OWS 1138

Watching and reading about the Occupy Wall Street protests and the out of proportion responses initially left me having trouble reconciling the image of heroic police officers I maintain with the violent thugs that seem to be acting to protect the status quo of the powerful.

But that confusion did not last long. What I quickly realized was that the authorities acting in brutish ways are not new. It was just new to me. There exists in America entire cultures that for them the authorities sweeping in and busting their skulls is just same stuff, different day. There are communities in every city that rarely or never observe an heroic action, a helpful hand or someone who promises to make it all better. To the disenfranchised “To Protect and To Serve” means nothing except state-sponsored graffiti on official cars and vans.

It was by accident of birth and economic status that I was surprised the local governments and their foot soldiers would douse protestors with chemicals, arrest them without cause or as a flimsy excuse for convenience to teach the uppity a lesson and inflict injuries. It was me being a Caucasian, middle-class male that afforded me the opportunity to be insulated from the atrocities and violation of rights many others are victim to on a daily basis.

I should have known better. When I was in The Biz many years ago I made it a point to not issue citations to the economically challenged dude operating a rusted-out Chevy if I couldn’t write a ticket to the wealthy guy driving a Porsche for the same offense. I knew position had privileges but I tried to make things a bit more equal. I was never in a situation to witness or be a part of the kind of crack-down Law Enforcement is currently inflicting on peaceful activists.

The dismay, shock and anger so many are now expressing is probably also an eye-opening experience. This generation is removed from the repercussions of crossing the bosses and monkey-wrenching their plans. The scale of what is going on today with Occupy Wall Street is similar in scope, if not message, to the 1960s Peace and Civil Rights movements. The practices of the Occupy movement are something that today’s protestors have only heard about from their parents, grandparents or read about online or in books. Many were not prepared for the depths the powerful will sink to in order to force obedience, obeisance and to ensure everyone keeps buying junk, junk and more junk on ever-dwindling paychecks.

I’ve even come to believe that for the most part the only reason crimes are solved and police intercede at all is because the populace at large absolutely would not accept utter anarchy. If common street crime many live with daily encroached on their manicured lawns a certain group of people would do more than change donations to the political candidate of their choice. They would be shrill as an air raid siren with a broken off-switch. Annoy a few million of the upper-class base and changes would definitely be made starting at the top, something those in charge are terrified of. So a thin blue line is drawn, not between chaos and order but between those in power and the people. Once again stating the obvious there are already a vast number of Americans who have been experiencing this for decades if not centuries.

I’m not saying that Law Enforcement is bad from top to bottom. There are caring, heroic members out there who are just doing their jobs in the best way they can. But it is clear that when the pepper spray canisters and riot batons come out, they reveal who they really work for.

It isn’t us.

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Checkstand Etiquette

This post exists only as a direct result of a customer completely losing their mind and embarking on a screaming tirade of threats, violence. libel and slander. What followed was a multi-week campaign of attacks via Twitter and Yelp (using sock-puppets or drafting others to assist) and harassing phone calls to the job site and corporate offices. All from one customer that was miffed the customers in from of him did not let him enter a new line ahead of the when an additional check stand became available. I nearly lost my job (or at the least I was in peril of a financially disastrous demotion) due to the unhinged attacks of a customer who acted like a spoiled brat. I received the ire of the customer because I did not step in and escort him to he front of the line. This happens more than one would think.

Unfortunately, businesses typically side with the customer no matter how deranged the complaint appears. This worry of being fired for “rudeness” is something grifters and revenge-minded for a perceived slight often use to their advantage, playing on the employees very-real concerns of what might happen if a customer doesn’t get their way and even if they do, the worker doesn’t display the right amount of obeisance or display that they don’t know their place. Luckily for me, there was video recording the event.


To function smoothly our modern society relies on an agreed upon social contract to maintain peace and cooperate successfully among its members. Created through centuries of trial and error the social contract is a tenuous yet mutually agreed upon rules of expected behavior that allows strangers to get along in unfamiliar social situations. Sometimes that contract breaks down and chaos ensues, as anyone who has been in a major city during an extended power outage, cut off in traffic in Maryland, passed wind in an elevator or witnessed a Black Friday sale at a mall can attest.

