The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘shopping’

A WINTER’S TALE

I must admit that my favorite season of the year is autumn.  Growing up in New York it meant I was in the midst of another school year which I loved, piano lessons had resumed, which I loved, and the leaves of the trees in Central Park were turning their incredible shades of gold and red, which I loved especially.

In addition to all these, autumn was a precursor to the Holidays.  When the leaves began their transformation, Thanksgiving and then Christmas could not be far behind.  And I always looked forward to those because there seemed to be such a spirit of gentleness and kindness that people naturally acquired during that time of year and freely shared with others whom they met.

When I was seventeen I moved to Chicago for college.  Like New York, Chicago had lots of beautiful trees which performed their rainbow dance in the same way.  But what I discovered was that Chicago, unlike New York had only two seasons -winter and August.  What had been a progression that mimicked a long term transformative counseling session in New York had been transmuted in Chicago into shock therapy.

Well, the advent of winter was alright with me as it was my second most favorite season of the year.  The fact that it seemingly lasted forever until the first few brave crocuses would poke their heads out of the ground in early spring in the park across from the apartment didn’t bother me.  Nor did the cold winds or the streets filled with snow, then snow with salt, then slush.  Because I had a defense against all these.  That shield which held off all assailants was flannel and it never failed me.

Most people are grateful for the weekend because it is a respite from going to school or work.  I never minded either of these and yet I looked forward to my weekends because it was then that I could set aside the business attire I had worn for five days and slip into a warm, comfortable, ever-so-soft flannel shirt.

Once upon a time Lands End had graced my mailbox with one of their catalogs.  Now I have never been someone who could be described as a clothes horse and I think their first attempt to gain my interest resulted in my placing this rather hefty document in the recycling bin without thumbing thru it.  But then they struck a chord on a subsequent effort.  There was the picture of a beautiful flannel shirt on the cover and it intrigued me enough to turn to that section of the catalog.

I bought four flannel shirts from them in various bright and vibrant colors, two solids and two plaids.  I remember removing them from the box the day they arrived.  Taking off the plastic outer wrapping of each shirt, the cardboard stay in the collar and removing all the pins which held the shirts in place.  I knew that I was going to enjoy these shirts.  Their quality was apparent in each garment.

And so began my love affair with my flannel shirts.  And the bond between us grew deeper with each washing as these amazingly soft shirts became even softer and more inviting.  While I could only wear them during winter, still they got a tremendous amount of use and were hung in a special place of honor in my closet.

After ten years of wear I noticed that the cuffs on several of the shirts had begun to fray slightly and the same had happened to one of the collars.  But I viewed this as a badge of honor – a job well done and lovingly performed.

But the frays got more noticeable, so I reversed the cuffs and the collars and held on to those treasures for another four years.  By now, with their frequent washings they seemed to me to be less like shirts than they were outgrowths of my own skin.

One day I realized that I had worn a thin spot in the elbow of two of the shirts.  But I still wore them around the house until the thin spots became tears in the fabric.  After fourteen years of a beautiful relationship I realized that my shirts had done their duty and been good and faithful servants.  So I removed all the buttons and turned them into rags to dust and polish around the house.  It was a sad moment when I took them apart – as close as we had been for so long.

Although for my friends in the northern hemisphere it is not winter, I am writing this now because I wouldn’t mind if it were.  Hundred degree plus heat becomes tiresome after awhile (which for me is about two hours).  Talking about winter cools me off almost as effectively as a quick dip in the pool.

My point in this post is not only to reminisce about my flannel shirt fixation but to speak of merchandise that is made with quality.  I do not know if these Lands End shirts were manufactured in the United States or elsewhere.  What I do know is that the retailer obviously insisted in providing a high quality product for its customers.  I think you would agree that a shirt that withstands the ravages of fourteen years’ wearing meets that definition.

This occurred to me this morning because as I put on a pair of cargo shorts which I had purchased a few months ago at Walmart I noticed that the cuffs were already starting to fray.  As I examined this I also noticed that the material where the cuff met the leg of the short was beginning to separate.  I don’t think these shorts have been washed more than five or six times.

I thought to myself, “Where were these things made?”  So I looked at the label and saw that they had been manufactured in Bangladesh.  Who knew that the Bangladeshis made garments for sale in America?  I certainly didn’t.

