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Saturday 27 September 2003

The NY Times reviews “Duplex”

The New York Times has a review of “Duplex”, a comedy starring Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore, wherein the young couple buys a house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It’s a splendid house. But.

The only catch is that the top floor of what was once a duplex is occupied by an ancient widow, Mrs. Connelly (Eileen Essell), whom the rent control laws prevent Alex and Nancy from evicting. Not that they would do such a thing, mind you, except that, well, the extra space would sure be nice, especially when they get around to having a baby […]

The main plot seems to center around how horrible this upstairs neighbor is. But, the Times’ reviewer points out, the Stiller and Barrymore characters (“Alex” and “Nancy”) are not unalloyed heroes:

They are not as nice as they think they are, and the movie, building toward an ingenious double punch line, sends more than a few satiric jabs in their direction. From Alex and Nancy’s point of view, Mrs. Connelly is a stubborn impediment to their ambitions.

This would be their ‘ambitions’ to enjoy the property they’ve purchased, mind you.

Her manipulative, importuning presence violates their sense of entitlement, which at first the film seems not to question.

That is, their ‘entitlement’ to conceive a child — apparently Mrs. Connelly is fond of watching South Park with the volume on 11 late at night, and of peeking in Alex and Nancy’s bedroom windows, which spoils the mood somewhat — and their ‘entitlement’ to occupy the whole of their house.

The jokes about rent control suggest that Mrs. Connelly embodies the intransigence of an older urban order that should just clear out and make room for shiny, attractive young people. […]

Or maybe just people who own the goddamned property, no matter their age or luster. Were the roles reversed — with an obnoxious young couple renting from an old lady who wanted them out — would the Times see the old lady as having ‘ambitions’ and a sense of ‘entitlement’?

But the old lady is also, as Nancy is forced to admit, full of life, and she might just as well represent the indomitable spirit of an old, ethnic Brooklyn refusing to be vanquished by the forces of gentrification. Or, in any case, fighting them to a draw.

‘Refusing to be vanquished’? ‘Forces of gentrification’? One of the plot holes in this film is that Alex is ‘writing a novel’ and Nancy ‘works at a magazine’. It’s unlikely they could afford to buy a house in Park Slope these days, but assuming that they somehow could, they’re in any case not anything you could call ‘gentry’ in any context, except that they’re young.

No, none of this makes much sense at all. In any sane world, though, Mrs. Connelly would would have to face the fact that the apartment she’s renting is no longer available for rent. And in that sane world, it’d be possible for the New York Times to review a comic movie without delving into the politics of ‘gentrification’ and casting aspersions on the main characters, because they have the gall to believe that they might have the right to control the property they own.

Posted by tino at 10:03 27.09.03
Friday 26 September 2003

‘Affordable’ Housing and Public Servants

So it appears that Prince William County, Virginia, may wind up building a housing project for its workers to live in.

Prince William, which has long been a middle-class suburb favored by military families and government workers, now struggles with a problem more commonly associated with wealthy resort towns or maturing, affluent suburbs. The willingness of leaders to consider teaming up with developers to build apartments or houses for county employees shows how concern about affordability has spread outward to the fringe of metropolitan Washington.

A hot real estate market in Prince William has driven costs higher in the last several years, and the county has encouraged the building of high-end housing after years of booming townhouse construction. To complicate the matter, Prince William has relatively few apartments, which would provide more options for young and lower-paid workers. There are nearly three times as many apartments per person in Arlington County and Alexandria as in Prince William.

And, of course, it is totally out of the question to just allow builders to build the kind of housing that’s, you know, actually in demand in the county.

County planners and officials are considering a range of possibilities, including more help for workers in getting low-cost loans, working with nonprofit groups to subsidize mortgages, and working with developers to build apartments or even group homes meant for younger, single workers. Those units might be clustered in a workers’ “village,” officials said.

So their options are either to subsidize people to live in places they really can’t afford, or building a worker’s village or group homes. It’s really a shame I can’t italicize that group homes further, to show the how mind-bogglingly idiotic I think this is.