Specifically and for the purposes of this study, the social contract often breaks down at the first moment when there are long lines of people waiting in a retail establishment and an additional cash register opens. Unfortunate recent events in our country have made it imperative that some people are in need of a refresher course on checkstand etiquette and the proper way to behave in a public retail environment.

Waiting in long lines in stores is unpleasant and I can sympathize. I would really like to get back that ten minutes of my life I lost when I was five people in queue behind the couple who insisted that they can buy DVDs with their WIC checks since they were purchasing children’s movies. But the reactions by some waiting in line seems to be relative in nature. Oddly, the same person who shouts and screeches about a delay, throws a tantrum and threatens or acts with violence for waiting in line to pay for groceries is conversely just a few minutes later calm, patient and even pleased to be waiting in a long queue to rent a movie from an automated kiosk. I’ve personally witnessed an enraged customer upset over a harried coffee shop barista that are then placidly content to wait in a long checkout line at a big box discount store. They shockingly display such a personality change that it leads me to think they were replaced by a duplicate from an alien pod somewhere between the condiments section and the fifty-pack of toilet paper.

It should be obvious that if a retail establishment does not have enough cashiers to serve the number of customers present it is not because no one cares or receives some sort of delight in alienating the main source of income. Rather it is because that is all the people they have dedicated to the checkstands. Most stores rely on personnel from the other departments to fill in as needed. Depending on the type of store employees from the children’s department, jewelry counter, dairy or meat sections will back fill and assist the front end with helping customers. Wander a major retail clothing store and witness that register after register and department after department is vacant of employees. This is is due to the staff being pulled in multiple directions. Is the shelf that displays your favorite shirt empty and no one is around to help? This is probably because the person responsible for stocking the shirts has been cashiering in the shoe department for the last four hours. 

The degree to which an employee is available to immediately assist is often subject to reasonable availability. Breaks, lunches and some other duties are mandated by State and Federal laws and company policies. Employees can and have been terminated from their jobs for the simple act of delaying their scheduled meal break to assist a customer or trying to finish a task in a timely manner. While unfortunate for the employee this is as much to protect the store from future litigation and spurious labor claims as much as protecting the rights of the worker.

So here is a step-by-step refresher course for both retail employees and customers on the proper checkstand etiquette for when an additional register opens. Feel free to print it and hand it out to those who are most in need of it.

CHECKSTAND ETIQUETTE


Checkstand Etiquette - figure 1
Figure 1: This diagram is representative of a typical checkstand in almost any retail establishment. In this example Register #1 is open and populated by a cashier. There are four customers waiting. The common wisdom states that if there are three or more customers in a line then a additional register should be populated to assist in processing waiting orders.

Checkstand Etiquette - figure 2

Figure 2: When checkstand #2 opens it is policy and common sense for the cashier to call over, if they should so choose, the next persons waiting in line. That is, the customers who have been waiting the longest in a line have the right of first refusal to move to the other register. In this example Customers #2 and #3 move to checkstand #2 allowing the Customer #4 to move up in the checkstand #1 queue. This way, all waiting customers are expedited through the lines efficiently. Basically, everybody wins.


Checkstand Etiquette - figure 3


Figure 3
: The main drawback to the common sense application of the social contract as it relates to checkstand etiquette are the facts that politeness in our society is nearly extinct and “common sense is so rare it is a super power“. Often, as in the example as diagrammed in Figure #3, the last customer in the line, who by virtue of arriving last and therefore has been in line the least amount of time, jumps ahead of the customers who have waited the longest. This is rude and violates basic checkstand etiquette and breaks the social contract.

The cashier is put in a difficult situation when this occurs. If the cashier points out that the other customers should be helped ahead of them they are typically berated by the line jumper. What also frequently happens is that if the cashier, seeking to avoid confrontation, does not stop the last customer from jumping the line the other customers take out their frustration on the employee in much the same manner. Rarely do the customers directly confront each other. Wisely, perhaps, though cowardly, merely because the employee is perceived as a safer and more vetted target for ire and is unlikely to react with violence as an unknown quantity, whereas a customer off the street purchasing an energy drink just might.


