Friday, February 11, 2005

Waiting at Wal-Mart

After work last night, before driving home in yet another snowstorm, I needed to make a quick dash to Wal-Mart.

It was about 6 on a very snowy Thursday night, so the store was not crowded, to say the least. I grabbed what I was after and headed for the cashier.

This was a small Wal-Mart with none of the Super Wal-Mart add-ons that make it clear Wal-Mart eventually plans to sell everything legal for commerce. There was no grocery store, no eye doctor, no McDonald's, no outpatient surgery clinic.

By small, I mean, the store only had 14 check-out lanes. How many were open, you wonder? 2.

That's right 2 out of 14. There was a line at both registers. Totaling up purchases in my lane was a slim, long-faced brunette who looked to be about 19. The only other option was a woman who appeared to be about 70,spending her golden years ringing up Pampers and shaving cream for grumpy strangers.

Now, I'm a pretty patient person, but when I see to lines of people eager to get out of the store and onto the treacherous and life-threatening highway begin to form, I get a little perturbed.

I waited a full 5 minutes. What's the big deal about 5 measly minutes? I'll tell you.

My age, my education level, my professional background, make my time on the open market worth somewhere between 15 and 20 dollars and hour. So, those 5 minutes I spent trying to complete a business transaction were worth in the neighborhood of $1.50.

This lost time and money constitutes a forced contribution to the company. The reason I had to wait, is that Wal-Mart did not want to pay another cashier. Instead of absorbing the cost of the additional ringer, they passed that on to me, the costumer, in the form of lost time and the value it represents.

Almost nothing accidental happens inside a national retail chain store. Oh, sure, a clerk might inadvertently leave a stray can of peaches where only pears should be, but the overall design of the place, from where they put the CD's to how they display the hammers, is part of an environment as carefully crafted as Disneyland. Every inch of what you see has been researched and focus grouped; all to induce you to buy.

The same is true with staffing. Somewhere in the shady upper reaches of the Wal-Mart hierarchy is a guy whose job it was to figure out how long the average person will wait in line at Wal-Mart before he get so angry he leaves without purchasing. Not how long before he gets angry, Wal-Mart is not there to make sure you have a pleasant experience,remember, but how long before he becomes so peeved he splits without handing over the cash.

Deciding how many registers to open depends upon this number. The goal is to only pay enough cashiers to keep people from walking out without buying what they came for. Otherwise, the customer can wait.

Behavior like this sends the subtle but true message that belies all the corporate customer service rhetoric. "We're not here to wait on you," the company is saying "you are here to wait on us."

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