Let’s step back a bit, here. In the United States, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., representatives of the government are talking, with presumably straight faces, to the Washington Post, about building group homes for ‘younger, single workers’. Talking about building what amount to worker’s hostels, something they’re even getting away from in eastern Europe and Russia.

The apartments or houses would be built with private money, and the county would guarantee a certain number of rentals at a set price, officials said. The county would pay the rent on any units that weren’t leased.

Because it would be unheard-of for a builder to construct apartments that he then attempted to rent in a free market. This never happens.

Of course, it does happen in some places, but rarely these days in American suburbs. At the same time people are complaining about the lack of affordable housing — the cost of housing actually has increased much faster than the general rate of inflation in recent years — their elected representatives continue to allow builders to build nothing but classic high-cost suburban development.

The elected representatives do this because they don’t want to spend any more money than is absolutely necessary. If you’ve got 100 acres, you can zone it for apartments or townhouses at 5 units per acre, and wind up with 500 families living there, and possibly 1000 kids for the local school.

If you zone the same land for houses on 5-acre lots, not only do you have fewer roads to maintain, but you only have 20 families living there, which means only 40 or 50 kids to educate — or fewer, because they’re more likely to attend private schools than poorer kids. People who can afford those houses tend to burden the police less with knife-fights, too. You collect less in property taxes on the twenty five-acre lots than on the 500 1/5-acre lots, but the county’s expenditures are cut even more.

So the land gets zoned for five-acre lots in order to save money on the schools; and then what schools there are become a problem, since there’s no place for the teachers to live. The county is attempting to cherry-pick, to avoid marginal uses. The trouble is that the people making high-dollar uses of land — $500,000 houses, fancy office parks, giant malls, etc. — require some marginal uses of land to support them. The $500,000-house-dwellers need to be able to buy gas and Slurpees, and they need teachers for their kids; the office-park-workers need to be able to eat lunch and get their oil changed; and the mall needs somewhere for its workers to live. If you make all these supporting activities more or less illegal, the value of your high-value land-use goes down.

I may be making some inaccurate assumptions about my readership, but Prince William county is likely not a place you’d want to live. It is emphatically not a swank area. The traffic there is bad, and there’s nothing to do except go to the local megaplex to see Space Mutants IV, or go to a chain restaurant to get even fatter. It’s a very long way from being the worst place on earth, certainly, but there’s very little to distinguish it from any of dozens of other places nearby, or around the country.

Yet the average price of a single-family house in Prince William county is $258,000, and the average apartment there rents for $862 a month. By way of comparison, the average price of a single-family house in New York city is $203,000, and the average apartment there rents for about $750.

Now, those average New York prices span everything from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to the far reaches of the Bronx and Queens. And the average apartment in Prince William county is larger, newer, and in many respects nicer than the average apartment in New York.

But you’d expect that, because the average apartment in Prince William county costs 15% more than the one in New York. Why? Because, as distorted as the New York real-estate market is, the market in this undistinguished suburb of Washington is even more distorted, largely to save money on schools.

All of this is why I’m firmly of the opinion that the government should not be involved in the education of children. Aside from the perversity of putting the government in charge of teaching the next generation of voters, it distorts housing markets beyond recognition. Perfectly reasonable houses might be worth little because the school that you’ll be paying for if you move in stinks; lousy houses are overvalued because they happen to be within a given school district.

And this distortion is before one of the main goals of urban planning becomes minimizing government expenditures.

Eliminate the county’s obligation to educate children, and the county becomes interested in fostering the construction of the most-desirable housing possible. In some places, this will mean houses on five-acre lots; in others, high-rise apartments. The inhabitants could then send their kids to the school of their choice, paying directly — rather than through property taxes — for the privilege.

The problem of unequal school funding gets a lot of press; schools are funded through property taxes, so the people with the most-expensive houses tend to get the best schools. A lot of people get exercised about this, and it isn’t even the biggest problem that results from property-tax funding of schools.