Now I am not trying to make a case against the quality of workmanship that is the output of the people of Bangladesh.  These workmen are doing their job with the materials that are specified in their company’s contract with Walmart.  I am sure that they do so in a very workmanlike manner.  But they are obviously starting with inferior materials – and the result is an inferior product.

If we think about it, Walmart which bills itself as the “low price leader” may well  live up to their motto.  But we should remember that “low price” and “low cost” are not synonymous terms.  These cargo shorts have a life expectancy of about one more wash before they start falling apart completely.

It makes a great deal of sense for us to stretch our dollars as far as we can.  But making decisions based simply on price do not accomplish that goal.  The difference in the value I received from my flannel shirts and my cotton cargo pants demonstrates that principle.  So I learned something from this and will not be making further purchases of cargo pants or any other clothing at Walmart.  I simply can’t afford to buy clothes that are that cheap.

This reverie about winter has made me feel a deep need for some spiced apple cider, so I think I’ll go downstairs and make myself some.  But as this is a winter’s tale as told in July, I believe I’ll serve it over ice.

And what better way to enjoy that than by listening to some Vivaldi:

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‘TWAS SIX MONTHS BEFORE CHRISTMAS

‘Twas six months before Christmas
And all through the land,
Retailers had sent forth
Their own marching band.

To drum up some business
And stir by their call
Each consumer to duty,
”Come down to the mall.”

We’ve got oodles of goodies
On sale – there’s no trick,
For surely you must have
The latest knack knick.

It was made in a land
Far away quite exotic,
But sadly about it
There’s nothing erotic.

But well made we can say
In a positive light.
It surely will last
Through at least Christmas night.

If not that then buy this
We’ve got more than enough,
Of goods with no value
For stockings to stuff.

Forget that old message,
Peace, love and joy.
The message of Christmas
That’s merely a ploy.
The true story’s about
Finding just the right toy.

“I’ve no money, alas.”
”Not a problem,” they say.
We’ve figured a way
For this junk you may pay.

Just say, “Charge it.”
We will, .
Have no fear, take no fright.
As the interest mounts day by day
And night by night.

So came Kia and Honda,
Chrysler, Nissan and Ford.
Their mission was clear
They were all of accord.

Beemers, Benzes were there
Some quite old and some new.
Intent on their purpose
They knew what to do.

To ransack and pillage
And leave the store bare.
To spend and spend more,
That was their sole care.

No great thought had gone into
Their buys made that day.
Nor how much at last,
The cost they would pay.

For bragging rights truly
So many did moon.
To be able to say,
”I did Christmas in June.”

So they dashed away,
Dashed away,
Dashed away all.
And over the land
Came a dark eerie pall.

For the message of Christmas
Of peace and of joy
Is not just a gizmo
Or latest fad toy.

If we ask ourselves why
War and hatred exist,
Perhaps we should go back,
Examine our list.

No more socks, games or trinkets,
Just some kindness and soul.
Would go a long way
To make the world whole.

ON CUSTOMER SERVICE

I remember accompanying mom two days after Christmas to go to Macy’s to return a present that she had purchased for my dad.  The shirt which we were returning had a small cut in it which we only discovered after dad opened his gift.

As we approached the returns/customer service counter we realized that we had walked into a sea of people all of whom were bent on the same mission – returning gifts or purchases.  Mom left me in line to wait our turn and went off to the shirt department to get a replacement for the one we were going to exchange.

As I stood in line waiting for mom’s return I couldn’t help look at the three women who were behind the counter.  They all looked very frazzled – and it was only 10:30 in the morning.  This truly must have been the time of year that these ladies in customer service dreaded the most.

But as beleaguered as they may have been with the wall of femininity that they faced, they all tried to keep a smile on their faces and to treat their customers with respect  Other than the fact that they might have felt this was they same way they would have wished to be treated – they had to.  Their customers were looking at them right across the counter.

I remember the first time I tried to make an inquiry about a charge on my bill from my local electric company and I was connected to a menu system to “expedite” my call.  I  was now on line with a very pleasant and efficient computer who would enumerate all the choices that I was allowed.

