I have seen the value of "self-checkout" demonstrated by my daughter, and I think it's great for one or two straight-forward items when there are long lines at the regular checkouts. I am willing to use it, for that. But I'm just not a fan, and I certainly did not want to self-checkout with the number of items I had. It's one thing for you to drive to a store, hunt down what you need, stand in line to pay, and take your bags to go home. But it's another pretty obvious step-down in service to do all that, plus unload your cart, scan, bag and re-load your cart before paying, all that without any eye contact or a "thank you" from a store representative for your business.

If self-checkouts translated into more technical assistance on the floor of the massive store, to help you find everything you need, or answer a question about a specific type of caulk, great. But that's not happening either. I used to avoid asking the woman in pipe fittings about wallboard patching compound, respecting her "territory" and assuming her expertise lay in her assigned area. Now, I just pounce on any random employee I see with my questions, because otherwise I might be meandering around all day. Sometimes I have to stalk this employee through the store, as he or she is already helping another customer, so I have to "get in line" to talk with them.

I'm guessing that this particular type of store isn't feeling the hot breath of Amazon on their backs yet. The on-line marketing gorilla Amazon has made shopping almost alarmingly easy-enter your account data one time, and after that, just locate the item you need on their web site, use the "one-click" order button which is, literally, one click, and in two days your order will be delivered to your door. No need to drive to the store, park, push a cart, hunt around to find what you need, and then be subjected to the indignity of doing your own scanning and bagging at a big box store.

But here's what I call the "Big Store Mystery." If the self-checkout business model is the future of retail, I fail to understand why so many of the big chain retail stores, even newly remodeled ones, have 10 or even 20 unstaffed standard checkout lines taking up valuable floor space. It seems like it would make more sense, the way they do things, to drop the pretense of no-waiting checkout. Just put in a couple of standard checkout lines for us old dinosaurs next to the numerous self-checkout stands, and keep those two attended, using the rest of the space for something more value-added than idle checkout lines.

This morning I was at another major retailer, one famous for its adverse impact on small businesses in little communities. I had a lot in my cart again, and was really relieved when I got behind just one other person waiting to check out, since again only two lines were attended of the fourteen I counted. But both lines soon backed up a long way. A woman with two tired kids and a cart heaped with holiday supplies yelled at the top of her lungs from the back of the line "OPEN ANOTHER LINE, THIS IS RIDICULOUS." I felt like cheering her on.

Small businesses have not started the self-checkout business model. I hope they never do. They are still an oasis of customer service and friendliness. I know when I go into the small town grocery store my Mom frequents that there will always be an attended checkout line, and if more than one other cart is behind ours, a second clerk will immediately appear and open the next line. They demonstrate appreciation of the value of customer's time, not their own. I know the clerk is going to recognize and talk to Mom, and also make some friendly conversation with me, and say "come see us again soon!" Or, "thank you!" as we leave, with the groceries all packed in a cart pushed by a store employee.

And that morning at the big box home improvement store my story started out with? I made a decision to be difficult, and politely asked the self-checkout attendant to call me a checkout clerk. She cheerfully agreed to check me out herself, and we had an enjoyable conversation. I told her how much I appreciated her.

There are already "test pilots" of stores with only a single employee present, there just to deal with issues related to the technical systems that allow you to scan an ID card, enter, take your goods and leave, while devices tally your purchases and automatically charge your credit card as you leave with no formal checkout required. I hope that doesn't happen any time soon, but if it does, Amazon will probably get even more of my business. And in the meantime, shop your local small businesses this holiday season. It's really up to us if there are still there in a few years, or gone.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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