Monday, August 11, 2008

Grocery Store Routine -- Chapter 3

Ken Korczak:

When you have worked in a small grocery store long enough, much of your experience becomes routine and repetitive, including the kinds of things customers say to you. For example, many times people will approach and ask:

"Do you have any half-and-half cream left?"

If you have no half-and-half cream left, you say to the person:

"No, we are out of half-and-half cream."

About 75% of the time, the person will respond:

"You mean, you are ALL out of half-and-half cream?"

And most of the time, you answer:

"Yes, we are ALL out."

That usually ends the exchange. The customer now knows that you cannot sell her a half of a pint of half-and-half cream. Over the years, this event will occur over and over again, easily thousands of times if you stay in the grocery business long enough. Like all aspects of the grocery store business, the grocery store worker does not think much about exchanges like these. It's part of the routine.

A certain robotic mindlessness is part of the grocery store business.

What is interesting is that sometimes, the grocery store worker will decide to give a novel response to routine questions. For example, the customer will ask: "Do you have any half-and-half cream?"

And you say, "No, I'm sorry, we are out."

And then the customer frowns and in a voice slightly anxious or irritable says:

"You mean you are ALL out?"

And you feel like responding this way:

"No we are not ALL out. We are only PARTIALLY out of half-and-half cream. We still have some, but we are hiding it from you in the back room."

If you said this in a slightly nasty way, in a way in which sarcasm in your voice could be clearly heard, you may make the customer feel not only angry, but as if you had belittled him or her. This might be bad for business, and may cause that person to stop shopping at your store, which is a daily fear of grocery store owners -- that people will stop coming in and buying stuff -- which is a ridiculous fear, but I won't go into why that is that right now.

The reason I won't go into it right now is because I realize that you can handle only so much information at one time, so let's just move along here without too much baggage or worry.

But, anyway, if you made your witty comment it in a way that implied wry humor, the customer may think it is funny as well, and perhaps even experience his or her irritability over the absence of half-and-half cream diminished. In this case, your decision to stray from your mindless routine would not suppress the sale of groceries. It may even enhance the sale of groceries. That's because the person whom you amused may find that your mercurial personality enhances the quality of the grocery shopping experience, which, let's face it, most people find to be a drag.

So now you may be thinking:

"Aha! I have discovered a new way to sell more groceries! By engaging my customers in facetious banter, I make it more likely they will come in more often and buy more often!"

Well, I think it's depressing when grocery store owners start thinking this way. Why? Because this line of thinking leads nowhere, really. Does being an engaging and clever conversationalist help sell more groceries? I think you know the answer: In some cases it does, and in some cases it doesn't. As I have already pointed out, some people may take your fresh comment as insulting, even if you mean well.

The thing is, you never know with people. Listen to me carefully now: The human will, the human psyche, the human personality, the human ego, the human thought process, the human perception of reality and the human conception of reality -- IS UTTERLY RANDOM AND CHAOTIC! It is far more unpredictable than the weather and even more unpredictable than the stock market.

The human condition is infinitely more variable than something as simple as the global weather system of our planet. It is infinitely more complex than the tens of thousands of stocks and commodities that create the rising and the falling of what we call stock markets or commodity markets, as we represent them with artificial numbers -- numbers which are not actually "real", by the way, and which actually have no direct correlation with any physical aspect of our earthly reality, such as it is.

What about the opposite then? What if the grocery store owner eschews attempts at clever jesting with customers and sticks to routine, robotic phrases that convey simple information, such as, "We have no half-and-half cream right now."

Is that better then? No. It's no better and no worse. Some grocery store workers may think, "If I stick with just simple and direct communications, everything will run smoothly and there will be few surprises. I won't anger any customers or run them the wrong way, and thus, they will continue to come in and buy groceries."

Certainly, though, you can see how lame-headed this is. Because the human mind is so random and chaotic, your adherence to routine, robotic communications will cause some people to form a negative opinion of you, as will the occasional acerbic comment.