Posted by tino at 13:59 26.09.03
Thursday 25 September 2003

Universal Pictures to Customers: Fuck You

The other day, I bought the new Animal House DVD, and a box set called “High School Reunion” that includes Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club, all from Universal. I very nearly bought the new release of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, also from Universal, and I am now glad that I didn’t.

The first one we watched was Animal House. After putting the DVD in, we see the standard threat — what do you know, this is one of those Hollywood-movie DVDs that you’re not allowed to copy or perform publicly! Who’da thunk it? — and then the ads begin.

Now, this may surprise people who read my regular customer service rants here, but I am not one of these people who complains about advertisements in movie theaters. I don’t like them — particularly not when seeing the same bad ad for the thirtieth time — but they don’t particularly bother me. And I certainly don’t mind trailers, which are, after all, just ads for movies. When I rent or buy a DVD, I nearly always watch all the trailers on the disc before watching the movie. Since I bought the TiVo, I don’t watch TV ads, and these trailers — in theaters and on DVDs — are one of the few places that I find out about movies I might like to see.

Anyway, the point is, I’m pretty sanguine about things like this. But what Universal has done is something else again.

On all the DVDs they released last week, Universal has put a standard ad reel, right after the copyright threat. It advertises Animal House, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and The Meaning of Life.

This means that, when you’re watching the DVD of Animal House that you’ve just bought, you are subjected to an ad exhorting you to go out and buy Animal House. When you’re watching Sixteen Candles, they try to get you to buy Sixteen Candles. And so on.

Now, if you go see Universal’s The Cat in the Hat in a movie theater, you’re not going to see a trailer for The Cat in the Hat. You have already, in marketing terms, been acquired as a customer for that picture. Universal isn’t going to waste its money trying to convince you to see a movie they know you’ve already decided to see. (Studios don’t pay to have trailers shown, exactly; they’re part of the distribution package. Still, there are only so many trailers they can have shown before a movie, so every one they throw in carries an opportunity cost.)

When you’re watching the DVD you’ve bought, though, the only cost of showing trailers is to you, the customer, so there would seem to be no downside to showing you an ad for something you’ve already bought.

This would be merely stupid, and not infuriating, were it not for Universal’s use of the DVD system’s ability to restrict you from skipping the ads.

That’s right: you can’t skip these things. You can’t fast forward past them, and you can’t hit the ‘menu’ button to get to the main menu. If you do press any buttons, the DVD player flashes the message “Operation not permitted by disc” on the screen.

So I have paid Universal for a DVD which hijacks my DVD player, my projector, my screen, and my boom-boom room in order to force me to watch advertisements for products I have already bought.

I used to go to movies a couple of times a week, when there was anything worth watching. As that experience went downhill — people do seem to talk a lot more in cinemas today than they used to — and got more and more expensive, it became more and more worthwhile to move my cinema experience in-house, as it were. I now watch movies on a screen that’s subjectively larger than ones in movie theaters (it’s smaller, about ten feet diagonally, but I sit closer to it), sitting on a nice leather sofa, and with snacks that are better and cheaper. The floor isn’t sticky, too, which is a plus.

But someone in the Universal Pictures marketing department has decided that I might be enjoying that a bit too much, so they’ve decided to do what they could to make the experience a bit less pleasant. I’ve spent a lot of money to gain a tiny bit of control over my movie-watching experience; this plainly can’t be permitted. Let me make this abundantly clear: it’s not the ads themselves that I object to, not even the incredibly stupidity of them attempting to sell me the very DVD I’m already attempting to watch. It’s their theft of my control, of my own stuff, in my own house.

I’m not going to consciously boycott Universal DVDs over this. I’ll still rent them, I suppose, and I will certainly complete my collection of pre-Home Alone John Hughes films (fortunately, of the remaining films, only Uncle Buck and The Great Outdoors are on Universal), but other than that, when I consider a DVD for purchase, and see that it’s a Universal release, it will have to be a title I really want before I buy it. I will take into consideration the fact that the entire cost of the DVD may well not represented by the price tag, and that I might well be forced to sit through ads before being allowed to consume the product I’ve paid for.

