In 1979, I worked for a year selling suits at the old Marshall Field’s store, back before the New Yorkers bought it and called it Macy’s. When I was hired, I had three days of training – two of general store training, and then a full day with a guy from Men’s Wear and the tailor. Before they’d turn me loose on the floor, I had to know every damn thing – how to run the register, how to ship something, how to check merchandise at the other stores, how to close, how to open, how to ask for a credit limit extension, how to check in new stock, the right way to fold a sweater. And if someone walked in asked if we had chalk-stripe, double-breasted, no-vent suit with a peaked collar, I’d damn well better know what that meant, whether we had one in stock, in what size and in which colors.
A couple years later, right after I got married, I needed a night job, so I was back at Field’s, women’s shoes this time. And I still know a kitten heel from a pump, a sling-back from an ankle strap, and that an espadrille is NOT a sneaker.
The thing at Field’s was you worked in a department. You were trained in that department. And you knew how to do your damn job.
Cut to tonight. We’re taking off on vacation on Saturday, the missus and me, decamping for the wilds of Maine. Now, I’m not what you’d call a big-time camera jockey. For the last few years, I’ve been getting by with this Flip video camera. I figure you shoot a little video, then you can always go in, grab the frame you want, export that as a JPG and get your snapshots that way. But I never get around to it. It’s not like the old days where you’d drop the film off at the local drug store and a few days later you’d have your holiday snaps, like it or not. No. Now it’s a process. It’s a time suck. And I never get around to it. Which, to me, is no big deal. All those files, they’re around here somewhere. But it irks my wife something considerable, so in an effort to bolster my standing at the ol’ marital goodwill bank, I figured I’d get an actual camera, one where all the snaps would be right there on that little memory card do-hickey, and anytime the missus got the itch to handle actual photos, I could pop over to the local Kinko’s, stick the do-hickey in the whatchamathing and print me out a mess of them.
So I pop around on line for a bit, narrow down the field to a couple of likely suspects and head over to the ATM for some cash on account of I’m tired of all the fees and gimmicks with the credit cards and the debit cards, so I’ve taken to spending folding money when I can. And I got a little extra because I wanted to pick up a couple video games for the eldest on account of we’re past due on his birthday. So I’m out the door with $500 looking to drop the lot of it.
And now I’m sitting here with $470 bucks wondering when America turned into some kind of third world retail experience where you’ve got a better shot at finding Jimmy Hoffa than you do of an actual human being in an actual store, much less with any training at all in the department you’re shopping in. Oh, the $30 missing dollars? That went to bourbon. I earned it.
First stop was Best Buy. They’re an electronics store, right? They’ve got cameras. So I wonder up to the ol’ camera counter and spy one of the models I was eyeballing on line. And I start looking around for anybody in a blue shirt so they can hand over the merchandise. I don’t have any questions. I don’t need any material help. I just need someone to unlock a damn display case. So I stand there for a while. I answer the semi-annual bestiality update I get from Scott Phillips. I see a guy go by. I ask him for help. He says “Hold on just a sec,” and disappears off toward the appliances. I beat my phone at a game of chess (granted, my phone sucks at chess, so it was only, like, ten moves). The guy comes back, asks what he can do for me. I tell him I want to buy this camera. He fusses around for a bit until he realizes he doesn’t have the keys to unlock the case. He makes a call, tells me someone will be right there and wanders off again, this time in the general direction of the TVs. I check the Twitters, I watch a video somebody stuck up on Facebook. Another guy shows up with the keys, opens the case, and informs me that they are out of stock. I point out that the doors to the case are glass, and, given their transparency, the gentlemen there previously might have imparted this unfortunate situation prior to his departure for parts unknown. “Oh yeah,” guy number two says. “I guess he could have.” I inquire as to the possibility of buying the display model, provided an appropriate discount can be negotiated. The guy tells me I’ll have to talk to the manager, and that he’s probably gonna be awhile because he’s busy. And I ask if that means it would probably be better if I just left. The kid shrugged. I took that as a yes.
