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Sunday 27 June 2004

The Customer Service Rules

I have brought all the Tinotopia rules for retailers together in one post. Some of them have been revised slightly for clarity.

I started this list in November 2002 after three days in a row of particularly frustrating trips to the mall. By November 2002, everyone was complaining an economic downturn, and telling me that staff cutbacks were the reason why it was so hard to spend money in their stores.

Of course, a few years earlier, at the height of the boom, the same people had told me that I was having such a hard time because they couldn’t manage to hire enough people because there were so many other opportunities for would-be clerks.

As I said in the original Rules for Retailers post: I don’t say these things because I hate retailers, or because I think that I, as a customer, am some sort of god. I say these things because, if you are in business, you are probably in business to make money. Customers give you money in exchange for goods and services. Treating your customers well will make it more likely that they will give you money.

And now for the rules:

  1. Nobody is forcing you to do this. If dealing with the whims of customers is just too much bother, or not profitable, or boring: do something else. You are under no compulsion to remain at your current job or in your current line of business. These rules apply to you because you choose to put yourself in a situation where your profit depends on customers.
  2. Be prepared to deal with customers during the whole of the hours of business posted on your door. If you are a restaurant, you are not allowed to start stacking the chairs on the tables before your official hour of closing. You are not permitted to perform any regular mopping, vacuuming, or other periodic day-end cleaning until the customers are done and out of there. During your regular hours of business, the entire purpose of your enterprise is the direct sale of goods and services to customers. Housekeeping, bookkeeping, restocking, re-arranging, and ready-to-leave-getting should be done after the customers are done and you have their money. If business is so slow that it’s not worth actually being prepared for customers during the last hour you’re open, or worth paying your employees past closing time to take care of the housekeeping, maybe you’re staying open too late, or charging too much, or selling something that nobody wants. Or maybe your would-be customers just don’t feel like dodging the cleaning crews while trying to spend money.
  3. Don’t make customers work for the privilege of giving you money. If you do not have enough staff to handle your normal customer traffic, you do not have enough staff, full stop. If you cannot afford to hire enough people to handle the business you’re getting, you’re not charging enough for whatever it is you’re selling. Some customers are willing to do a lot of work in order to save money — witness the success of Wal-Mart, Costco, Sam’s Wholesale Club, etc. — but if your premises have carpeted floors and non-fluorescent lighting, and if you don’t market yourself as a discount warehouse, you should be doing the work, not the customer.
  4. Let customers evaluate potential purchases. If you’re selling an electronic gadget, the unit on display must be operable. The customer is not considering purchasing that digital camera as an objet d’art. While its physical appearance and mass are one of the things the customer will consider in evaluating it, they are not the main things. This goes triple if you make people jump through hoops to return purchases, or if you charge a ‘restocking fee’.
  5. Do not hound customers with ‘service’. If you are selling extremely complex and specific goods, or something that’s locked away, you may approach the customer immediately upon his entrance to your place of business. If, however, you are in the business of selling sweaters, shoes, trousers, hats, objets d’art ‘gifts’, or some other goods the selection of which depends largely on personal taste, back off. It’s a fine line between being available and helpful, and being obsequious and intrusive; but there definitely is a line, and with just a little attention it is possible to avoid crossing it.
  6. Help customers when customers need it. When customers do need assistance, it should be available, and it should be competent. On a very basic level: if you run a large department store with only one or two centralized cash desks per floor, they should constantly have enough staff to handle the customer traffic. Once a customer has carried his selections to the desk (see above about making customers do your work), he should not have to stand around waiting.
  7. You must know the price of things, and make this information available to your customer. It’s said that everything has its price, but this isn’t always true in the retail sector these days. Unless you intend for every transaction to involve some bargaining to arrive at a price, the prices of all your goods must be clearly marked for the customers. If a customer has to ask your the price of an item, you have failed. If, at the till, you can’t determine the price of an item, you have utterly failed. The only honorable way out of this situation is to ask the customer what he’d like to pay, and accept his offer without question. This may get expensive, but it’s easy to prevent: have enough respect for your customers to let them evaluate a product in light of its price.
  8. Your corporate structure, policies, and organization are of no concern to your customer. Your relationship with the customer consists of providing them with goods and services that they want, and with taking their money in return. The customer does not care that your store is understaffed due to bad management, or that the sweater he wants is not in stock because all the sweaters were moved out for the big hot pants sale, or that you can’t process credit card transactions because your computer system has failed. All the customer cares about is that you are not prepared to run your business, that you don’t have the item he wants, and that you can’t take his money.
  9. Evaluate your business from the point of view of the customer. The customer’s point of view is really the only one that matters, if you’re interested in making money. If you don’t have any way for customers to let you know about their experiences, it’s almost certain that it’s costing you money. Isolated bad experiences are to be expected with even the best-run businesses — but it’s the businesses with no customer-feedback mechanisms that allow systemic problems to linger on and on, costing them customers and money.
  10. Answer the phone. Contrary to what appears to be popular belief, customers are not fooled into thinking that their call is important to you just because your on-hold message says as much. If the call is actually important to you, you’ll answer it. If you can’t afford to hire enough people for your volume of business, you’re probably not charging enough.