Universal has said to me, “Fuck you, and fuck the dollars you gave us, you chump. We want something more out of you.” I don’t appreciate that treatment, and I will go some distance out of my way in the future not to be again be asked by Universal Pictures to bend over.

Posted by tino at 09:49 25.09.03
Monday 22 September 2003

Density, Housing for the Poor, and Zoning

There’s another story in Sunday’s Washington Post about immigrants living six to a room in the suburbs.

“There were six makeshift kitchens,” said Vince Diem, an inspector in Herndon’s Department of Community Development. Extensive interior alterations had been carried out — all without permits — to subdivide the residence so that other families and single adults could live there. The living room, for example, had been converted into a kitchen and bedroom occupied by one family.

“I would say it was a hazardous situation,” said Diem, who counted 10 people living in the townhouse. The owner, an Egyptian woman who was sharing the home with her teenage son and eight Middle Eastern people unrelated to her, professed ignorance of local ordinances against “excessive occupancy” and unauthorized construction, Diem said.

Another recent investigation found 16 people from Latin America living in a single-family home that also had undergone extensive interior construction work without permits, he said.

Unless you’re living in a police state, the density of a town isn’t really determined by zoning. It’s determined by the price of the housing, the income levels, the transportation options, and the job opportunities. Where you’ve got a lot of jobs that pay little money combined with poor transportation options and relatively expensive housing, you’re going to have low-wage people sharing housing with enough other low-wage people that they can afford to live there. Herndon has a lot of low-wage jobs, basically no transportation options that don’t involve buying a car, and fairly expensive housing.

Planners can prevent density by simply ensuring that the economy of an area won’t ever generate the kind of opportunities that spur people to live six to a room; but we’ll assume that, except for pure tract-house developments, some kind of economic vitality is desirable.

Assuming they don’t kill off the economy, and thus density, entirely, the only thing that planners can really control is whether density is going to be contained in structures designed for it, or whether it’s going to be contained in impromptu boardinghouses. Refuse to allow people to build the kind of housing that’s actually in demand, and you will have problems. And by ‘the kind of housing that’s actually in demand’, I mean, of course, inexpensive housing, housing that people without much money can actually afford without heavy subsidies. Note that this is something quite different from what’s called affordable housing.

Local authorities don’t like to do this, though; they prefer to zone land in such a way that only millionaires with no kids are encouraged to move in, occupying (and paying taxes on) a lot of land while consuming little in the way of services. Poor people, living in small apartments, paying little tax and consuming lots of subsidized services, are precisely, and somewhat justifiably, what a town doesn’t want.

The problem is, zoning poor housing out of existence doesn’t mean that you won’t have poor people consuming your services, as the Post story illustrates. It just means you’ll have poor people consuming your services while living in unsafe conditions in chopped-up middle-class housing.

You cannot outlaw poverty, but only the outward appearance of poverty. And it seems that when you outlaw the outward appearance of poverty, the poverty you find when you scratch the surface is much more squalid.

Posted by tino at 18:38 22.09.03
Sunday 21 September 2003

Phones Out

This is coming to you via cell phone, because the phones — and other, similar services, like ISDN — are out here on Tino Mountain.

The hurricane knocked down a bunch of trees around here, leaving us without power for about 40 hours; not a bad time-to-repair at all for the sticks (parts of Washington, DC still don’t have power).

The phone service worked fine despite all the downed trees, though, so we fired up the generator and did fine. Taking a shower was dicey (the generator is right at its limit running the hot water heater and the well pump at the same time), but other than that, and the incredible din coming from the generator while it’s running, a power outage here is not much unlike a power… innage (?).

Anyway, at about the same time the power was restored last night, the phones went away, and they haven’t yet come back. There were some Sprint trucks around yesterday — Sprint, of all people, are the ILEC here — but there are none in evidence now.

