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Monday 26 April 2004

Means and Ends in Retail

This morning to 7-Eleven. I don’t like even going into 7-Eleven, because when I come out, I find that I smell like the place. The smell of burnt coffee and elderly hot dogs sticks in my hair. An hour from now, if I run my hand through my hair, a little puff of 7-Eleven will escape and I’ll get indigestion all over again.

Anyway, so I’m in there, merchandise and a $20 bill in hand, waiting at the counter to pay. There are three people working in the store, two behind the counter and another screwing around with the magazine-delivery guy. One of the people behind the counter is wearing a necktie and a 7-Eleven cardigan, so I assume he occupies some position of authority. There’s one woman in line in front of me.

The employees ignore this woman for a while — thirty seconds or so — opting instead to chat with one another. Thirty seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but it’s an eternity while you’re standing there waiting to hand over money. Eventually they reach a break-point in their conversation and deign to deal with the customer. Things go smoothly, and I advance to the head of the line.

It’s time, then, for a drop into the safe. The cashier — the one not wearing the necktie and the cardigan — takes a $20 out of the cash register, laboriously stuffs it into a little brown envelope, and walks over to the safe. Done; the $20 is safe from miscreants now.

The cashier comes back over to the cash register, and I think I’m finally going to get out of there. It’s not just my time that I’m concerned about; 7-Eleven smells awful.

But it’s not to be. There’s something very complicated going on, and it involves the half-empty bottle of Mountain Dew that the cardigan guy is holding. The inventory is out of whack or something, and fixing the problem involves ‘selling’ that bottle of Mountain Dew several times.

“We’ll be with you in a moment,” cardigan-man says to me, without looking up. He and the cashier start screwing around with the bottle, a bottle cap, and the UPC scanner. Maybe one of them had won a free Mountain Dew or something.

I stuck around for a while, but as it became clear that this was going to take a while, I put my merchandise on the counter, turned, and left. It will be a while before I return to that particular 7-Eleven.


It took me longer to go to another store and get my stuff than it would have had I just stayed at 7-Eleven, but I would have hated myself for giving them money.

7-Eleven — particularly the one I was in this morning, it’s far worse than the other two in Front Royal — has forgotten its purpose. 7-Eleven’s purpose is to part me from my money: that’s all. In order to do this efficiently, 7-Eleven has instituted a number of procedures and policies, involving things like stocking magazines, dropping cash, keeping inventory, and so on.

However, in chain establishments where nobody present has much of an immediate stake in the success of the business, the focus is invariably on the business’ internal procedures. The employees are rewarded and punished based on how well they hew to the company’s policies, so, as far as the employees are concerned, that’s what the job is: the means become far more important than the ends. Customers truly are an unwelcome interruption in a place like that.

The trick, I suppose, is to get employees to both follow the company’s procedures and policies — they’re there for a reason, after all — and to recognize that the entire purpose of the procedures and policies is to facilitate getting the customers’ money. I am not sure this is entirely possible.

Posted by tino at 12:57 26.04.04
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The other problem is that the 7-11 folks have forgoten why people go into a convinence store….they want something quick and are willing to pay a little more for it.

Personally I’m becoming a bigger fan of automated check outs where there is less waiting on apathetic employees to take my money.

Btw doesn’t this little incident violate one or more of your rules of retail?

Posted by: Paul M Johnson at April 26, 2004 02:59 PM

Strangely enough, this doesn’t seem to violate any of the rules for retailers directly. There are a number that are somewhat applicable, but there isn’t one that is directly applicable.

Time for a new customer-service rule. I’d say it should be something like this:

The point is to sell things. Selling things, i.e. taking money from customers in exchange for goods or services, takes precedence over everything else you do. Cleaning, taking inventory, doing your accounts, and so forth are all just things you do so that you can take money from the customer. If you shirk selling so you can perform tasks that you do in support of selling, you have failed.

Posted by: Tino at April 26, 2004 04:00 PM

I’m sure this violates the Rules, but hey, if we’re going there, it seems virtually every transaction I’ve completed this year violates the rules. There are two places in town that I have shopped more than once that have never broken the rules: Weasel Creek Outfitters and Better Thymes (the health food store).

Both are staffed by the owners most of the time, so that probably has something to do with it. The non-chain restaurants are still frequent violators, however. The fast food places are all better than fast food places in the wealthier parts of the state, but they are still fast food places and leave something to be desired, service wise.

I still say we need a recession to shake out these idiots who have forgotten that customers can choose to go somewhere else. And no, that teensy little recession we had didn’t count since it didn’t seem to stop people from spending money like they were printing it in their basement.

Posted by: Nicole at April 26, 2004 04:03 PM