October 29, 2004
Kmart and the System
I love Kmart, the scruffy-yet-lovable, can't-quite-seem-to-get-its-act-together
underdog of the retail world. But I had an experience yesterday that is
causing me to reconsider -- and its breaking my heart.
I had stopped into Kmart to buy long underwear
(winters are cold here in New England) and was pleasantly surprised to
find them on sale at 20% off. I grabbed a few and headed for the checkstand.
On my way, I ran into the woman who cuts my
hair. We had a "fancy meeting you here" conversation where I gushed about
how much I love Kmart. She said that after hearing my ringing endorsement,
she'd make a point of shopping there more often.
From Kmart's perspective, nothing says "great
customer" like a walking, talking, blogging, consumer advocate willing
to provide free advertisement for your store. They have few enough customers
as it is, so they need to treat the ones they have left like gold.
My first frustration came when the cashier was
ringing me up. The monitor was positioned way over on her side, too far
for me to see unless I leaned over the counter and squinted. (More on
cash register screens later -- putting them where customers can't see
them seems to be a trend.) Since I couldn't keep an eye on the prices
as the cashier rang up my items, I made a mental note to check the receipt
later. Sure enough, when I looked it over in the parking lot, they hadn't
applied the discount.
Since I like Kmart, I didn't take it too badly.
I'd rather shop at a human Kmart -- where they occasionally forget to
update their prices but are generally well-meaning -- than at a soulless,
hyper-efficient, state-of-the-art, data-capturing surveillance machine,
which is what most of the other retailers I know have become.
My faith intact, I handed my receipt to the
lady at the customer service desk. She confirmed that the store owed me
$9.60. Then came the sucker punch.
"May I have your driver's license?"
"My driver's license?"
"I can't process this transaction without a
"Well, no, you can't have my driver's license.
That's nuts. I paid cash not five minutes ago and here's the receipt to
prove it. Plus you guys are the ones who made the mistake."
(Deep sigh) "Hold on while I call a manager."
As I stood there waiting, I thought about my
bedraggled, beloved Kmart, the store I shopped at as a little girl, the
big capital K, the place that won't be getting RFID any time soon. This
driver's license thing was new and ominous. It wasn't something *my* Kmart
would do. Could Kmart really be going bad?
I thought about how I will respond when Kmart
joins the ranks of Wal-Mart and Target and the card stores as places I
can no longer shop. I will really be out on a retail raft. Where will
I buy long underwear and dish towels and socks and curling irons and camping
equipment and bike tires and...
When the assistant manager finally arrived,
he looked tired and -- I hate to say it -- vaguely hopeless. (Maybe he
sees what I see when he looks at retail. Maybe he sees what I see when
I look at the world.) He mustered a faint smile, then he and the customer
service lady went back and forth a few times with the computer. The exchange
lasted just long enough to convince him that "the new system" really wasn't
going to work with me without ID. No matter how hard he tried to override
it, the computer wouldn't budge.
I was witnessing in miniature a battle that
plays out all over the country every day. A human manager stands in a
retail store, faced with a real customer, a good customer, a loyal, longstanding,
honest customer, a tells-her-hairdresser-how-much-she-loves-your-store
kind of customer. He knows how to fix the problem but he can't, because
he's backed up against a wall by a computer that won't budge.
He knows this mindless new ID requirement came
from some corporate guy on a committee who wouldn't know a loyal customer
if she rammed him with a shopping cart. He knows that the mis-ring was
wrong, that the ID requirement is wrong, that the whole freaking system
the goons above him just imposed on his store and his customers is wrong.
In fact, everybody is wrong here but his customer. And this particular
customer is neither giving in nor going away quietly.
What's a manager to do? I've had similar things
happen to me elsewhere: twice at Home Depot, to be precise. I was bailed
out the first time by a chance meeting with a friend who offered to lay
down her ID in place of mine at the return altar. Then it happened again
this summer, but that time there was no helpful friend, and the store
employees made it clear they could care less if I returned my item or
not. No ID, no return, period. So I ate the loss (around $25), kept a
product I didn't need and couldn't use, and have harbored a dark cloud
of ill-will against Home Depot ever since.
But bless his heart if that Kmart manager didn't
reach into his wallet and pull out his OWN driver's license to get me
my $9.60 back. All of it, in cash. As I watched his employee carefully
feeding each digit of his ID into the system, I mourned for him, for myself,
for the loss of the innocent Kmart I knew as a child.
That manager knows something I was just realizing:
that there will soon be nothing left at Kmart for either of us. The corporate
committee guy, and the hundreds of corporate committee guys like him,
won't rest until they have everyone at the store, from customers and cashiers
on up to managers flattened spread-eagle against the wall, stripped of
the authority to make any decisions short of which button to press or
which way to be entered into the system -- Visa, Mastercard, or chip implant.
There will be no more thinking outside the software. Acts of defiance,
like a manager entering his ID for a customer, will be ruthlessly rooted
I know Kmart is going to fall like the rest
of them, in due time (provided it doesn't implode financially, first).
In the meantime, I plan to still keep shopping there, because there is
something so doggedly human about an assistant manager who would dig out
HIS OWN DRIVERS LICENSE to help a customer that I just can't let Kmart
As long as Kmart keeps that human touch in defiance
of the machine, I'll continue to shop there, though I'll cast an occasional
wary glance over my shoulder.
Posted by Katherine at 07:42
PM | Comments
Here we go!
After years of resisting it, I'm finally starting
a blog. My goal is to share the news and experiences that get me thinking,
learning, fuming, smiling, or pondering over a new aspect of the retail
privacy problem, and, when time permits, to share my thoughts on what
we should be doing about it.
I hope you find these thoughts interesting and
Posted by Katherine at 07:46
AM | Comments