The best part is that the 800 number printed on our bill, right next to the words “Service outages may be reported 24 hours a day, seven days a week”, goes to a recording telling you to call back during business hours Monday through Friday. Brilliant.

Posted by tino at 08:47 21.09.03
Thursday 11 September 2003

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

We need less Amazing Grace and more Battle Hymn of the Republic, is all I have to say.

C-SPAN has the National Prayer Service from September 2001 available online here. Fast-forward to 1:51:00 for the Battle Hymn of the Republic, at a reasonable tempo — it’s a call to arms, not a dirge — and with the fifth verse (“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make them free”) intact.

National Cathedral, 14 September 2001National Cathedral, 14 September 2001
National Cathedral, 14 September 2001National Cathedral, 14 September 2001

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps
l can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish`d rows of steel,
“As ye deal with my contemners, So with you my grace shall deal;”
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Posted by tino at 12:20 11.09.03
Tuesday 09 September 2003

Customer Service Still In The Toilet

I am not the only person who feels like he’s being taken for a sucker by nearly everyone he does business with, according to this Washington Post article.

Dianne Gagnon has a piece of advice for corporate America. “Listen to what the customer is saying, rather than assume the customer is out to cheat them. Hire competent employees, commit to truth in advertising, never pass the buck.”

It’s interesting that nowhere in the article is any actual company named; it’s all about a ‘top-brand laptop computer’ and a ‘local [car] dealership’ and an ‘upscale furniture company’. The worst customer service tends to come from the largest places, the companies that depend on volume, instead of repeat business, for their survival. These companies also tend to be large advertisers, which is probably why the abysmal state of customer service generally goes unreported.

Posted by tino at 19:05 9.09.03
Monday 08 September 2003

Hazards of Transit Subsidies

Last Thursday, the NFL football season kicked off in Washington with a gala concert on the Mall featuring Britney Spears. Or, more properly, it kicked off near Washington, out in the suburbs, with the Redskins playing the Jets. In any event, the football game was preceded by a gala concert on the Mall.

Now, neither the Mall nor the football stadium has enough parking to accommodate all the people who showed up on Thursday. In the case of the Mall, this makes sense; there usually aren’t that many people there. In the case of Fedex Field, the football stadium, it’s a bit sillier. The stadium was built, after all, for events that bring close to 100,000 people together in the same place; it was built in 1995; and it was built miles from the nearest Metro station.

Because there isn’t enough parking at Fedex Field, though, a lot of people take the Metro anyway, and take $5 shuttle buses from the station to the stadium. (Just for comparison, the maximum fare you pay to get from any Metro station to any other Metro station in the Washington area is $3.60 during rush hours, $2.20 all other times.)

You’d think that the gala concert and football game would be good for Metro, the agency that runs Washington’s mass-transit systems. Increased ridership! Thousands upon thousands of people riding the train!

Well, if you think that, you’d be wrong, apparently. Metro is billing the NFL for $64,000 for its trouble on Thursday night.

Anticipating large crowds, Metro ran six-car trains and closed down at 2 a.m., instead of following their usual practice of running four-car trains and closing at midnight. When Metro proposed doing this ahead of time, and asked for $64,000 for the service, the NFL turned them down. Metro did it anyway, and now wants to be paid.

The NFL is telling Metro to get stuffed, and rightly so. I hope that the NFL has the resolve to stick with this, and to not give in to what is nothing more than extortion by Metro.

But that’s not the real problem here. The problem is that Metro quite clearly sees the service that is its entire reason for existence as a burden Keep the trains running to actually handle the demand? Aw, jeez, Edith!

It’s not entirely Metro’s fault, of course: running the trains longer does cost more, and while longer operating hours mean more riders, Metro’s costs are not covered by the fares that passengers pay. The difference is made up by a subsidy, but it’s not a per-passenger subsidy.

So Metro is not particularly anxious to have more demand for its trains. We ordinarily don’t even think about this; more customers mean more revenue, and in a for-profit system, this means more profits. In the world of subsidized transit, though, more customers mean bigger losses.

