Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Meeting Over Coffee

     “Damnit!” snapped the lady in blue.
     “Miss, can you help me here?” called a male voice, the body from which I came I could not determine.
     On and on it went as I stood in the grocery store’s self check-out line with my two items.  “These scanners are not that hard to operate," I considered shouting aloud but smartly, didn't.

     There were four self check-outs at this particular store and someone was using each of them.  A long line was starting to form and I was about sixth or seventh deep in it.  In front of me, one woman had a full – no, a very full – shopping cart.   Clearly my mad dash to the store to get coffee and creamer–  essentials to starting my day – wasn’t going to be quick.  In fact, my day was now getting off to an annoying start without a drop of caffeine in my system to calm me. 

     I first looked about the area for any sign that might limit the number of items one should bring through the self check-out and was prepared to point it out to that woman with the shopping cart.  “Damn,” I mumbled to myself when I didn’t see one.    I then scanned the front of the store in search of a shorter, cashier check-out line.   The two that were open also had long lines.   But what really stood out to me was that out of what looked like 8 or 10 of those regular check-outs, ONLY two were staffed with a cashier.  That sure enough chaffed my yet-to-be-caffeinated ass.

    “Aw shit!” bellowed a deep voice from behind me.  I turned to see a well dressed man just as he rounded the corner and I assumed that groan of frustration had come from him.  He also had coffee in hand – Maxwell House French Roast – and a big bottle of Hazelnut creamer.  Yep,  he and I were on the same morning  hunt  and were both now snared in the same trap.  He spotted me and we immediately started a conversation. 

     “What the hell’s going on here,” he asked.

     “Hardly any check outs open.”

     “Have you noticed how bad customer service has gotten, everywhere?

     No, I really hadn’t.  It was early 2010 and the economy had been souring for a while.  But as I quickly surveyed my mind for a response to his question I realized… “Yes!”  I blurted out.  “Customer service sucks, these days.”

     “You should do a story about it,” he suggested.  “This store is saving a lot of money by operating with a skeleton crew and yet the price of groceries is going up.  You don’t see them sharing those savings with us.”

     I knew he was right.  I began to think of other inconveniences I had endured in recent months;  About how there’s nothing fast about fast food anymore; how even service at a nice restaurant is seldom what it used to be;  how when managers minimally staff their businesses, especially busy ones like grocery stores and restaurants, it puts more pressure on their poorly paid workers.  Those workers get stressed and customers who feel inconvenienced often take their frustrations out on them, making them cranky toward all customers.  I suddenly felt sorry for them.

     I turned to the man with whom I’d been chatting.  “You know what I think?”

     “What’s that?”

     “I think this store doesn’t deserve my business.  Not today, anyway.”

     He agreed.

     “There’s a coffee shop right up the street and I really need a quick fix.  Wanna join me?”


     We both sat our coffee and creamer atop the display at the front of the store and walked out.  I would estimate our combined purchases wouldn’t have netted more than $7 for the store’s coffers.   That small shortage certainly wouldn’t put them of business.

     But on that cold February morning it felt like a victory; like two ordinary people took on a giant corporation and won. 

     Looking back, we DIDN’T make any difference in how companies treat their customers.   But one year ago today, we DID each make a new friend. 

     Thanks Mike!

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