It was mentioned here recently that in many retail stores "the help" is no longer as helpful as it once was. These days there are fewer clerks patrolling more acres of selling space, and the ones a customer does find are, on the whole, less helpful.
Higher wage rates have made it necessary for retailers to use fewer clerks, I conceded. But isn't that all the more reason to give better training and indoctrination to those clerks who are retained?
Customers, clerks and employers sent me a welcome flurry of replies, all but one them serious. The amusing letter was from Clay Prillman of Silver Spring, who suffered a myocardinal infarction two days after my own recent heart surgery.
Clay wrote that he was worn out by a minor shopping expedition recently because he couldn't get any help from the clerks. When he read my column about "unhelpful help" the next day, he had two reactions - 1: How true! 2: Bill must be getting better; he's getting cranky again.
Unfortunately, there was no humor in the other replies. Bitter clerks told me about rude customers who expect to be treated as if they were royalty, and about employers who "pay minimum wages and expect specialist skills from people who will work like dogs."
Charles D. Seaton of Mt. Airy, Md., who is now retired after a 46-year career in retail selling, pointed out that in the old days, most stores paid sales people a straight salary plus a small commission. "The salary put bread on the table; the commission determined how much butter you wanted." It was good old capitalistic incentive, and it turned zombie clerks into salesmen.
A point raised by both clerks and customers was that as the number of clerks has gone down, shoplifting losses and security expenses have gone up. "What the stores save on sales help they lose in thefts," one customer wrote. "If they had more sales people they'd need fewer private police."
From the management side, Paul K. Alexander commented: "Management gets only what it trains for and pays for. For 10 years I worked for a firm that had no sales training program and paid minimum wages. Employee morale and dedication were near zero." On the other hand, Paul also worked for firms that did make an effort to train and indoctrinate sales personnel, but even the lure of good wages, commissions and bonuses were not enough to motivate some people. Those with a "don't give a damn attitude," as Paul describes it, had to be fired.
From the customer side, there were tales that would make any employer's blood pressure go up. One example will suffice: Corinne Hawkins asked the clerk behind the counter in a department store where she might find the whistles the store had advertised. "They're over in jewelry," the clerk said, waving in the general direction of another section of the store.
As Mrs. Hawkins was about to turn and go off in search of the jewelry department, her eye fell on a display basket on the counter. In it were the advertised whistles - right under the clerk's nose.
A letter from an old friend of mine sums up the retailer's viewpoint pretty well. My friend sold his store a few years ago, but the memories of a long career are still vividly in his mind: "Starting out small, trying to make a living by serving people, by providing the things and services they needed. To please one or two customers, we stocked things on which we made no profit. We delivered even pitifully small purchases, and did it promptly. In a strictly cash business we gave credit when people really needed it, and we cashed checks that both of us knew wouldn't be good until payday.
"Why? Because we knew we couldn't prosper unless we served our customers. So we worked. We knew our stock, and kept it up to snuff. We greeted people by name, and they asked for us by name. We tried to be decent neighbors.
"Employers and employees worked together, long nonunion hours devoted to making ourselves needed and appreciated by our customers. But the years passed, and things changed. There was always another store down the block that sold things for a little bit less, and give something less to the customer in return. In some ways, it was a rewarding lifetime of selling and serving, but in other ways, frustrating.Just remember this: For every customer who is not served to his satisfaction, there is an owner or a manager who wonders whether life wasn't more fun when he ran the store alone, and ran it the way a store ought to be run."