This might actually explain a lot about the Metro system.

Clearly, this is a broken subsidy. Far from encouraging use of mass transit, it puts the transit agency itself in the position of discouraging wider use. While I’d like to see people pay for their own transportation, the reality is that all forms of transportation are currently rather heavily subsidized. It seems to me that it would be possible to subsidize the Metro in a way that would also lead to the operating agency welcoming more business.

There’s nothing that makes Metrorail particularly expensive to operate. A Metro train has a single employee driving it (and even he’s not really needed; all he actually does in normal operation is make sure that nobody’s caught in the doors before pushing a button that tells the train to drive to the next station); each station has an employee or two in a booth near the entrance(s).

Nobody sets up in the subterranean-railroad business, though, because as a practical matter you just can’t build something like that as a private company. You’d never be allowed to dig the tunnels, to begin with, and even if you got permission, you’d have a very hard time coming up with the billions of dollars of up-front capital investment.

In this case, though, the government has already made that investment, and it’s already subsidizing the operation of the Metro.

If they were to sell off the operating agency lock, stock, and barrel, and lease the use of the tunnels and stations for, say, a 99-year period, there might be hope. The government could still be in charge of supplying capital for the infrastructure, much as it does now for roads. Instead of recouping some of its costs through fuel and vehicle taxes, it would collect lease payments from the mass-transit company.

The company, for its part, would be obliged to maintain the infrastructure and operate trains. It could charge as much or as little, and run as few or as many trains as it liked. It could buy real estate near stations and develop it into housing, shopping, and offices, and make money both on rental property and on train fares.

It would probably be a good idea to initially sign a short lease for the infrastructure, or to have a probationary period during which the whole experiment could be called off in case of poor performance by the operating company. But it would be important not to have too many controls, beyond requiring that they run trains, on what the company could do, and no subsidies other than the effectively discounted access to capital that’s represented by the lease on the tunnels. It’s important that the company be subjected to, and able to respond to, the forces of the market.

I’m under no illusion that any of this is going to happen, of course. Mass transit is seen as a “public service”, not a business. Until that changes, though, out mass-transit systems are going to continue to cost a fortune to operate, and to disappoint us with their apathy.

Posted by tino at 18:52 8.09.03
Friday 05 September 2003

Every Marine A Rifleman

The United States Marine Corps has a saying: every Marine a rifleman. The point is, no matter what your day job in the Marine Corps is, you’re also an infantry soldier, able to shoot at enemies. The Marine Corps, like any large organization, does a lot of things: Marines are, as part of their official duties, lawyers, truck drivers, cooks, electricians, plumbers, musicians, accountants, ceremonial guards, artillerymen, firefighters, system administrators, paper pushers, and nearly everything else under the sun.

Every one of them is also a rifleman, though, because the purpose of the Marine Corps is not to push paper, fight fires, administer systems, play music, drive trucks, etc. but to shoot guns at enemies. The Marine Corps is a particularly effective organization because they do not lose sight of this.

With this — and an experience I had the other day — in mind, I have come up with another customer service rule. Actually, it’s more of a credo than a rule:

Every employee a cashier.

Any retail business is, on a superficial level at least, a very simple one: The retailer purchases goods in large quantities, and resells them in smaller quantities and at high prices to customers. Whether you’re talking about a hot-dog stand or Nordstrom, this is what retailing is.

And the front line — the rifleman — of the retail business is the cashier. The cashier actually performs the exchange of goods for money on behalf of the store. Everything else the company does — advertising, market research, high-priced lighting designers to make the products look better, customer assistance, etc. — is done for no reason other than to cause the customer-cashier transaction to take place more often, and for more money to be exchanged each time.

Every employee in the company, from the CEO down to the janitor, are there to make the customer-cashier transaction happen.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when stores can’t seem to handle that transaction.

Yesterday, I was at a Best Buy store in Reston, Virginia, attempting to buy two wireless network gateways for about $100 each. I knew Best Buy would have them because they advertise heavily and at great expense to let me know that they’re the place to go for electronics.