Some customers, in a private moment, might comment about you this way:

"Yeah, that John Smith just goes to his miserable grocery store every day, stocks the shelves and puts stickers on bananas, and he keeps doing the same damned thing every day. He's frittering away his life! And it's the same old shit in that store every day -- never anything new, or any real variety! The meat case is basically beef, pork and chicken, beef, pork and chicken. If you want to buy a turkey, the only think you can get is a gigantic frozen block of dead bird that takes two days to defrost and costs 89 cents a pound! And then they wonder why you want to go shop at the Wal-Mart Super Store! Everything is cheaper there anyway, and there is way more variety."

And the person listening to this comment may respond:

"That's for sure! John Smith has about as much imagination as a jar of mayonnaise. There's never anything new in that store -- when you go in there looking for something different for dinner, it's like getting sucked into a black hole of sameness and despair! John should put a sign above his front door which says: "Abandon all hope all yee who enter here!" And then he bitches about people shopping at Wal-Mart! I bought a can of cat food in Wal-Mart for 33 cents the other day. John Smith charges 79 cents in his dreary store!"

Poor grocery store owner John Smith! He's just trying to do his best to sell healthy and nutritious food products to the general public, and even to their pets, and so he adopts a policy of routine conversations combined with steady reliability, and yet, there will always be some snarky people that will boil him in oil for trying to make a simple living by selling groceries without rocking the boat!

In many respects, John Smith is in a lose-lose situation. Let's say that he catches wind of this general attitude among his public that his grocery store is bland and dreay and sells basically the same stuff day in and day out. Let's say that grocer Smith decides to "spice things up" a bit.

He goes wild and orders some exotic product. Perhaps he decides to order a case of star fruit. Usually all he has is the basics: apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, and so on. But now he has a case of exotic star fruit, and maybe even a case of mangoes for good measure. He unpacks the star fruit and the mangoes with excitement and a daring sense of hope. He is providing his customers with new variety!

What happens? The star fruit and the mangoes rot on the shelf. He may sell a few, but the majority of the shipment he paid good money for has to be thrown into the dumpster -- unpurchased, uneaten. What he does not realize is that, even though his customers are bored beyond all imagination with his usual selection fruit, they have also been conditioned to expect and purchase only those same old products, and it's next to impossible to break them out of their conditioning. They will look on a juicy piece of star fruit as if it is an aborted alien baby and avoid it as if it were more disgusting than a giant dead maggot.

People are fickle and random. Yet, they are also creatures of habit. They are easily conditioned. Repetition is like a mind-chain for human beings. All you have to do is get a human being to repeat a certain behavior a number of times for several days in a row. Then guess what? Then they keep doing that same behavior again and without having to be prodded to do so.

It's like this guy I once knew who liked to steal gas from other people's cars. The way he did it was, he stuck a plastic tube into the gas tank and sucked on the end of the tube that was still sticking out of the tank. He quickly took away his mouth from the opening of the plastic tube before the gas could come rushing up and get into his mouth. He then plunged the end he had just sucked on into a gas can. The gas would then siphon out of the gas tank of the poor unsuspecting automobile owner and into my thieving friend's gas can.

But the interesting thing is that, all he had to do was suck once, and the gas then started moving out of the tank on it's own. he did not have to keep sucking. It just took one suck to "condition" the gas to get it to do what my thieving friend wanted it do -- which was to jump out of the container of its rightful owner, into the container of a brazen thief.

People are like that. All you have to do is suck on them a few times, and then they allow themselves to be pulled along with no further need for you to suck on them again.

In other words, if the grocery store owner trains his customer to expect only beef, chicken and pork in the meat display case, they will generally come in and buy beef, chicken and pork on a routine basis, and they will resist buying, say, lamb or mutton.

They are trapped in their routine, and you are trapped in your routine. And before you know it, you life is over. The lives of your customers will all end one day, too. You'll all be dead. You have to get used to that idea -- that one day you will be dead -- but you also need to get used to the idea that you are alive today, or at least think you are alive, and that, alive or dead, you are here right now to read and contemplate this very thing you are reading and contemplating right now.