Checkstand Etiquette - figure 4

Figure 4: This diagram represents the typical temper tantrum a customer indulges in when they can’t be first in line, even when they were the last to arrive on the scene. The product they were attempting to purchase (and would have if they had a little patience) is often thrown at the cashier, down the register aisle or at a display. The proper course of action would be for the customer to wait, return at a more opportune time or decide to take their business elsewhere, handing the product to the cashier so it can be restocked to prevent damage or spoilage. Unfortunately the tantrum is sometimes followed by a Yelp-ing Twitter-rage of dissembling and distortions motivated by revenge that can and has escalated into concerted real world and online harassment campaigns, bullying, slander and libelous acts. This is an extreme example though not all that uncommon and is familiar to many Marketing, Security and Human Resources departments.

Any person that thinks companies only track sales are kidding themselves. Blogs, forums and all kinds of media sites are browsed, sifted through and monitored. It is not an exaggeration to state that seemingly untouchable companies have been brought down by a negative yet truthful campaign. A sudden torrent of opinions (even seemingly coming from different people over an extended period of time are sometimes sock puppets created to cause problems for an individual or company) is analyzed with great effectiveness and the revenge motivated, spurious, harmful, libelous, slanderous and exaggerated claims are readily evaluated for what they are. Companies spend millions, if not billions, annually on marketing research and analysis.

So let’s clarify a few things clear for those people who feel too self-entitled to wait their turn and are caught up in the personal horrors of their First World problems:

Waiting for good dough
  1. It is not poor customer service to first assist those who arrived before you.
  2. It is not rude on the part of the employee to guide into the newly opened  checkstand customers who have been waiting the longest.
  3. Calls for the employee to be fired for acting according to common politeness are ridiculous.
  4. Threats, violence and acting out will not be tolerated, so don’t be surprised if you are asked to leave and not return. Workplace violence is a concern and threats are taken seriously.
  5. Just about all stores have video cameras and all manner of claims are easily investigated so tell the truth.
  6. Cyber-bullying, online personal attacks, harassment campaigns and libelous tales of how terribly you were treated could be actionable by a company and employees that may suffer a loss of reputation and income due to statements that are not factual.
  7. A threat to “never shop there again” is…Well…No threat at all. Few establishments encourage the repeat business of the tantrum-throwing customer.
  8. Don’t be a jerk.

For your convenience here is the entire 4-part Checkstand Etiquette worksheet suitable for framing, inclusion in a PowerPoint presentation or just for shoving into the faces of enraged a-holes: Checkstand Etiquette slides from LTMS.

Consumer Demands

STILL BETTER THAN THE DMV
Spent half the day getting my car smog certified (failed the first time due to a gas cap that wouldn’t seal). Then two hours at AAA getting my tag. The unusual wait time was because a printer was inoperative. The folks at AAA suggested anyone waiting could drop off their paperwork and their tags would be mailed that night and received by Monday. Good think I opted to wait because the payment I made to the DMV a week ago by debit card still had not cleared. The way the universe works if I went with the plan to wait for the mail it tuns out the AAA could have not processed my paperwork and I would have been pulled over by the cops and had the car impounded. So I waited, paid my registration fee for the second time and now have to contact the DMV to get my first payment refunded. You can apply to get a refund online but the DMV doesn’t have an option for “You paid twice because we suck.” In spite of 5 hours of waiting to get smogged and getting my tag and the frustration it was still better than going to the DMV. I’ll take a migraine over an embolism any day.

THANK YOU, OBTUSE SHIFT LEADER AT DEL TACO #949
While I’m not a fan of fast food anymore my wife needs something on occasion first thing in the morning after she gets off work so she can take medicine. So she or I will visit a drive-thru when I pick her up in the morning. Here is content of a letter I faxed to Del Taco concerning a recent visit.

This letter concerns a visit to Del Taco #949 in San Diego, CA on 8-29-2010, at about 7:30 am. My wife and I are frequent customers to your establishment in the morning. It is a place that is conveniently located and serves fresh, quality food. However our experience on our last visit was far from what I found to be typical for your restaurant.

