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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 October 29, 2004 7:42 PM


I will still shop kmart as they are not the wealthiest family in the usa to blame for the suffering of the children who work slave labor for our belongings. Any one family that makes billions such as the Walton's do are guilty of crimes against humanity.

Posted by: Dan at December 18, 2005 3:07 PM

I had a similar experience at a Dick's Sporting Goods store in Mechanicsburg, PA. I purchased a hat that was intended for my halloween costume. The hat was black, while I wanted white. Figuring I couldn't find exactly what I needed, I bought it and paid cash. I then went to another store a block away and found the white hat. I paid for it and returned to Dick's to return the black one. My ID was demanded, and I refused. Finally, after a long argument with the clerk ("I bought this from YOU not fifteen minutes ago...") and the manager, I was pretty close to losing it. I finally said that since this rule was not displayed at the point of sale, nor printed on my receipt, I would give them one more opportunity to refund my money before I pursued additional actions. I told them that I would be sure to visit every privacy and consumer rights site on the internet to announce this policy and would contact the Better Business Bureau to lodge a formal complaint. They complied and I let them know that not only would I never shop there again, but I would encourage everyone I know not to shop there as well. The kicker... They process the refund and hand me a receipt to fill in my name, address and phone number. I was sure to print and sign my name, Daffy Duck and provided them with the phone number and address of their own store that was conveniently displayed at the top of the receipt. Moral... Don't shop at Dick's Sporting Goods.

Posted by: whitey at December 30, 2005 3:14 PM

For all you who support Kmart. Let me just say what they do to there loyal employees. Recently they posted a statement stating they were restructuring the company. What they are doing is firing employees with years of experience, some 10 years or more who are full-time with benefits. Basically anyone not making minimum. There telling us it's work force reduction; yet there still hiring and telling us we can reapply as a partimer in 17days. Did Kmart bother to explain this to the press; no. Why so the big shots in corporate can cash in on there stock and low and behold the average employees in the company do not mean a thing. They fired elderly people who have been there for over 10 years. Unlike younger people it will not be as easy for them to start off somewhere again at full time. I for one am ashamed of what they are doing and after this will no longer give anything into kmart or Sears. I hope everyone sees the company for what it is and what it has done to people I know.

Posted by: none at January 10, 2006 7:26 PM

So incensed were we at the way KMart handled (or didn't handle) an online purchase that I wrote the CEO as well as their Customer Service unit. To wit:

August 24, 2006

Ms. Alwyn Lewis, CEO KMart
3333 Beverly Road
Hoffman Estates
Illinois, 60179

Dear Ms. Lewis,

Having just acceded to the headship of KMart enterprises, I am sure you have a significant workload and regret the apparent need to place before you what has been, for us, an elongated and most unsatisfactory purchase process that began when we attempted to buy four Martha Stewart Biscayne Bay chaise lounges online for our home on the island of Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras. To date, it has been a tortured and convoluted trail to which I would now add "costly".

While on island during the month of May, I ordered from the KMart web site the above mentioned four chaise lounges. The lounges were ordered via a credit card in my name. My attempts to order online some four or five times, were answered by KMart emails stating the sale would not/could not be processed unless and until I called the phone number contained in the email. I called again and again over the course of several days. I also responded to each email with who we were, where we were, what we wanted to buy and noted that I was unable to make phone contact with the KMart phone number. I also noted that we could be telephoned on island and included our phone number. No call was ever received. My emails also requested that we receive something other than the same standard form letter KMart response that would aid in resolving the problem, whatever it may have been.

I would note that after a number of online buy attempts with a credit card in my name, I ordered again using a credit card in my wife's name (Janice Carter). KMart responses to those buy attempts informed me that the email address the order came from was already in use by another customer and was therefore invalid. The long and the short of these ongoing rebuffs was that I had no choice but to give up. Obviously, we were never going to be successful as long as we were ordering from Honduras.