But -- there I go digressing again! Before things get out control here, I want to remind you of what I have been talking about today. Mostly, I have discussed the phenomenon of "routine" and have illustrated it in the context of the grocery store practice. It's extremely important for you to know that I have only touched upon this gigantic subject of routine. Second, it just as extremely important that you do not come away from this discussion having drawn some ridiculous conclusion about the nature or any particular aspect of routine.

I leave you, as always, with today's lesson: The grocer should realize that sometimes his practice involves routine. The routine can be broken at any time, by choice. This is not to make a value judgment on the efficacy of breaking the routine of grocery store work, or remaining within that routine. It's just an observation. That observation is your lesson.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Chapter 2: Grocery Store Practice

Ken Korczak: The grocery store worker practices selling groceries every day. That seems obvious, but it is not really obvious, and it’s not even obvious to the store owner him or herself.

How many times do you think the average grocery store owner simply thinks: “Hey, this is what I am doing today, I am working in my grocery store.” The fact is, almost no one thinks this way. The mind of the average grocery store worker is only vaguely aware of what he or she is doing. That’s neither a good thing, nor a bad thing. It’s just an observation.

What is the practice of the grocery store worker? They do all kinds of tasks. For example, they have to stock the shelves of the grocery store. This involves taking tin cans out of cardboard boxes and putting those tin cans onto shelves. Inside the tin cans are food substances. People buy food so they can eat it, and thus sustain their physical bodies.

For example, inside some tin cans are peas. In other cans you might find carrots, or beans, or mushrooms. No matter what kind food you can think of, most of it can be obtained in tin cans.

But consider lettuce. As far as I know, lettuce is never sold in cans. Lettuce is always sold fresh. It arrives at the grocery store just a short time after it was picked in a field. It has to be transported swiftly in cooled trucks so that it does not rot, rendering it unfit to eat. When lettuce is disconnected from the earth, it dies instantly, though it does not decay significantly for several days.

But, anyway, lettuce usually comes to the store in cardboard boxes. The tin cans also arrive in card board boxes. This involves another task, or practice, for the small grocery store owner. Very often, when a truck full of cardboard boxes containing food arrives at the store, the boxes are unloaded in a cooperative effort between the food truck driver and the grocery store owner.

What usually happens is, a long set or steel rollers are set up. These roller are extremely ingenious. They are perhaps 13 or 14 inches wide. They are constructed by taking two metal bars of steel which are parallel to each other. In between and connecting these metal bars are horizontal tubular pieces of steel. These tubular pieces skewer a set of little steel wheels. These little wheels are perhaps an inch wide and maybe 2.5 inches in diameter. They are made of solid metal except for the holes in their centers. They turn freely around their tubular horizontal host objects.

These steel roller construction are each about 6 or 8 feet in length. They are stored in a special place on the food truck. When the truck arrives at the grocery store, the truck driver takes out these sections of steel roller constructs and connects them together, end to end. They hook together real easily. Then, what the grocery store owner does is set up a series of box stacks using boxes which he already has on hand in his warehouse.

He sets up the boxes in such a way that so that the steel-wheel track can be placed on top of them, and so that the wheel tracks slopes down from an opening in the side of the truck. The slope leads into the insides of the grocery store, the back part of the grocery store, that is, where people do not come to shop. This part of the store is for employees only, although pretty much anyone can go back there without any problems -- in most cases.

Anyway, with the steel-wheel track set up and sloping down from the truck into the grocery store, all the truck driver has to do is pick up a box, set it down on the rollers, and the box will be attracted by the force of gravity, which is a fundamental “force” on planet earth -- although it is not well understood. (Gravity may not even be a “force” per se, but I won’t get into that).

The workings of gravity upon the box will cause it to roll down the slope of steel wheels. The store owner positions himself at the end of the steel-wheel track and catch the boxes before the force of gravity can cause the box to go crashing to the ground. When the store owner catches the box, he uses the muscles of his own body to counteract the effects of gravity until he sets the box down. Then the box just sticks to the earth -- more gravity.