  11. Don’t answer the phone. When you are dealing with a customer in person and the phone rings — let it ring. Let a machine tell the person on the phone how important they are. Unless you sell penny candy and run a $5-per-minute 900 number out of the same location, you have no higher priority than to deal with the customer who’s standing in front of you.
  12. Don’t burn bridges. It’s cheaper and easier in the short run to let customers absorb the effects of your mistakes, but it will eventually destroy your business. As the saying goes, “if you don’t have a good time, you have a good story” is true in retail, too. Customers who are pleased with your business generally won’t tell other people about it unless they’re asked. If you make them sorry they ever heard of your company, they’ll tell the story to complete strangers if the opportunity arises.
  13. Don’t cheat your customers. This is related to the one directly above, but different. Unless you are a scam artist, know you’re a scam artist, and intend to be a scam artist, it just doesn’t pay to cheat your customers. You are exchanging something of value to the customer for money. Fooling the customer, through deceptive advertising, coercive contracts, ‘gotcha’ policies, and the like might make money, but it only works once. P.T. Barnum famously invited visitors to his museum to ‘see the egress’, counting on the fact that most people would not be aware that ‘egress’ is a synonym for ‘exit’, and that they’d have to pay the admission fee again if they wanted to see anything else. If you charge someone to ‘see the egress’, make sure you’ve already recouped all your customer-acquisition costs, because there’s little chance you’ll see any more of their money.
  14. The customer isn’t necessarily always right, but he’s always the customer. If you do a Google search for “the customer is not always right”, you’ll find a very large number of results. I’m amazed at these people; if the customers are such a pain in the ass, why aren’t they in some line of business that doesn’t require dealing with customers directly? (See #1 above.) Most of the customer-is-not-always-right pages have all kinds of tips about getting rid of ‘undesirable’ customers, and how to set ‘rules’ for the people who are giving you money, and when to ‘fire’ customers you don’t want. If you do business in a mall and find yourself thinking along these lines even a little bit, you really need to consider whether retail is for you.
  15. Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. Especially in any kind of retail business. Most businesses who have ongoing relationships with their customers will treat some better than others. It’s just smart business, given limited resources, that the customers whose business is very lucrative will get better service and pricing than the customers whose business generates less profit. If you try to apply this to unknown or little-known customers, though, it can blow up in your face. You can’t serve only the 20% of customers who produce 80% of the profits, so stop trying. If you are thinking of classifying a customer as ‘unprofitable’ and not worth serving well, make sure that you know, truly, who that customer is and who it is he influences. The person you’re jerking around on a $20 purchase right now might be the person who decides whether his company is going to make a $20,000 purchase next week: and if you make him feel like a bother now, he’s not going to bother you in the future.
  16. “Business To Business” is bad business. This is related to the rule above. I am Tino, a private individual with a credit card. I am also the CEO of Tinotopia, Inc., a corporate entity with a credit card. Some companies are willing to sell to Tino the corporation and not Tino the individual. This is utterly insane. If you sell, say, million-dollar computers with service contracts and complex financing deals, if your sales are made over expense-account lunches by guys in suits, then fine, you’re a business-to-business seller. If you sell individual products through a website, take money from anyone who offers it. Some of the relationships you establish with $50 sales today will become large accounts tomorrow. See above.
  17. Practice customer parity. This is a broad rule. It used to be said that the customer should be treated as an honored guest. That’d be great, but it’s not likely to happen these days. The very least you should aim for, though, is customer parity, which means treating the customer at least as well as you require him to treat you. It means issuing refunds to customers in the same form in which they paid you. If a customer pays with a credit card, credit the amount back to the card. If he paid with a check, repay him with a check — on the spot. If he paid cash, you must refund cash to him. Obviously, if the customer voluntarily agrees to another form of compensation, be this a check, a gift certificate, or jelly beans, that’s okay, too. But unless you’re willing to let a customer walk out the door with a television based on his promise to have a check sent in a week or two from his central office, it’s inexcusably arrogant and rude to ask him to accept that promise from you.
  18. Do not outsource your customer-support operations, to India or anywhere else. If you have any respect for your customers at all, you’ll handle supporting them in precisely the same way you handle taking their money. If you do business in the physical world, your prime customer-support functions should take place in your physical locations (i.e. stores). If you have a store, and a customer is in it, and you must refer the customer to a phone number to solve their problem, you have failed. A surprising number of companies have arranged their operations so that sales — getting money from the customer — can be carried out anywhere and with ease, while customer support — delivering value to the customer — is a complicated procedure run from a single location with arcane hours. Your customers are not so stupid as to not notice this, and direct their future purchases accordingly. Operating call centers is, I’ll admit, a horribly expensive proposition, and it’s quite understandable that you might want to hire someone who specializes in doing it at as low a cost as possible and getting rid of the headache all together. However, when you outsource your customer contact, you step into the Twilight Zone of business — as in, your business is in the twilight of its life. Outsourcing your customer contact means, obviously, that you don’t talk to your customers and they don’t talk to you. Any customer problem that you did not specifically anticipate and build in to the decision tree that you handed off to the call-center operator will result in an unsatisfied customer. Before you outsource your customer contact, and ask yourself why people should buy their widgets from you instead of Discount Widget Warehouse, or whoever else happens to have the cheapest prices this week. If the answer involves the word “service” or “support” or “relationship” at all, you’re in the customer-service business, and you should probably act like it.
Posted by tino at 19:07 27.06.04

