"You said your company is promoting an 'automatic order' program for your regular customers?" I asked over coffee with a friend. The Juke Box Junction attracts a diverse clientele ranging from families and teens to business types and retirees.
"Yeah, they're pushing it really hard." Walter sighed. "And it's really bad! Customers sign up for it, then don't accept the auto order 95% of the time. Then we have to return it to stock, creating lots of double and even triple work." Walter has spent his career in retail, first with small drug chains, now with a national big box retailer.
"Why would they promote a program so heavily that doesn't work?" I asked–already knowing what was coming.
"The people in corporate pushing it haven't worked in a store in twenty years!" Walter replied, almost shouting.
Miriam dropped her spoon on the table and interjected, "My kid brother was a buyer for a chain of dollar stores and he drew up those little diagrams to tell the stockers where to put the merchandise. He never worked in a store in his life! When I heard he was doing that, I asked, 'What the hell do you know about stocking shelves?' He said he just works off the numbers, you know, how much of each item sells, the customer demographics, stuff like that. He wouldn't know a box cutter from a butter knife!"
It all reminded me of my early days at Eckerd, back in the eighties. The CEO had come from personnel and we always laughed about how they didn't have any cash registers in personnel. It was our way of lamenting how out of touch the occupants of the corporate suites were with the sales floor and the stock room. When was the last time you saw a blue suit take off his jacket and tie and help unload a truck? Most of my career has been in retail, with a brief hiatus in direct sales (adult education and then life insurance). The seventies and eighties had been great years for Eckerd in Louisiana. Our division manager, Tony Spedale, taught everyone in middle management to be sure to visit with every associate in the store during visits. He wanted us to stop by each department and make sure that everyone knew someone from management was in the store and had stopped by to see them. Those were the good old days.
Pass the cream and sugar, please.
Rex, the pharmacist in our coffee group, chimed in with this story. "It's about to be January. January and February are usually the doldrums of the retail business and every year the corporate gurus send down the edict to cut payroll because sales will be off after Christmas. That's true enough for the non-pharmacy part of the business, but the first few months of every new year usually feature the flu season, so we need extra help. Not the time for us to cut payroll. Customers complain enough already about long waits for their medicine."
Charlie (a CPA) related: "When I was in college, I worked off-campus in a Valumart. Checking in an order was a nightmare! It took away time I could be with customers and if I made a mistake, they said it was 'paper shrink' and we lost money just like the merchandise was stolen – and I had it all right there in the tote box. How could it be stolen if it was right there still in the shipping crate?" Walter agreed, "As ordering technology evolved, it was supposed to make it easy to keep the shelves full. You know the old adage, you can't sell it if you don't have it, and 'replenishment' was supposed to be a panacea – it's a boondoggle. Our inventory system is so complicated, it's a wonder we have anything on the shelves. And I know what you mean about shrink! I'm not sure who's running our company, the loss prevention department or legal. It's easier to catch and fire our own employees than it is to catch a shoplifter!"
Miriam almost revealed her age by asking, "What year did that book come out that extolled the virtues of 'management-by-wandering-around'? Remember, one company they talked about required everyone in the corporate office to work in the field a certain amount of time every month to stay close to the business."
"That was In Search of Excellence," I said. "It came out in the early eighties, '81 or '82." It is still one of my favorite books on business and management. Now in the autumn of my career, I wish my company felt that way. (I've been with my present employer four years and still haven't met my supervisor's boss. I still think the associates who spend the most time with the customers – cashiers and stockers – should be making a lot more than they are.)
"Oh yeah," Walter interjected, "my wife used to work at Wang Labs. Wasn't that one of the excellent companies? They're gone now, but most of the others did good. Wish I'd bought stock in all of them."