It’s vitally important that the store owner catch the box, especially if it contains something fragile, such as glass jars of kosher dill pickles. In fact, sometimes tragic accidents happen.

More than once when I was a young man working in my dad’s grocery store I witnessed a box full of kosher dill pickles fall off the roller track before it reached the end where it could be caught. The result was that the glass jars inside the cardboard box smashed open, which further resulted in large amounts of pickle juice seeping through the cardboard box and running all over the floor. The entire warehouse was then filled with the pungent and pleasant smell of pickle juice. Yet, this was not a positive development, even if you really like the smell of pickle juice, like I do.

The problem is that these pickles have been rendered useless. They cannot be eaten because they will be contaminated with shards and splinters and bits of glass -- and if you ate glass, it would poke holes in your stomach and intestines, and this could lead to your physical death, and it would be an extremely painful death, as well.

And that means that the pickles could not be sold in the grocery store for money. Many grocery store owners would tell you that this is the whole purpose of what he is doing. He is selling food products to obtain money, but of course, this is a complete misunderstanding, which I won’t go into until later in these discussions.

Let me just say for now that -- and pay very close attention right now -- the incident of the shattered case of kosher dill pickles -- is every bit as significant as any other thing the grocery store worker is doing -- including the successful sale of kosher dill pickles that have not been shattered in a gravity-caused accident. But more on that later -- I promise.

By the way, and as much as I loathe digressions, I should explain that kosher dill pickles are a kind of food product that are prepared according to very exacting precepts as developed by the Jewish faith. Many Jews will eat only kosher food products so that they can not only remain healthy, but also please their God. I am no expert on the Jewish faith, but I assume that the methodology of kosher food preparation were somehow revealed to the Jewish people by their God -- and their God did this as a way to protect his people from any harm that might come from food that is not prepared in the proper way -- that is -- the kosher way.

But even though some foods are kosher -- as are many variety of dill pickles -- you do not have to be a Jew to eat them and enjoy them. If you are a Catholic, Buddhist, or even an atheist, you can eat and enjoy kosher dill pickles. The Jewish people do not mind of non-Jewish people eat their kinds of kosher prepared foods. The grocery store owner also does not have to be Jewish in order to sell food products prepared by Jews. For example, my dad was a Catholic, and he not only sold kosher dill pickles, he also ate them. I eat them all the time and I am not a Jew.

Finally, not all Jews eat only kosher foods. Some Jews will east non-kosher foods.

But now let’s get back to the specific practice of unloading a food truck.

Once the cardboard boxes of food reach the grocer at the end of the roller track, the grocer usually stacks the boxes up in piles that tend to be about 5 feet high. Then, another store employee uses a device called a “dolly” to pick up the stacks of boxes. A dolly is another device that makes the resistance of gravity easier. I won’t describe the dolly in detail here, but perhaps I will later. The employee then transports the boxes into the front part of the grocery store.

Now let me ask you a question. How often do you think the grocery store owner or worker is thinking while unloading food boxes from the food truck:

“Hey, the force of gravity is moving these boxes along a track of steel rollers, and that energy is totally free of charge -- that is -- gravity moves things without people having to pay some money to some other people to make it happen! We can also use gravity to help us do things without there being any exchange of money being involved!”

I’m willing to bet that almost no grocery store owner has thoughts like this, and even if they do, they do not pay attention to such thoughts.

And a further question must be asked: “Does the store owner think at all about what he is doing -- even though the practice of grocery store work is the central element in his or her daily life?”

Again, the answer is: “Not very much.” The fact is, tasks like sending boxes down a roller track is done sort of “automatically.” Some part of the human brain is handling the task, and paying some attention to it, but for the more part, the grocery store owner is doing very, very little thinking about the boxes of food rolling into the store and from off the truck. The store owner does not think: “Here comes another box! It's rolling on some steel wheels!”

Sometimes, he may be thinking, “Here comes a box of pork & beans. That goes in aisle 4." But even this thought is vague. Again, it’s almost automatic.

