If you take a half-gallon of fudge ripple ice cream from your supermarket's freezer case and then remember you are on a diet, don't leave it to melt on the rack where the tabloid magazines scream "Tom Cruise Marries Alien!" Likewise, in a department store, if you suddenly realize that a pink poncho will be passe in a month, don't fling it over a display of men's socks and walk away. Nor should a four-pack of 60-watt light bulbs be wedged between the boxes of fettuccine and ziti.
For a few minutes, pretend I'm your mom -- your shopping mom: Were you raised in a barn? Will you never learn to pick up after yourselves? Stop rolling your eyes and look at me when I talk to you!
Listen up: More and more of you are not putting things back where they belong when you go shopping. It happens at high-end and low-end and everything-in-between stores. It occurs in supermarkets, clothing stores, toy stores, stationers and any place where merchandise isn't too heavy to lift. It even goes on at the Gap, despite clerks -- only those with eyes in the backs of their heads are hired -- who attempt behavior modification in customers by pointedly refolding polo shirts milliseconds after they are mussed.
It occurs even in bookstores, where, as in libraries, there are often tables or carts with posted pleas to place unwanted books on them so that people who know exactly where they should be shelved can do so. Still, you'll find a John Grisham tome next to "101 Ways to Cook Cauliflower." Especially during sales, the dressing rooms of department stores look like pigsties -- clothing in dumping grounds on the floor or falling off hangers and hooks -- because customers won't even return them to collection racks at the mouth of the dressing room so employees can restock them.
Don't make the excuse that everybody does it. What if everybody jumped off a cliff? Would you?
Experts who study what is called "shrink" -- the term for inventory loss due to shoplifting, employee theft or error, and damaged or "distressed" items -- estimate that less than 1 percent of all shrink is caused by shoppers who act as though they are royalty being shadowed by a maid. (A major grocery chain has about $500,000 worth of shrink a year, according to recent studies.)
This number would be higher if alert shoppers and employees didn't see wrongs and right them, says Larry Miller, president of Trax Retail Solutions in Scottsdale, Ariz., and national director of the National Supermarket Research Group. Miller estimates that shoppers (acting as mothers the world over do) or store employees rescue about 60 percent of dumped grocery items.
"Most people don't look at a pound of ground beef sitting on a grocery store shelf and ignore it. They take it back to the refrigerated meat section," Miller contends.
"This has always been a problem, and it occurs at all stores no matter where they are," says Barry F. Scher, vice president of public relations for Royal Ahold NV's Giant Food LLC chain. He notes that the cost for supermarkets is especially high when the item involved requires refrigeration or freezing. Even though employees are instructed by managers at various times during the day to scout for misplaced items, perishables most often have to be thrown out because it is not known how long they've been sitting around.
Scher says that Giant stores don't have staffers dedicated to performing the task called "shop backs" but that it takes employees away from other duties.
"Stores also lose out because the stock isn't where someone can find it and sell it," says Jon Schreibfeder, president of Effective Inventory Management Inc. of Coppell, Tex. This means that, to be confident that they have enough of any product, managers must overstock items. Schreibfeder, whose company advises retailers on ways to control inventory, says that although the practice isn't nearly as large or troublesome as shoplifting or employee theft, "we talk about the [dumping] problem continually" with clients. Schreibfeder's prescription has been to have his clients schedule regular "stock straightening" for several times a day, especially when the store isn't busy.
He also said a retail customer in Bermuda learned that nothing works as well as a departing ship in making people evacuate a store, leaving stick deodorant next to the asparagus.
"A cruise ship would come in and the passengers would begin shopping. They'd find they were running out of time and would leave stock scattered everywhere," Schreibfeder recalls. He and his employees helped the store employees realize that they should scurry to round up misplaced products in between dockings. He also advised the owner to mark shelves that were most often victimized by shoppers and to have employees combing those prone areas.
Schreibfeder says it's conceivable that, down the line, radio frequency identification (RFID) might be able to beam out an all-points bulletin (APB) to store managers, saying, in effect: "I'm over here -- and I'm defrosting!" to help in the roundup.
Both Schreibfeder and Scher are inclined to be soft on consumers who dump products thither and yon. "People these days think they are too busy. Everybody's in a rush," Scher says.
But Dorothea Johnson is unforgiving.
Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington and an etiquette teacher for 40 years, says we all must put things back because it is right and proper and is a tiny thing we can do to keep the world from chaos. She can think of no excuse for not returning merchandise to its shelf. Practicing this daily has the side effect of increasing self-esteem, she says.
"Oh, you see, not putting things back is not being mindful of the next person who comes along. Although salespeople are trained to watch out for such things, I always put things back. I can then tell myself I did the right thing," says Johnson from her home near Portland, Maine.
Even parents who spend the livelong day harping on children and spouses about tidying up can slip up now and then and ignore their inner Miss Manners. The other day, in a fit of fitness, someone left a pound of bacon next to a mound of tilapia packages after glancing about the store furtively to see if anyone was looking.
But do as I say, not as I do. And don't run with a stick in your hand. You'll poke your eye out.