I found that annoying but finally we got to the option I wanted – “To talk to a human being – press or say “zero”.  So I pressed “0” and the magic of modern telecommunications did its job – after a 10 minute wait during which time I listened to the repetitive altering messages about ways to reduce my electric bill, really bad and annoying music and the fact that the utility “appreciated my patience and valued me as a customer.”

I always appreciate it when someone values me – on whatever level.

Now armed with knowledge of how modern customer service works, when I called my cable TV company several months later to discuss an upgrade to the speed with which I could enjoy the internet I was ready for what I knew was in store.  I was going to by-pass the whole menu thing and as soon as possible just hit the “0” button to be connected to a representative.

Great plan – but Cox Cable had anticipated my desire to accomplish my task in an expeditious manner and had rolled out a totally different menu system than the first one I had encountered.  As I waited for an opening to punch “0” I was required, “in order to expedite my call” to enter my home phone number.  When the computer read back the ten digits I had entered and asked me to verify that they were really “talking” to me I complied with the request.  Surely I was only seconds away from being able to punch that all important “0” button.  I was wrong.

Once the reality of my existence had been verified, the computer wanted to let me know how much my balance was .  Since I’m on the auto-pay plan the balance I owed was that all important “0”.  Having provided me with this information, the computer began enumerating her menu of choices.  I jumped at my chance to punch “0”.  But on this system “0” was an invalid choice.  When I got through the other eight choices I was informed that I could speak with a customer service representative by “pressing or saying nine.”

So I pressed “nine” and, sure enough,  twenty minutes later I was able to speak with one of Cox’s very efficient customer service people who wanted to resolve all my problems and questions.  Unfortunately, by this time I had forgotten the reason for my call – so I thanked him for his time and said I would call back when I was better.  Even though it was before noon, I went downstairs, poured myself a stiff drink and then took a long nap.  I was spent.

Based on these two experiences I have tried in every way to avoid being the recipient of any additional “customer service”.  Unfortunately, a situation arose as I was reviewing one of my credit card bills.  An item in the amount of $29.95 appeared on the statement from a provider in Malaysia.  I didn’t remember buying anything from anyone in Malaysia.  So out of necessity I dialed the almost unreadable little number on the back of my credit card.

I was steeled for the menu of choices which I expected to encounter.  Once again, I was wrong.  I was almost immediately connected to a real live person.

Apparently the issuer of my credit card has joined the host of American companies that have out-sourced this portion of their business to places overseas.  As far as I could tell the person with whom I was speaking had the extremely strong accent of a person who was in India.

Because of my training in music as a child I have a good “ear”.  This is a wonderful gift because it enables me to hear and understand things that people who are less musical might miss.  But even with this training, I had an extreme problem understanding this gentleman – and I think he had an equally difficult time understanding me.

After about fifteen minutes of repetitive conversation and explanation I realized that I had lost the battle.  In order not to be offensive to this man I said, “You know, sir I appreciate your effort to help me.  I know you are doing your very best and I want to thank you for that.  But you’ll forgive me if I say that I am having a very difficult time understanding you.  Would you please transfer me to a different customer service representative?”  This gentleman complied and asked that I hold on.  I was quickly transferred – this time to a woman.

Sadly, this lady spoke English in the same way as the first representative but an octave higher.  After fifteen minutes on the phone with her I was no further along in resolving the matter than when I had begun this exercise.

So I thought about it.  The credit card on which the charge had appeared was not one that I frequently used.  In fact, it had come to me unsolicited in the mail.  And I thought, maybe the best solution was simply to cancel it.  So I asked this second representative if they had a “cancellation department” – and she responded that they did and would transfer me.

The phone in the “retentions department” rang once and the phone was answered.  I explained that I wanted to cancel my card.  The man in this department asked why I would do such a thing – so I explained the situation.  (This man’s English was perfectly clear and easy to understand.)

He understood my problem, the fraudulent charge and promised to resolve the issue for me.  He put me on hold for less than half a minute, returned and told me that a temporary credit in the amount of the charge had been applied to my account and that they were sending me a “fraudulent charges form” which I should return within fourteen days of receipt .  He further assured me that their investigative fraud department would get to the bottom of all of this.  Then he thanked me for being one of the card issuer’s “most valued customers” and hoped that I would continue our relationship.

I thanked him for his time and assistance, agreed to keep the card open pending my satisfaction with the way they handled the matter and hung up.  A few days later I received the written communication from the credit card company as promised.  That resolved the issue.