So by now you may be wondering, what the hell is my point? Well, what I am talking about here is the practice of running a grocery store. When you run a grocery store, you perform dozens of different tasks every day. It does not matter which task you are practicing at any given moment. In the grand scheme of things, it does not matter whether you are performing them very well, or very poorly, or in just an average way. The important thing is that you are doing this practice, and in performing the task of a grocery store owner, you are being a grocery store owner.

Strictly speaking, for a grocery store owner, there is no other practice than this practice. There is no other way of life than this life -- remember -- for the grocery store owner. When you are owning and operating a grocery store, that is what you are doing. That is your life. if you are not doing that, then just what the hell are you doing? You might tell yourself, “Well I’m only doing this until something better comes along.” Ha! Ha! Come on, don’t bullshit yourself! If you are working in a grocery store today, then that is what you are doing today, and that is what you are.

Does this means that when you are not practicing your grocery store tasks, you are not a grocer? Well, let’s say you are at a cocktail party and someone asks you what you do for a living. You would naturally answer, “I'm a grocer.” So there you are, drinking a glass of iced vodka at a party, not even inside your grocery store at the moment, and what do you naturally call yourself? You call yourself a grocer.

But you might say, “Okay, I’m a grocer, but I am also a father, an American citizen, a husband, a party goer, a member of the Elks clubs, and so on.” You might also say, “Okay, I’m a grocer, but I’m not just a grocer. I am many things!”

What the hell are you? Who the hell are you? What you really seem to be saying that there is a kind of “blank self” that can be made to be anything you want it to be at any moment -- now your are an Elk Brother, now you are a grocer, now your are a Catholic. All of these identities are like planets orbiting around a central “sun” which you consider to be the “I“, that is, you.

Then you might say, “Well, what’s wrong with that?” Well, I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, I’m just telling you to take a look at this whole issue and perhaps contemplate it once and a while. If you don’t want to do that, I don’t care.

So this is where I will end it for today. As always, I leave with you today’s exercise:

“When you are in your grocery store, pay close attention to what you are doing, no matter what it is you are doing.”


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The First Grocery Store -- Chapter 1

Ken Korczak:

People will tell you that running a small family-owned grocery store in a small town is difficult, which it is, but most people misunderstand why. For example, let’s say white-haired old Mrs. Brown comes doddering in five minutes before you were going to lock the door at the end of the day, and then takes her sweet time browsing the aisles.

Just for the hell of it, let’s say that old Mrs. Brown is wearing a horrible brown polyester pantsuit, and that this pantsuit absorbs the white florescent light of the store in such a way that the light become entombed and destroyed upon contact with the brown polyester.

Mrs. Brown takes a shopping cart, but after 25 minutes has only a 69-cent can of pork & beans and a 42-cent can of tomato soup rattling in the bottom. Then she gets to the produce section and spends an interminable time picking up and putting down cucumbers, finally deciding that she does not want a cucumber. She stops at the meat display case. She waves you over and hands you a package of pork chops with three chops in it, and asks you if she can buy only one. She tells you, “One pork chop is enough for me an my husband.”

You want to tell her to go to hell, but in a small town with a population of 711 people, you can’t do that, or the next day, the whole community will be talking about how you told sweet old Mrs. Brown to go to hell when she asked to buy a pork chop. So you tear open the pork chop pack and rewrap one pork chop with clear plastic wrap. Pork chops are selling for $1.79 per pound, making this single pork chop worth 83 cents. While you were rewrapping the pork chop another person walks into the store, and you curse yourself for forgetting to lock the door while you waited for Mrs. Brown to make her haul.

Mrs. Brown pays over $1.92 cents, and then you have to wait for the other dipstick who came in after hours, and finally after 7 o’clock you can close the doors, do the book work and get the hell out of there for the evening. You have spent 13 hours in your grocery store on this day.