Retail Pricing and Competition

Today we were in Staples, one of several indistinguishable big-box office-supply stores, stocking up on shrink-wrap and telephones. I’m rather hard on phones, in that I tend to reduce them to splinters occasionally following particularly contentious conversations with cable TV people, phone companies, banks, and other incompetents. I figure that replacing the phones every so often is cheaper than the costs of the therapy and blood-pressure medicine I’d need otherwise.

Anyway, so while we’re there, we notice that they stock the Jabra BT200. The Jabra BT200 is a Bluetooth phone headset, and it looks like this:

Jabra BT200

You hook the thing over your ear and you talk. That’s it. I have a very similar one for my cell phone, and I love it. The only difference between the one I already have and the BT200 is that the BT200 can plug into any phone at all: it gives Bluetooth capabilities to any phone with a headset jack.

This being Staples, the product wasn’t actually out on the sales floor; you had to take a little card up to the till.

This being Staples, the price for the product also wasn’t out on the sales floor. We took the little card up to the counter along with our other items, and handed it over. A complicated process ensued, during which two of the four visible employees of the store rummaged around somewhere and turned up with the box, which was then scanned through the till so we could find out how much the thing cost.

It was $179.99, the same price that I now find on their website.

I immediately told ‘em that I wasn’t interested, because this price was absurd.

I expect to pay somewhat more for something in a physical store than I do online, but this was just silly; they were asking almost twice what the thing is available for online.

When I told them that I didn’t want it at that price, they started arguing with me, and protesting to me about their ‘110% price guarantee’, which says:

If you find a lower price, anywhere else on a new identical item, just show us the lower price when you buy the item at Staples or within 14 days of your Staples purchase — and we’ll give you 110% of the difference.

