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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 driver's license."

"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 out.

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 go.

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 Albrecht at 7:42 PM | Comments (4)

The Blog

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 useful.

In freedom,
Katherine Albrecht

Posted by Katherine Albrecht at 7:46 AM | Comments (1)