But it’s not incidents like these which make owning and operating a small grocery store a difficult way of life. Rather, it is difficult because it is hard to maintain in your consciousness the essence of what it means to be a grocer, and to manifest the essence of a grocer in a way that is pure. The problems, such as the irritation of doddering old Mrs. Brown, and the horror of her light-eating brown pantsuit, constantly distract from the central truth of what one is doing on the planet -- in this case, being a grocer.

To be a pure grocer, it is extremely important that you understand the origins of the grocery store, and know what it means when someone says “original grocery store.” I’ll talk much more about this in a later chapter, but let me just make some brief comments on grocery store origins right now.

It is difficult to pinpoint and exact place in time when the first grocery store emerged into being in our strange world. The development of the grocery store as we know it today is actually fairly complex. The ancestors of the modern grocery store were most likely primitive, crude common markets.

For example, somewhere in ancient Sumer, or maybe ancient India or perhaps even way back in pre-historic Africa, some people set up an area where a variety of food stuffs could be traded or bartered. It was probably some sweltering hot, dusty area, where people wearing filthy rags, or rabbit skins, or whatever, sat down right on the dirt and lined up their pots or baskets of grains, berries, tubers, roots -- or, again, whatever -- right on the ground.

The display case was still centuries away.

These primitive people may also have had meat products on hand -- or as we would say today “in stock” -- and these meat products were probably recently dead animals of some variety, still basically whole with all their fur, or scales, and heads and tails attached -- all bloody and swarming with flies.

Some animals may have been chopped into parts so you could get just a hind quarter or a leg, or something.

Sometimes maybe quantities of black blood would spatter on the white dusty ground of the first primitive proto-grocery store, and so the blood would therefore return to the earth -- where it would re-assimilate with the basic substances that it came from in the first place after an amazing journey.

If you think about the basic substances of the earth working their way up a complex system and chain of events into which it all eventually becomes blood riding around inside the body of some animal -- well, that can give you an amazing feeling -- but I digress.

My point is, that, somewhere, at some point in the vast oceans of time, the first grocery store emerged, but that grocery store was not pure. The grocery store as we know it today is not pure either, although one might allow that it is more “advanced” than primitive grocery stores. But that’s not saying much, if anything at all, as I hope you will come to understand.

Neither primitive stores nor any of today’s grocery stores are dplicates of the archetype of the grocery store. The archetype of the “perfect grocery store” never had to “emerge” from anywhere because it has always existed. An archetype, by definition, is eternal and exists in pure form -- or does not exist in form at all.

That’s because, as you probably know, emptiness is form and form is emptiness, and just because something is a grocery store does not free it from this basic truth.

Anyway, in the great drama of human involvement on the planet earth, human beings with their constantly emerging and changing consciousness, began to develop the grocery store, and they only perceived a dim version of the eternal archetype of the pure grocery store way back in prehistory -- yet on the other hand, they perceived the pure grocery store perfectly.

It’s important for you to understand as you read this, that, at all times, I will be talking about the purest form of the grocery store whenever I mention human interaction with the concept of grocery store. If you want to understand what it means to be a grocer today -- if you own and operate a grocery store today -- nothing could be more important to you than waking up the reality of what you are really doing every day, which does not include merely what you think you are doing every day.

What is vitally important is that you awaken every day as if you were entering your grocery store for the first time -- that every day, every moment, every instant -- you have the realization that you are working in a grocery store. This will not make any of the difficulties of the grocery store go away. Mrs. Brown will keep coming in again and again in her loathsome brown pantsuit until she dies, or switches to your competition, and there is nothing you can really do about it. If you try to ban her from the store, you will only create bigger difficulties for yourself, and I think this is obvious.

So the important thing I want you to remember today is that you are in the “First Grocery Store” and you always have been. Your physical grocery store may not be the pure archetype of what a grocery store truly is, but you are still in that grocery store. What’s amazing is that you already know this, even if you think you do not. It doesn’t matter. If you don’t understand this right now, don’t worry about it. As you keep reading this, everything will come clear to you.

Today’s Exercise: Say to yourself: “I am in the first grocery store.”