So the moral of the story is this.  In today’s modern age of “customer service” if you want to get an issue resolved there’s only one way to go.  Threaten to end your relationship with the provider.  That’s a language they seem to speak and understand.

OUR INALIENABLE RIGHT TO COMPLAIN

 Although I found no mention of it in the Constitution, most Americans (and I think people elsewhere throughout the world), seem to believe that they have an inalienable right to complain. We exercise that right rather freely.

 While I do not dispute that there are times when we have a valid basis for issuing a complaint, there is a part of the equation that I think many of us complainers overlook. With rights come responsibilities. If we wish to exercise our right to complain we have the correlative responsibility to compliment.

 When I receive excellent service from someone, I always make a point of letting that person know how much I appreciated her help. I also let her boss know how satisfied I was with this employee’s efforts. (Companies need to know that employee performance matters to their customers and which members of their staff are going above and beyond the call of duty).

 Sadly, so many of us take excellent service as our “right” and fail to compliment the individual who provided it.  

Think about this for a minute. Here’s a young woman working in a position which is moderately low-paid. But she loves the company she works for, she enjoys dealing with the public and she wants to provide the best customer service in the world.

 Day after day she does her best, she goes the extra mile – and not even one of the hundreds of people whom she has assisted has said so much as, “Thank you.” After a short while her enthusiasm and commitment to excellent service begins to wane.

 “Why am I busting my hump? No one cares. Not one of my customers has recognized my effort. I might just as well do the average job everyone else here does.” So that starry-eyed employee drifts into the ranks of the mediocre – doing just what’s necessary and no more – if that. And we who failed to acknowledge her efforts are the ones to blame.

 The next time you are ready to launch an all-out frontal attack and unleash a complaint, step back a moment and ask yourself – “Have you fulfilled your inalienable responsibility to compliment?”

 

 

 

 

THE ART OF DIPLOMACY

 Diplomats and government bureaucrats are involved in important discussions with allies and foes around the world. They go through training programs in order to master the finer points of negotiation. (Given the lay of the land, perhaps a refresher course is in order).

 I suggest there is no finer on-the-job training program than the one to which they would have been exposed had they worked during the Christmas season in my mom’s little retail boutique.

 It was the same year that mom had her experience with the “rose pens”, (discussed in an earlier post entitled, “The Art of Retailing”). The next biggest sellers that season were some very lovely belts. They were made of an expandable gold-finished metal. The clasp on the belt was a snake’s head (snakes were in that year) and the clasps came in white, turquoise and coral. The belts were available in three sizes – Small, Medium and Large. 

Mom was in the back. She was wrapping purchases made earlier in the day which we would deliver that evening. As I watched her expertly cut just the right amount of heavy gold wrapping paper and then artfully create a bow for each one of them, the door to the store opened. 

Mom looked at me and said, “That’s Countess Neverovsky. Please see if you can help her.” I went to the front of the store to assist this lady. 

Good afternoon, countess. Is there something that I may show you?” 

The countess might have weighed ninety pounds dripping wet. She didn’t give me a very warm and fuzzy feeling as she looked me up and down. The attitude she projected was that I almost certainly was incapable of doing anything for her.

 “I would like to see one of the snake belts you have in a medium – in coral.”

 I knew that a medium would be far too big for her. In fact, I questioned whether she would be able to wear one of them in the small size.

 But, as mom had taught me, “the customer is always right”. So rather than disagree, I reached into the cabinet under the counter where we kept our inventory and pulled out a coral belt in medium.

 I said, “You know countess – these belts run a little large. Perhaps you would like to try it on.”

 She snapped back, “There’s no need for that. I always wear a medium. Just add it to my account.”

 There was nothing to do other than hand-write her sales slip, put her belt in one of our little shopping bags and add this purchase to the store account that she maintained with us. The countess took her purchase and left.

 Mom had, of course, heard the mostly one-way conversation.

 I apologized to her. I knew the countess wouldn’t be able to wear the belt and would return it.

 Mom just said, “Don’t worry, dear. She does this all the time. Pull one of the small coral belts and bring it back here. That way when she comes back we’ll be sure to have one available for her.” I did that and we taped a little piece of paper to it that said, “Countess Neverovsky”.

