Open or Closed: The Great Conundrum

Note: This post was originally published years ago on tumblr, and it’s best if you read it in the voice of a Victorian explorer.

I used to think that a sign stating that a business was closed was an unnecessary thing. After all there are clear indicators as to whether or not a business is open at a given time, such as the hours of operation posted on the door or whether or not there are lights on inside the business or people walking and working there. I used to think that was fairly self explanatory.

How wrong I was.

I should have heeded Bill Engvall’s warnings about stupid people. They are everywhere and have absolutely zero comprehension of, well, anything really. It wasn’t until I accepted my current position that I truly grasped this concept. A good chunk of this population is stupid, and that population is only growing larger. I fear that the future presented to us in the film Idiocracy is probably the most realistic view of our dystopian future that has ever been produced.

In the span of a few days, I was privileged enough to witness two remarkable examples of the tendencies of a stupid person. The first came inside of my own store.

I had just closed up shop for the day, done my end of day report, counted the drawer, totaled the receipts, and was heading to the safe with the report and the day’s deposit. I had to leave the darkened shop to reach the safe in the store room by way of a sliding glass door on the side of the shop. I flung it behind me but had to turn back to make sure that the door had indeed closed (it hadn’t). But it was now most assuredly closed.

So, I proceeded to the safe inside the store room to secure the deposit, only to emerge from the room no less than a minute later to find the side door wide open and a tall, lanky man inside asking for the person who worked there.

“I work here.”

“Oh! Good! The door was just open (no, YOU opened it). I need a map.”

Words were nowhere to be found. I was so taken aback by the whole situation, I honestly didn’t know what to do. The audacity of his stupidity literally left me in a stupor. So, I sold him what he needed, and added it to a new report since he paid with plastic and didn’t mess up my drawer count. It was the path of least resistance.

As he left, he asked what time I closed. By this time, it was 5:15 pm. I told him that we closed at five.

“Oh. Heh,” he said.

Get out of my store.

Two days later, on a lovely Saturday morning, a young man went to the shop across the hall from mine. During the week they are open before me, but on Saturdays, I opened an hour before they did. It was 8:40 am, twenty minutes before their posted hours of 9-12. The store completely dark. There was no one even inside the store. I watched as he approached the door, examined the situation, observed the posted hours of operation, and then checked his watch. Apparently he still needed more information. He gave the door handle a tug and found it to be locked.

Did you honestly expect a different result?

Now, I have a completely customer-first mentality, because they are the lifeblood of a retail operation. You provide the goods for which they give you cash money (Shout out to Grammar Girl for her podcast on the use of “cash money”). It’s basic economics. However, there are always good customers and bad customers. Stupid people fall into the latter category.

Still, I struggle to comprehend the logic here. What about a darkened store with no one inside says, “oh, yes, we’re most assuredly open and ready to serve your needs,”? Now, if there was a light on or an employee inside, I could understand the confusion.

I went to a drive-thru restaurant one night that had employees inside, lights on, and even the giant sign by the street still glowing brightly. I was unable to see the hours on the door, so I proceeded. No part of that image should give the indication that a business is closed. But they were. I sat at the order box waiting for any voice and found none to even tell me that they were closed. How much effort does it take to tell someone that you’re no longer serving? Zero. I received glares and scowls as I drove past. I have yet to return to that drive-thru. Yet I digress.

So, what is there about a darkened, empty shop makes a person think that the store is open? The only stores I’ve ever been to that were dark and empty like that were ones I’ve opened for business. And that’s when I realized it: since stupid people don’t wear signs, as Engvall wishes they would, our places of business must wear them instead. We must inform everyone one as to whether or not we are in fact in operation at a given time. Subtlety is a lost art and semiotic questions have answers which are completely unknown to some people.

“The store doesn’t have lights on or people in it. What does that mean?”

If you don’t know the answer, it means you’re stupid. But apparently, nowadays, it means, “Yes, we’re open! Come on in!”

-The Retail Explorer

A Disney Holiday; or, What We Can Learn From the Mouse

I recently got to do something I had never before (and probably never will again) experienced: Walt Disney World during the holiday season. Having done that, finally, I can safely say that I will never do that again. This isn’t because I had a terrible time. Quite the opposite, in fact. WDW will always have a special place in my heart, and I don’t know if anything could ever change that.

And I will return. There is too much to love about WDW to never walk its grounds again. The next time I do return, however, will be during a much less busy time of year. I have never seen such ridiculous crowds. It was truly remarkable.

There was one plus to being stuck in such seas of humanity: Seeing customer service at its finest levels during the most trying of times, a sight that I would describe as inspiring.

Similarly to how Disneyland is referred to as “the happiest place on Earth,” WDW is dubbed along the same lines as “the most magical place on Earth.” The greatest threat to destroying that magical experience is allowing your patience to be eroded, a common issue among customers.

And I saw it at WDW in spades. We had lunch at a restaurant in Liberty Square at the Magic Kingdom, just outside of the Haunted Mansion, and the line was, literally, out the door. Hunger and long lines are a perfect recipe for customer grumpiness. And when that is combined with the fact that EVERYTHING has a line, that grumpiness will continue unabated.

That’s the thing that customers either fail or refuse to understand: This is the busiest time of the year, for not just theme parks, but for all walks of the service industry, from delivery companies to retail establishments. It’s just that time of the year when the demand for these services explodes, and a little understanding into that fact will go a long way toward improving your experience as a customer. Prepare yourself for the wait, and allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised if there isn’t one.