I grabbed the gateways and headed for the cash registers. Of the ten cash registers in this particular Best Buy, two were in use. A total of twenty people were in line.

When a few more people had shown up, and there were twenty-five people in line, the door greeter — he’s there to stop you stealing things — called on the squawk box for ‘all cashiers to come to the front.’

When he said this, two Best Buy managers who’d been milling around trying to solve some problem the cashiers were having actually started walking away.

A few minutes later, more than thirty people were in line, and no more cashiers had shown up. One of the managers wandered over again and directed a couple of customers to a cash register at the customer service desk, where they could buy things as long as they were paying with credit cards. The manager then wandered away again.

A few minutes later, more than thirty-five people were in line — the lines extended well into the CD racks now — and one of the two cashiers announced that her cash register had broken down entirely, and that everyone would have to move to the other line.

While all this was going on, there were, within my line of sight, about ten Best Buy employees, including the two managers and the guy by the door. Others were leaning against display cases, explaining things to customers, repairing computers, etc. The place was not short-staffed.

It is interesting to note that the solution to this problem — that Best Buy could not manage to fulfill its basic function of taking money from people in exchange for gadgets — was not for the nearby employees to start taking money, but for them to call for some separate class of employees, the cashier-priests, none of whom appeared to actually be in the store.

Now, it’s actually more important for every employee to be a cashier than it is for every Marine to be a rifleman. I mean no disrespect to the Marine Corps, but it is possible to kill people by other means than shooting them with rifles. It’s not really possible, in actual bricks-and-mortar retail commerce, to sell things without having someone personally take cash or some other form of payment from the customer.

When the customer is standing in line with merchandise in one hand and his wallet in the other, pretty much all the retailer’s costs have already been incurred. The customer has been enticed to come into the store; the merchandise has been stocked; the rent on the store and the electric bill has been paid; the employees have all been hired. Now it’s time to put some figures on the other side of the balance sheet.

If you’re a retailer, at this point you have a lot of money invested in making this sale. If you don’t make it, you lose everything you’ve invested, and you can never recover that money. At Best Buy yesterday, one customer left a $2,000 television set sitting on a cart in the middle of the aisle and walked out. Another hurled two wireless gateways to the ground and stalked off. A number of others stuffed their would-be purchases in the CD racks and left.

Not only did Best Buy not get the thousands of dollars in revenue for sales that they had already all buy made, it’s likely that Circuit City or another of Best Buy’s competitors did. And the next time any of those customers think of going to Best Buy, it’s a fair bet that they’ll think twice — and a good portion of them will, like me, tell others what a horrible experience it was shopping there, for the benefit of any friends who may somehow not have noticed this for themselves. All because Best Buy is incapable of staffing cash registers.

So here’s the customer service rule, for easy inclusion in your Tinotopia scrapbook. It’s similar to #3, “Don’t make customers work for the privilege of giving you money”, but more specific:

  • Your highest purpose is to take the customer’s money. The entire reason for the existence of any retail establishment is to take money in exchange for goods; all your other activities are merely in support of the cashier’s function. Your systems must be designed so that any employee in your store can serve as a cashier, if needed. If this means letting shelves go un-restocked for a while, so be it. If it means not assisting other potential customers with their purchases for a while, that’s fine. If it means not answering the phone for the next half-hour, then don’t answer the phone. Better to let those potential sales go unmade than to throw away the sales that are already waiting in line.

Posted by tino at 17:21 5.09.03
Thursday 04 September 2003

The ‘Marketplace’ of Ideas

I suppose I have no problem with Marketplace, the daily business-news program heard on many NPR stations, having a clearly left-wing slant. It’s not that nobody but liberals listen to NPR, but the left-of-center crowd almost certainly makes up the majority of the audience. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of conservative business commentary available on the radio, in print, and on television.

So Marketplace is a left-wing business program. Fine. The problem is that it’s becoming more and more a left-wing program, and less and less a business program.