On the visit of August 29th we ordered two breakfast meals. The employee at the window, Shift Leader [Name Redacted] handed me two orange juice cartons along with our meals. They were frozen solid. I discovered they were frozen when I tried to push the straw into the carton and the straw would enter only about a 1/4th of an inch before hitting solid ice. I handed them back and asked for some replacements. [Name Redacted] told me there were none available as they were all frozen. I then asked for some replacement drinks, like coffee. [Name Redacted] at first refused, then offered coffee as a swap for the frozen drinks. She then stated she would only trade out one drink because the other was opened. For the record, the carton was “open” only at the straw aperture.

She continued to refuse to trade out the one drink. My position was that one carton was opened and found to be unusable because it was frozen. We did not eat 95% of a meal then demand a refund because we were not “satisfied”. I work retail and am well aware such a situation can occur with some customers. [Name Redacted] stated she would not accept the carton because she would get in trouble. I know this is not factual as distressed or damaged items can typically be returned if there are quality issues. A frozen carton is definitely a quality issue. I ordered the food and intended it to be eaten at that time, not a few hours later when it thawed. [Name Redacted] stated there was no problem with the juice and it was only a little frozen. I had to demonstrate the extent to which the carton was undrinkable by squeezing the carton very hard, after a few moments producing a small slushy stream of chunks of orange ice.

At that time I handed back all the food I ordered and requested a full refund. [Name Redacted] refused, then agreed in part as she still refused to refund the “open” orange juice. The discussion continued a few more minutes. [Name redacted] also declined to let me speak to a supervisor or tell me the name of the manager.

Eventually I asked if a refund would be refused if I found egg shells in a egg and cheese burrito, which I could only detect after I had opened it and bit into it. [Name Redacted] allowed that I would get a refund or replacement. I had to point out there is no quality difference in the quality in the burrito and the juice. After that she refunded the order in total. The entire visit was about ten minutes.

I was very disappointed in the entire experience and no longer feel comfortable as a patron to that location, though I have happily since visited other Del Taco locations since then.

THE PEOPLE’S CLERK
While it is true that a company survives or fails in part on how they treat their customers there are also a number of terrible, terrible customers out there that can make some work a miserable experience. I usually enjoy my job in retail as it is high pay, there are fun people around and it is the least amount of work I have done in 25 years. Yet the small percentage of the crazy, the thieves, the greedy and the grifters discourage me.

Typically what I receive is rage way out of proportion to what is happening.

Some people lose their minds when they can’t return purchases made with food stamps (it is illegal to do so). A tantrum, like being sweetly and sickly nice, is one of several methods of getting a refund as the clerk wants the person to go away with no fuss.

Over a certain dollar amount a receipt is usually required as this stops wholesale receipt fraud.

Yet a lot of these rules stores follow are not arbitrary. They come from the City, State and Federal Government and Health and Safety agencies, not to mention the company. Like not accepting returns of baby food or perishable items. There is no guarantee of how the items were stored once they leave the store. Who would want to go to a store that accepts meat that sat on a counter overnight or baby food forgotten in a trunk for a week then brought back and placed on the shelf because the customer said they didn’t want it? I once refused a refund on someone who bought a large brick of cheese “just now” and lost the receipt in the last few seconds and decided they didn’t want it. The cheese looked okay until you turned it over and could read the word DUNLOP imprinted in the underside of the food. Apparently, the cheese was left in the trunk of a car on top of the spare tire. The customer put in the fridge so it would feel cold before attempting to return it.

The thing is, if he didn’t try to grift me (and if successful, possibly make the next person who purchased it sick if they didn’t notice the cheese was stored improperly) I’d swap it out for a fresh one. We can usually distress damaged items, that is, return them to the vendor for credit.

One customer became unhinged when a register opened up and he wasn’t first in line. He ran from several check stands over only to be told by the customers who got there before him (from the adjacent register) he would have to get in line behind them. He claimed he was sick (the customers didn’t care) and he abandoned his spot in a check stand (reserved for the disabled, by the way) in order to run down and try to force his way in front of the other customers. Somehow I was at fault for it and he ranted to the manager the next day (the video shows me motioning him in to the line right away anyway). I speculate because he was not first he was angry about being second or third.