However, their guarantee goes on to say:

We don’t match our store prices to those on other companies’ web sites.

Which effectively means that they only match advertised prices, since I can’t point out a price on someone else’s website and ask them to match that. They clearly don’t want to match prices for products not offered in retail stores, but Office Depot, CompUSA (who incidentally also want $180 for the thing), Best Buy, and others sell things on their website and in their stores for the same prices.

And in any case, why shouldn’t they match prices offered exclusively online? Because online prices are lower, that’s why. They don’t see themselves as competing with Joe-Bob’s Online Warehouse of Bluetooth Headsets, and so they don’t try. But the fact is that I can buy something just as easily from Joe-Bob as I can from Staples. Easier, really, in that I don’t have to drive anywhere and deal with speedbump-filled parking lots and under-staffed tills.

And so I think it’s time for another rule:

You are in competition with everyone selling the same thing.

You cannot, as a merchant, simply decide that you are not going to attempt to compete with someone because their costs are lower. It will not work, and you will go out of business.

Physical retailers have certain advantages that they can use to offset higher prices: for one, the customer pays nothing for shipping. This can be a substantial advantage if you compare the retailer’s price to the online price plus overnight shipping — particularly when you consider that there’s always the possibility that something might go wrong with the overnight shipping and that the customer might wind up paying a premium to get the thing a couple of days later. On the other hand, though, if you order something from an online seller in another state, you pay no sales tax; on a large purchase, this can be significant.

A general rule might be that you should try to sell something in a physical store for no more than 10% more than the prevailing online price. The retailer can make up at least some of the difference by selling at a premium things that people are particularly likely to need immediately: nobody is going to wait for UPS to show up in order to save a few bucks when they discover that they’ve run out of toilet paper.

Posted by tino at 16:34 27.06.04
Wednesday 16 June 2004

Why I Hate D.C.

The author of Why I Hate D.C. is a liberal pantywaist: He laments the fact that Air America, of all things, isn’t carried on the radio in Washington. He complains about SUVs and the ‘wealth gap’. He lives next to a freeway in Arlington in a building with insufficient parking, but he bitches about Reston because it’s ‘soulless’.

And yet I find myself in agreement with him on most of the things he says about Washington, D.C. because D.C. really is a hellhole, a city (and by extension a metro area) that would have died a very long time ago if its main industry couldn’t easily move away.

He’s well worth reading. If you just read the newspapers, even the columnists, after a while in Washington you’ll start to wonder whether you haven’t lost your mind: they report on the area with a straight face, as if all this wasn’t absurd. Mr. W.I.H.D.C. reassures you that it’s them, not you.

Posted by tino at 13:55 16.06.04
Sunday 13 June 2004

Dr. Gridlock and the Police State

I find the Washington Post’s Dr. Gridlock asinine at best pretty much all of the time. The man is a tool; the column purports to be a resource for correcting some of the Washingtonia’s worst traffic annoyances, but the good Doctor’s advice is nearly always to Grin and Bear it. Usually he’ll talk to someone who has authority over a given problem, and he’ll report, without skepticism, that the authority said that they were totally unaware, say, that the department of public works were regularly flattening legally-parked cars along 16th street with a steam roller, and that people should call a certain phone number when they see the steamroller crew in action again. Sometimes the words he carries back from the mountaintop of bureaucracy make a little bit of sense; usually they involve transparent ass-covering.

One of today’s letters is a good example. A reader wrote in that for the last five years, she’d seen ‘tea-colored droplets’ falling from an overpass onto the Capital Beltway. She asked whether this might be sewage.

This was Dr. Gridlock’s response, in its entirety:

It’s rusty water, leaking from conduit lines beneath a manhole cover on Riggs Road. Maryland highway officials are working on it.

‘Highway officials are working on it’? Have they been working on it for five years? Or is the state totally unable to determine that water is leaking onto the road — slowly destroying the overpass and making conditions less safe underneath — for five years, and they’ve now begun to work on it after the immense weight of Dr. Gridlock was brought to bear?

Dr. Gridlock does not address this; he never does.

