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.

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