I wondered whether this was just the impression I got while driving in heavy traffic — things tend to annoy me out of all proportion to their annoyingness then — so I went to Marketplace’s website, and looked at the stories they’ve run recently.

Thursday, 28 August 2003:

  • Irish government steps up to curb binge drinking
    They try to connect this to economics by observing that drinking has risen along with Ireland’s GDP, but this is at best a feeble attempt.
  • Breathalyzers spark debate on how far employers can go with drug policy
    Vaguely connected to business, I suppose.
  • Minority firms worry about being shut out of lucrative contracts
    Ironically enough, they’re being shut out because minority-owned firms tend to be non-union. This is Marketplace’s dream story, I think.
  • Commentary: Blacks shouldn’t pin hopes on a payback
    About reparations. The story has to do with money, but then nearly everything has to do with money.
  • Wednesday, 27 August 2003:

  • Commentary - The air is about to get a lot dirtier
    Commentary from Robert Reich, that is. “Enact a pollution tax, that owners would have to pay, according to how much gunk their plants…spewed into the air.” That’s the workings of the Marketplace for you.
  • FDA dishes out bitter medicine to cash-strapped states
    The FDA is telling states that they can’t import drugs from Canada. This is probably a legitimate business story.
  • UK: Rise in test animals with designer genes alarms activists
    “So far, the British public has raised few objections to the increasing number of animal experiments. ” So in another country, a small minority of people are upset about genetically-engineered test animals, and this is on an American business program why, exactly?
  • The 24-hour economy is hard on families
    “Teenager Antonia Washington gives us her perspective — her mom works the better-paying night shift to support four kids.”
  • Young credit card debt growing like never before
    Legitimately an story touching on the economy, but it’s mainly about how these young people are victims. Doesn’t really go into the underlying issues.
  • Tuesday, 26 August 2003:

  • Commentary - Exploring the “Great Beyond” isn’t a cakewalk
    About NASA and the Columbia. Business news, ladies and gentlemen.
  • Intercepting ships troubling to N. Korea and its neighbors
    “Tomorrow, representatives from six countries will gather in Beijing to discuss North Korea’s suspected nuclear program. ” More business news.
  • NYSE prepared to step up as LaBranche refuses to cooperate
    An actual business story! Who let that sneak in? “Some say the structure of the exchange makes it very hard for investigators there to police members.” Ah, it’s a call for reform. No wonder.
  • White-collar workers could be the next to be outsourced
    Undoubtedly on the business and economics beat. But the description of the story on their website makes it clear what the real thrust of the story is: “Blue-collar workers have been used to this for years, but for a lot of Americans, it’s just now getting personal.”
  • Expats staying in Bali despite downturn
    Phew. I was really looking for news on the economy in Bali and what the expatriates there are doing. Thanks, Marketplace!
  • Monday, 25 August 2003:

  • Brazil’s ‘brokers target sunbathers, workers to demystify stock trading
    Note the use of the term ‘workers’ to mean, roughly, ‘the proletariat’. “They’re trying to show people that investing is definitely not just for the bourgeois. But ‘brokers aren’t just sticking to the beach: they’re going to factories to talk to regular workers about stocks, too.”
  • Commentary - There’s a bigger threat to your savings than stocks
    Very legitimate story about tax-shelter sunsets.
  • Q+A - What are implications of UN lifting Libya’s sanctions?
    Again a legitimate story. I can’t help think that the limited time available could be used for something of more general import than what Libya’s economy is likely to do in the next year, but then everyone has different needs.
  • Running book clubs for fun and profit
    Book clubs. “…This tends to be a job for people passionate for literature, not for those seeking to get rich quick.” Which is why, of course, it’s being discussed on Marketplace.
  • So five stories, maybe, out of eighteen stories that they ran in four days, were what I would consider legitimate business and economic news. The rest weren’t bad or uninteresting, but shouldn’t Marketplace be something other than another half-hour of All Things Considered, but from Los Angeles?

    Posted by tino at 17:52 4.09.03