In the other letter in his column today, though, he really outdoes himself. A reader writes:

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I recently received a ticket from a District of Columbia police officer who failed to signal and cut me off as I drove eastbound on Constitution Avenue.

I tapped my horn once and hit my brakes, fortunate that I was not being tailgated. When I honked, the police car moved to the left lane, again without signaling, then moved behind me, again without signaling. He then turned on his flashing lights, and I pulled over.

After asking for my license and registration, he indignantly asked why I had honked my horn. I said that he had cut me off and hadn’t signaled. He curtly asked what the emergency was, since it is against the law in the District to use one’s horn in a non-emergency.

I said that not signaling and not providing ample room to merge in front of me could have caused an accident, and I felt at risk.

He continued, in a very confrontational manner, that it was against the law in Washington to use a horn in a non-emergency. I said I believed it was against the law to change lanes without signaling.

He said that he did signal. Both my passenger and I responded that he had not.

Then the officer said maybe the turn signal was broken. I said that I believed it was also illegal to drive with broken signals.

He went to his car and returned a few minutes later to give me my license, registration and a traffic ticket on which he wrote “Unnecessary Noise (non-emergency) Horn.”

I then said to the officer that, since he had suggested that maybe his turn signal was broken, I would like to see for myself, because I was going to challenge the ticket. He said he would not turn it on.

I feel unjustly charged and treated brusquely by the officer. In addition to finding sections on safe passing and the use of turn signals in the D.C. Municipal Code, I found a section that permits a driver to use a horn “when reasonably necessary to ensure safe operation.” However, another section states that “no vehicle shall be operated or used in such a manner as to cause unnecessary or disturbing noise.”

Does being cut off by another driver, who also failed to signal, justify the use of one’s horn?

I will be challenging this in court but will be forced to take time off work to defend myself against a charge that I believe shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Am I missing something?

Jim Goldwater
Fairfax County

Dr. Gridlock responds:

Let’s look to the animal kingdom for guidance. I have a miniature pinscher (mini-pin) the size of a loaf of bread. She will charge huge dogs that get near her territory. Then, after realizing she is overmatched, she will roll over on her back in a submissive position. Nobody gets hurt.

In this case, the police officer is the big dog. He’s got a badge, a gun and a ticket book. By tooting at him, questioning his driving and asking to see his turn signals, you were challenging him.

If you had rolled over and agreed with him (even if you didn’t really agree), you might have avoided a ticket and a court date. Are you really going to win an argument with an officer who has already cut you off, then pulled you over and whipped out a ticket book because you had tooted at him?

I don’t get stopped often, but this is what I do: Address the officer with yes sir, no sir. When he says what you did wrong, agree completely and say you knew better than that. If you treat the officer respectfully and roll over, there is no need for him to ticket you to win an argument. Most times, I’ve gotten off with a warning.

Let me know what happens to you in court, Mr. Goldwater. Good luck, sir.

So. Dr. Gridlock recommends that, when stopped by a police officer, you agree to whatever he says. Note that if you really haven’t done anything wrong, your statement of agreement at the scene will generally result in your conviction in court, no matter what other evidence you drag in.

In this particular case, Dr. G. might have a point; arguing with a cop over whether he’s driving badly is pointless. He’s a cop, which means that he almost certainly was driving with complete disregard for the traffic laws; this is S.O.P. for police in most places. There’s no way that the driver is going to get anything out of winning this argument.

But in the larger view, this is a spectacularly bad idea.

I don’t like police. There’s nothing wrong with the people who become police officers, but the institution of the police in the United States seems to have got out of control.

I used to have no opinion one way or the other about cops, but one incident really changed my mind.

It was in 1992 or 1993, and I was driving home from a nighttime literature class, of all things. I lived about two miles from campus, all but the last couple hundred feet on main roads.

mapimageAs it happens, much of it also involves going down a big hill, and so when I reached the major intersection in the rough center of the map — Clayton and Big Bend, for those of you familiar with the territory — I was going a bit faster than the speed limit. The speed limit there was 35 mph, and I was going about 45. At night, through a well-lit, signalled intersection of two four-lane roads with turn lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks, no street parking and no traffic.