Another customer complained to corporate that I did not smile enough. Of course, I got tag-teamed by the managers about it for a good twenty minutes. They were paralyzed speechless when I asked why I didn’t get any support from them for what was a ridiculous complaint. I was absolutely going to get a memo in my file until that point.

So a few spurious complaints over the last couple of months made me decide to put a few people on notice. What is unfortunate about the retail business is that often the first resort of a scoundrel is to say an employee is rude. This is the one thing that is sure to make someone in an office sit up and take notice. Not to say rude, terrible. hostile and incompetent employees don’t exist. I run into them regularly. Companies rarely, in my experience, drop the hammer on the customer, though I have seen it happen if rarely. Also, it has been my experience that companies will sometimes take administrative action against an employee based on speculation and hearsay. Sometimes these things happen but there are ways to resolve them for the most part.

Truthfully jobs can be lost due to some vengeful, angry customer who didn’t get what they wanted. One store manager I knew received numerous complaints, demands for action, demands for punishment and censure in an ever-escalating litany of revenge-minded complaints going up the corporate rungs. Of course, the customer never once said anything factual. What the opening statement from the customer, were they honest, should have been was “I was attempting to return items for cash I purchased on food stamps over the last several months. I knowingly attempted to defraud the State of California but the store manager said I could not return the items.” Oddly, if the customer was truthful and then her complaints took the exit to crazy town she probably would have gotten what she requested and been able to keep the food.

Sadly the results of whatever (if any) investigation into the truth is typically the result of someone’s opinion and not fact. This affects livelihoods. If Management doesn’t actually take action then at the least a number of spurious complaints will negatively associate that employee’s name in someone’s mind.

This is where I’m considering small claims litigation against anyone who damages my job and reputation over merit-less complaints. I wonder if somewhere other employees have successfully fought back against such complaints and I’m actually surprised I don’t hear about it happening more often. I have a family to support, the job market is tough and I will aggressively protect my way of life. Maybe if enough people fight back the stupid stuff will become minimized.

One thing about complaints though, and rightly so, is that they may as well be anonymous. To get a customer identity would require a subpoena, if their identity is even recorded (and they rarely are for minor complaints). It wouldn’t do to have some wacky employee hunt down and punish a customer for a real or perceived slight. On the other hand that perceived anonymity makes people brave, mean and sometimes evil, just like the internet does for trolls. We know how well that works out.

Honestly, if most of the things people said we did at a check stand actually happened they would be all over the video hosting sites. Just about everyone has a phone with digital recording capabilities and no compunction about using it even if it was just for the lulz and pwnage.

NOT EVEN GOD GETS A REFUND WITHOUT A RECEIPT
One of the main complaints by consumers is that they perceive they are treated like criminals. Rather, retail fraud is a billions of dollars a year industry and stores and companies take it in the shorts. Someone is stealing and it isn’t always the employees.

A good part of my day is dealing with people who are trying to work the system. The cheap, the frugal, the thief and the grifter all make the innocent person trying to return a box of damaged plastic spoons feel like they are trying to scam a store of a bunch of cash in order to buy crack.

Ask any customer service clerk how many scams they deal with everyday and the backlash from angry grifters. Most of the baddies get away with it because the fight isn’t worth the potential damage to an employees job from a vengeful scammer and the usual lack of support from the company they work for.

Many people complain that industry-wide they are checked for receipts when leaving at the door. In particular one electronics chain and a discount store received the largest share of complaints. I don’t mind, some people do. Fact is if stores didn’t have a greeter at the door acting as a deterrent to crime they would get wiped out and have nothing in the registers for it. The majority of retail crime is accomplished by simply filling a cart to the brim and walking out the door. Not a day goes by that I don’t catch at least one person who abandons a cart with a felonious amount of unpaid goods in it, deterred only because the cart wheels lock up if you don’t pay for your stuff.

The most common response I get when I ask for a receipt? “My wife has it. But I don’t want this s**t anyways.” Then they calmly walk away leaving the cart behind. I hope one day to be so wealthy I can just abandon $400 worth of un-bagged meat and beer at the door of a store because I can’t be bothered to have my wife hang around 30 seconds after the purchase to provide her receipt.