We arrived home (Portland, Oregon) the first of June and I began the online purchase process again using my wife's credit card. Finally, after sorting out the two customer names with the same email address problem, we were informed the purchase was successful and we were relieved that the difficult process was over and done. We provided shipping instructions that directed the four chaise lounges to be delivered c/o Jackson Shipping, 5353 W Tyson Ave, Bldg C, Tampa, Florida 33611. Below is the KMart confirmation of our purchase. (The KMart online shipping address lines do not accommodate the way we address packages which is "Don Rocks/Kevin Bloor/ROATAN".)


We've received your order and will let you know as soon as it ships.

Note: We have several fulfillment centers that store and ship our products. If you order more than one item, each may be shipped from a separate location, and therefore, may arrive at different times. Your original estimated shipping amount does not change if more than one shipment location is used.

You can check your order status at any time:


NAME: Don/Kevin Rocks/Bloor
SHIPPING ADDRESS: c/oJackson Shipping, 5353 W Tyson Av,
Tampa, FL 33611
ORDER #: 43842900
ORDER DATE: 05/26/2006

Item Qty. Price

Martha Stewart Everyday Key Biscayne Chaise Lounge 4 $287.96

+GIFT WRAP $0.00
+SHIPPING $105.00
+TAX $27.51
SUB TOTAL ***$420.47***

GRAND TOTAL ***$420.47***

(Sales tax is determined by your shipping address and the type of product you
We want you to be happy! If you're not completely thrilled with something you
buy on www.kmart.com, you have 30 days to return it by mail or to your nearest
Kmart store.

Learn more: http://www.kmart.com/custserv/custserv.jsp?contentId=10
***NEED HELP?***
We're here for you around the clock.
Several days following our receipt of the above confirmation came another KMart email informing us that the item requested was now out of stock, but that (1) chaise lounge had been shipped as requested and would be sent to the address we provided with a refund of the overage credited back to our credit card. Not welcome news. We ordered because we needed four matching chaise lounges. We were not offered a choice about whether or not we wanted to accept just one chaise. And had we been asked, the answer would have been "no".
On the off chance that I could still find the needed chaise lounges locally and complete the set, I visited KMart (on N.E 122nd Avenue in Portland) and found that they did indeed have some five or six units in stock. I bought three of them as it was the only way I could obtain what we needed to meet our objective to acquire four, matching chaise lounges. A UPS store wrapped them for $75 and I found a shipper who got them to Tampa for another $170. The total shipment weight for the three, well packaged lounges was 89 pounds. (KMart's confirmation of our purchase of four chaise lounges showed shipping charges to Tampa of $105--from wherever the 'Fulfillment Center" may be--substantially less than it cost me to wrap and ship from Portland if KMart had shipped the units they confirmed as shipped. Our cost to get the three additional chaise lounges to Tampa, therefore, started out substantially more than the KMart confirmation quote.
Two days ago our property manager, Kevin Bloor, emailed to say that a one-hundred-forty-two pound crate containing one chaise lounge addressed to he and myself had arrived Roatan and that shipping cost owed Jackson Shipping were a staggering $425.37. Shocked? Amazed? Incredulous? All of the above! The KMart oversized crated weight of 142 pounds more than doubled the cost of shipping from Tampa to Roatan. Given the weight of the chaise--which is 19 pounds--that means packing material alone weighed 123 pounds. How is that possible? How is that reasonable? Why was that much packing weight involved? The KMart web site noted that we had 30 days to return the item "....by mail or to your nearest KMart store..." if we are not "completely thrilled with something you buy on www.KMart...". That option, of course, was not open to us.
Not surprisingly, we lay the blame for the $425.37 assessed in shipping charges on KMart's sundry failures along the path to purchase; i.e., (1) failure to deliver what was confirmed as bought, paid for and shipped, (2), failure to notify the buyer that only one unit was available, (3) failure to offer us a buy or no buy option since the order could not be filled as requested, (4) shipping a grossly overweight package, and (5) being entirely responsible for the grossly inflated shipping costs that resulted. Given those multiple failures and customer service omissions, leads to the inescapable conclusion that KMart is responsible for at least $300 of the $425 assessed in shipping costs. We ask, therefore, that said $300 be paid to us as just compensation.
Your timely response will be appreciated.
Yours Truly, If Unhappily,

Don Rocks and Janice Carter,

Posted by: don rocks at August 31, 2006 10:51 PM

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