 Two days later the countess stormed into the store with her shopping bag and the belt. She was a woman on a mission – and she wasn’t a happy camper.

 She said to my mother, “If your children are going to work here you should teach them how to wait on customers. The belt I bought the other day is far too big. I need one in a smaller size.”

 Mom apologized for the inconvenience, went in the back and exchanged the medium that the countess had insisted on purchasing for the smaller one that we had set aside for her. The countess apparently had enough of our ineptitude – so she decided to try on this belt. It fit her perfectly.

 If we are ever to find a path to world peace; if we are to live in a world where compassion and courtesy are the norm rather than the exception – here is my suggestion.

 Pull all the bureaucrats and diplomats from their posts and have them spend a week as sales people in retail.

 

THE ART OF RETAILING

 I returned from college for the Christmas break one year and my parents picked me up at LaGuardia. As with all retailers, then as now, this was the make or break season for mom’s little store on Madison Avenue. 

The ride home was uneventful but a little quieter than usual.

 Dad asked if I had plans to spend my time back in New York with any of my high school friends. But I had spoken with several of them and they were going skiing with their families. So I was pretty much on my own and free to do as I liked.

 Mom asked if I would mind helping her at her boutique. I was happy to do so. I loved her little shop and I enjoyed working with her customers – so I was all for it. 

As mom and I walked to her store the following day, I knew something was wrong. I asked her what was going on.

 She told me that she had made a “very big mistake”. She had purchased 20 dozen of an item that she was sure would be a big seller – and after four weeks she had yet to sell one of them. (She had spent $600 on them – which for her little shop was a very big investment).  

When we got to the store I looked in the window. As usual mom had done a beautiful job, artistically showcasing the items that she had for sale. I saw the culprit which was the subject of mom’s concern. It was a writing pen. 

The pen was topped with a silk rose and fit neatly into its flower pot base. The rose came in white, pink, yellow and red. Although it didn’t appeal to me, I thought it would have been a very acceptable present as a “hostess” gift – and many of mom’s customers enjoyed hosting little get-togethers.

 As I looked at the window display, I realized why mom wasn’t able to sell them. 

We went in the store, turned on the interior overhead lights and those for the display cases within the shop.  

I said to her, “Mom I know why your pens aren’t selling. They’re too cheap. There is nothing in your store that a customer can buy for less than $20 – and these pens are priced at $5. Your customers think that they’re junk. So let’s reprice them at $17.50 and see what happens. What do you have to lose?”

Without saying a word, mom took off her shoes, went into the window and pulled the price placard from the rose pen and the ones inside the store and went to the back of the shop. A few minutes later she came back with new placards which read $17.50 and put them in front of the pens which were on display.

 That day we sold twenty-eight of the pens. And during the following week we sold over fourteen dozen. (They were almost as hot as today’s latest iPad). Even though she reduced the price on the remaining stock to $10 during her after Christmas sale, her original investment of $600 returned over $4,000. By far, these pens were the most profitable item she had in her store that season. And all because of a price change – or more exactly – a price increase.

 It makes you wonder.  

Does a rose at any price not write as well? 

(My apologies to the immortal bard for maligning his verse).

 But to quote him more accurately,

 “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

 

‘TIS THE SEASON TO BE SHOPPING

It’s the time of year that people are more lighthearted and we make an effort to be a little nicer to others than usual.  Those are wonderful things.  Would that we could hold on to those feelings throughout the rest of the year.

I have neither a wish list nor do I have a shopping list – at least for anything that can be acquired at Saks Fifth Avenue or Crate & Barrel.  There really is nothing that I need and would prefer that, rather than spending money on me, my friends would donate to a worthy charity.  And since I gave up the practice of buying things in favor of making them I am pretty well set with those on my list.

But I am out shopping – for a new set of leaders to guide our ailing country into what I hope will be a more prosperous future.

The problem is that I’ve done several online searches and have yet to find a store that has politicians with ethics, morals, common sense and vision on display.  (When I was less specific – not requiring those four little qualifiers – I immediately had many pages show up on Google with a host of websites headquartered in Washington, D.C.).  Surely that is no surprise to you – or me.

I am an optimist.  I will continue my search.  I will get involved because not doing so is to abdicate personal responsibility.  I am one small person with a lone voice – but I believe that I can help change America for the better.

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