AN EXAGGERATION, BUT NOT BY MUCH

“Hello, is this the complaint line? I’d like to make a complaint.”
“Yes, Ma’am. How can we help you?”
“I want to report one of your employees. He was very rude and unprofessional.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Go ahead.”
“Well, last night SATAN, THE ALL-POWERFUL LORD shattered the dimensional wall into your store and Bob was very rude to him. Satan asked what aisle the human babies were on and Bob wouldn’t help him.”
“I see.”
“Satan needed a baby to sacrifice to bring about the End of Days and Bob told him to leave the store. He wouldn’t help him at all! This is unacceptable and he was unprofessional and very rude. I won’t be shopping at your store anymore after this! I’m also telling all my friends not to shop there.”
“I’m sorry your experience with us was not to your liking. We at Great Big Grocery value you as a customer. We will report Bob’s behavior to the district manager. We are interested in keeping you as a customer, too. Would a $100 gift card to Great Big Grocery let us keep your business?”
“Yes. Yes it would!”

Two days later, Bob was fired.

THE UNIVERSE IS A BASTARD
I dress okay. My wife does, too. She’s hot. I’m average-ish. Certainly not the elephant man. We stay clean and don’t over-do the perfume and cologne. We behave in public. Don’t act snotty, don’t act street. Not all rude and coming off like people from Maryland do. Yet I always feel like I get screwed over wherever I go. Anyone else feel like this?

If I leave my name I get missed or they don’t write it down or my order is wrong. I keep asking for a spoon and I don’t get it. We don’t see a server until long after people that came in after us do and we won’t get our food in the same manner. Yet you still have to tip them well because next time you visit you are “That ahole-oid” and they maybe do something to your food or make it more casually and sloppy. Same reason I can’t go back to Del Taco #949.

I can sit in my car in the driveway for 20 minutes and never see one vehicle yet the second I begin to back out there appears a never-ending stream of cars and it takes me another 5 minutes and risk of death to get out of the driveway onto the street. I check 30 DVD packages to make sure no one cut the plastic and slipped out the disc, pick one only to get home and find that the disc is seriously warped and flawed and won’t play. And then the store acts like I deliberately took a torch to it and gives me grief about a refund or swap for a working copy.

Whatever electronics I buy only allow proprietary peripherals, even though everything looks the same, fits together the same, has the same specs, the device I bought is hardwired to only accept their expensive accessories.

I recently had confirmed that a 40 waist and 2XL shirt mean something different between brands and stores. My wife throws away receipts and cuts tags and labels out of clothes usually by the time she reaches the car. So when something doesn’t fit it is difficult to return. Also, there are a lot of good-looking clothing on the racks if you are under six feet tall. All the large sizes that fit my height are weird off-colors, patterns and styles that would get me beat up by socially awkward math nerds half my size.

I can imagine some guys in a factory realizing they have 2000 yards of unused kitchen mat fabric and deciding to make a bunch of 2XL and 3XL shirts out of it because we have no choice other than to buy whatever we can find in that size. Oh, and for an average two dollars more per shirt.

If I didn’t know the universe was just a collection of matter with no intelligence behind it, I’d think I was getting picked on and singled out for getting crapped all over.

AND YET THEY SAY I WAS THE JERK

Me: Hey, there.
Couple at table: Uh, Hi. Can I help you?
Me: Can you do my wife and I a favor and take our picture?
Couple at table: Oh, sure.
Me: Here, I set it all up so just push this button. CHEESE!
Couple at table: There you go.
Me: Hey, thanks. I really appreciate it.
Couple at table: No problem. Glad to.
Me: Oh, hey.
Couple at table: Yes?
Me: One more thing. Can I get your email address?
Couple at table: Uh, why? No, why?
Me: Well, you and your companion were staring at us for so long, I thought maybe you would like to get a picture because it lasts longer.
Couple at table: F**k you!
Me: Okay. So that’s a “no”, then.

People seem fascinated to the point of intrusiveness when my wife and I communicate using Sign Language. People get so wide-eyed, still and open-mouthed as their minds try to process what they are observing that you’d think they were staring into the abyss and the abyss stole their sanity and soul. I used to see something similar in Maryland when a huge crowd would gather to stare agog and whisper at a family that would be speaking Spanish.

Maryland sucks, though