On to Target. They’ve got an electronics department, right? Low and behold, right there in front is the same camera, and for four bucks less than they were charging at Best Buy. The retail gods have blessed my endeavor. And I look around again, this time for a red shirt. And I look. And I look. And finally I wander over to the customer service desk and ask if I might be allowed to spend some money in their store, if it wasn’t too much trouble. And the lady behind the counter tells me that, if I go back to electronics and walk around to the side of the counter opposite the cameras, I’ll spot a little red box that says “If you need assistance, press this button, and an associate will be with you within 60 seconds.” I ask if, given that I’ve already trekked halfway across their store in pursuit of said assistance, she might not be so kind as to summon said associate and head him or her in the general direction of electronics in hopes that they might be there when I arrive. I am again referred to the magical employee-summoning device. I guess if a store drops that kind of coin on that sort of cutting edge technology, they want to get their money’s worth.
So I mosey back to electronics in search of the device. Cleverly, the red box was located between a red display pimping Target credit cards or some such and some squarish gadget of undetermined utility that also happened to be, well, red. Having overcome my momentary bout of monochromatic confusion, I push the button, pull out my cell phone, hit start on the stopwatch ap and wait.
Two and a half minutes later, a harried looking young lady comes steaming out of the greeting card aisle heading for electronics. All hope is not lost. Just before she reaches me, she’s waylaid by an interloper from one aisle over, looking for someone to unlock the MP3 player display. Confused, I’m sure, by which of us might have rubbed her lamp, she is diverted to this vital task. I trudge back to customer service and show my still-running stopwatch to the lady behind the counter, the figure now being in excess of five minutes, and ask if she might have another suggestion. She, being, I’m sure, as frustrated with my plight as am I, picks up a phone, makes a call, and assures me that someone will be waiting for me at the camera counter when I arrive.
And lo, someone is. The same harried lass now returned from her quest to vanquish the display case one aisle over. She assures me that she’s deeply sorry, and her contrition so moves me that I simply smile and tell her all I want to do is buy that camera, pointing to the mid-range Nikon that has, so far this evening, evaded my attempts to purchase. She, actually in possession of the necessary key, unlocks the display case, pulls out a box, sets it on the counter and prepares to ring up the sale. Eureka! Having struck pay dirt, I share the joyous news that I also am in search of a couple of video games, and if she would be so good as to accompany me two aisles over and liberate them from their secured facilities, we can conclude our commerce, making this a banner day for the Dayton Hudson people. She cheerily leads me yon, secures said merchandise, we return to the counter, buttons are pushed, sums are totaled cash is exchanged, items are bagged, and I prepare, after my trying ordeal, to repair to my abode for a spot of booze, perhaps a bit of telly, and an evening repast, as my mercantile travails have left me a tad peckish.
She wishes me a good evening, and I, almost weak with gratitude, wish her the same and lift my parcel to leave.
But it seems a bit, I dunno, light. So I ask her if she could hold on just a second. I remove the Nikon box and open it up. Strap? Check. CD so I can load whatever on to my computer? Check. Actual camera? Eh, not so much. Alas, this box is the late abode of the current display model and they are, in fact, out of stock. Sighing, I ask that my money be refunded so that I might continue my quest elsewhere. She informs me that, as it will be a cash refund over some de minimis threshold, my refund will require the intervention of the store manager. I shall spare you the sad details of this glacial procedure, but suffice to say that many minutes passed, some perhaps less than polite requests to speed the process may have been importuned by yours truly, and that it was another half an hour before I left the store in possession of only the cash with which I had entered it more than an hour earlier, I having also returned the video games in a fit of punitive pique.
On to Walmart. Now, I have been conditioned by many of sad experience over the past decade or so to expect the worse at Walmart, and the worst was what I received. Again, an eternal wait, again, the item was not in stock, the delightful experience this time enlivened by the fact that the employee eventually lassoed spoke, evidently, only Spanish. Given my town’s sizable Hispanic population, bilingual employees are a swell idea, but at least a smattering of English speaking folk might still be beneficial to oil the skids of commerce. Fortunately, a customer helped to translate my request that an inquiry be made of the next Walmart a couple miles off as to whether they might have said camera. I was told yes but evidently something was lost in the translation, as the truth turned out to be no.
In the middle of what I am constantly told is a bad economy, I’ve spent better than three hours trying to spend a decent chunk of change, only to be thwarted at every turn. Maybe I’ll find a camera before I leave, maybe I won’t. But the upcoming vacation is the impetus for this purchase, so if I don’t buy one tomorrow, that’s a few hundred bucks that’s just going back in the bank.
Retailers, I understand the desire to keep overhead low, but if you have no employees and no actual merchandise to sell, you’re no longer running a store, you’re just running the air conditioner in a building. And as hot out as it is today, that’s a damn shame.