But what can the service industry worker do to not only make things more pleasant for the customer but also survivable for themselves? Look to the Disney Cast Members.

First thing, keep a level head. Find some way to remind yourself that you can only control so much of a given situation. When you service tens of thousands of people a day, stress is going to come into play. Yet, they are among the most friendly, accommodating, and helpful people you’d ever hope to find. Finding some place of peace will aid in that.

Here’s the caveat: I know this is going to be the most difficult thing to do, since customers will not make that easy. A customer who feels he has been wronged or merely inconvenienced can be the most vile, inhuman creature on the planet, and having to deal with them in that situation is miserable. So, while not impossible, it will be incredibly difficult.Secondly, be as friendly as you can be. I know many of these customers will not deserve your kindness, but sometimes all you can do is grin and bear it. Now, I’m not telling you to just be a doormat for them. All I’m saying is it’s illegal to slap them. I’d rather fake politeness to a jerk than spend a night in jail.

Thirdly, do what you can for them within the scope of your job (and what you think they deserve, without harm to your job). Again, I’m not saying to bend over backward for a customer who’s just being a jerk because they can. Just remember it’s illegal to hit them. And it’s good to have a job.

Whatever leeway your job affords you is valuable tool at your disposal to be used at your discretion. If someone needs directions, you can give it to them and it might mean the world to them. But if they ask you for something that you are, for whatever reason, unable to provide, don’t feel bad about it, even if they give you grief. That’s one thing my current job has taught me: You aren’t a fireman and it’s not your job to put out fires. If someone has a problem, I apologize and direct them to someone who can do something. Cast Members do the same thing.

My biggest takeaway from my trip was how to deal with the stress of volume. I can’t imagine what it’s like dealing with that many guests on a daily basis. But I know what it’s like dealing with twice the normal number of packages in the same window of time as normal, and you have to find a way to deal with it. You can’t control the volume of customers or items, but you can control how it affects you. Can it overwhelm you at times? Sure. It definitely has overwhelmed me before.

The key is finding a way to push through and keep forward momentum. My method is to bite off small chunks at a time, finish one neighborhood before worrying about another. Package by package, house by house, street my street. Forget about the whole stone, deal with the chips. That avalanche can bury you so easily if you allow it. Take breaks as often as you can and allow yourself to ability to process and refresh, or else you will crumble under the weight.

My other takeaway is blue milk is delicious.

Stay strong this holiday season, comrades!

-The Retail Explorer

Road Trip; or, Minneapolis or Bust

For those of you who don’t pay attention to U.S. college athletics, my alma mater, Texas Tech, played in its first ever Final Four in men’s basketball. If you need more info, here’s a bare-bones: Every year, the top 68 teams battle it out in the NCAA tournament through seven grueling rounds of competition, with the last four teams standing being referred to as the Final Four. Prior to last season, Texas Tech had only ever been to the Sweet Sixteen (one of the final sixteen teams left). Last season, we made it to the Elite Eight, before losing to eventual champion Villanova. This year, Texas Tech was picked to finish seventh in our conference. We not only won our conference, but we also made it to the Final Four. So, you could see how our excitement was intense. We decided that we may never see something like this again, and set sail for Minnesota, the site of the 2019 Final Four.

From our area, it ended up being about a fifteen-hour drive, broken up with a stop in Kansas City for the night. You may say, “omg that sounds torturous!” And you’d be right…partially. Oklahoma was quite lovely, really, as was Kansas. Missouri and Iowa, on the other hand, felt like they lasted about two to three times as long as they actually did. But Minnesota provided a nice respite.

Well, the Final Four didn’t turn out exactly as well as we’d hoped. Tech ended up finishing second in the nation after an emotional, hard-fought game. Not bad for a team considered an afterthought before the season began. I’m so incredibly proud of them.

As I write this, we’ve one leg of travel left to complete, from Kansas City to home, and I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell this has to do with anything retail. What’s the one thing you encounter more than anything on a long road trip?

Rest stops.

Let’s talk about rest stops. After having driven through six states, here’s my ranking: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Iowa. Yes, I’m sure you’ll say I’m biased, but Texas’s rest stops are top-notch. Have you ever seen the rest stops on the state border? They’re borderline palatial, massive welcome centers surrounded by the six flags of Texas.

And then there’s Buc-ee’s. I’ve seen supermarkets smaller than Buc-ee’s. It pretty much is a department store with gas pumps and incredible bathrooms. They even sell, no joke, furniture there. Anything you want, they probably have it.

Beyond that, Oklahoma had fantastic gas stations. My favorite was OnCue. Expansive, clean, and stocked with every manner of drink and snack you can imagine. I found a fantastic lemonade there that I still haven’t found since I left Oklahoma. The staff was incredibly friendly as well. You’re doin’ fine, Oklahoma.

I don’t have an explanation for why Iowa’s ended up lacking. They were smaller, older stations usually, and I guess that’s the biggest difference. I’m not sure why this is the case. That’s just how I found it. I’m not going to go into much detail as to why or critique any of this any further. I just find the differences fascinating.

While I’ve enjoyed this trip across the country, I won’t be disappointed to leave some of this behind. The best parts have been the friendly people I’ve met along the way. The facilities, on the other hand, have been a mixed bag. I wish I could explain why. Perhaps some reflection will help provide some illumination. Until then, we’ll see you down the road, comrades! Next stop: Home!

-The Retail Explorer