I was stopped by a sergeant with the Richmond Heights, Missouri, police department. When he turned on the lights, I had no idea what I’d done wrong. I hadn’t been going particularly fast, I just hadn’t had my foot on the brake. By this time, I’d already turned off Big Bend onto a side street, and was going about 20 mph, so I was able to immediately pull over.

I rolled down my window, turned off the engine, and sat to wait. A few seconds later, the cop is screaming at me to get out of the car. I look back and see him crouched behind the open door of the police car, pointing his pistol at me. I got out of the car and followed his bellowed directions to put my hands on top of the car, etc.

I concluded that a car like mine must have recently been stolen somewhere in the vicinity. I used to have a scanner, and I listened to the police radio in the background when I had nothing better to do; I knew that when the police stopped a car they suspected was stolen, they tended to be pretty defensive from the get-go. I figured this would all be happily resolved in short order, and I’d have a good story to tell. I had the car’s registration with me, and I lived about a block away from where I was standing.

The cop approached me and stuck his pistol into the small of my back. He jerked it around a few times and told me that he felt that he should kill me, then and there. He actually said this: “I ought to take you out right now.” This was an older guy, as I said a sergeant, so it’s unlikely that he was just acting out some macho power fantasy from some movie he’d recently seen. He’d been a cop too long for that. Nevertheless, he was of the distinct opinion that I deserved to die, then and there. The town of Richmond Heights — a wealthy suburb of St. Louis — had supplied this man with a weapon for that purpose.

He eventually got some sort of control of himself, holstered his weapon, and patted me down, in the process grabbing my testicles with some force and ramming them upward into my body. He then tossed the car, and when he’d finished with that he took me back to the police car and told me to get in the front. This is when I knew something was wrong; generally when a cop feels that someone should be subject to extra-judicial execution, and when he feels strongly enough about this to say as much out loud, usually the person in question is at least going to get arrested; people who are under arrest are seldom invited to sit in the front seat of the police car without handcuffs on.

When I got in the car, the cop asked me whether I knew why he’d stopped me, and I said I didn’t. By this time, I was entirely baffled. I hadn’t done anything obvious, and, if you’re white and middle-class in the United States at least, when the police are pressing gun barrels into your back, it’s not for something you’ve subtly got a bit wrong.

Anyway, to keep a long story from becoming entirely too long, the cop told me that he’d stopped me for speeding, and that he knew where I lived, and that he’d noticed my car.

That’s right: the son of a bitch lived down the street from me and he was treating me like this. This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity; he knew all along that he was threatening to kill one of his neighbors. I lived in the 1300 block of Highland Terrace, and he lived in the 1200 block.

He asked me where my parents lived, and what they did for a living. At this point, I was in full Doctor-Gridlock compliance mode — the man was clearly deranged and had already made one explicit and credible threat to kill me — so rather than telling him to shove his questions up his ass, I told him. This happy and unconstitutional conversation went on for a little while longer before he let me go without so much as writing me a speeding ticket. Of course he wouldn’t write me a ticket; then all this might come up in court.

I looked into complaining about the guy, but I never did. I had to live down the street from him, after all, and I lived in the middle of a town policed by his comrades. He’d simply have denied the entire episode, and I have little doubt that he would have seen to it that I was punished for having a problem with the police threatening to kill me.

This guy was obviously an aberration, but my previous and subsequent experiences with the police would seem to indicate that it’s the extent of his hatred for humanity, and not the character of it, that separated him from the mass of cops.

I am a pretty law-abiding guy; I don’t steal things, I don’t beat people up, I don’t sell or use drugs, and I don’t get drunk. Nevertheless I have regularly been threatened by police.

In Washington D.C., a cop threatened to arrest me once because I didn’t have a front license plate on my car. The car in question was on private property, and the cop was there refusing to take a report of the car having been broken into. It wasn’t a big enough deal for him to worry about; but that missing license plate — well, I suppose I’m lucky he didn’t decide to kill me right there.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, a cop once threatened to arrest me for drinking a beer on private property because I was outdoors and could be seen from the road if someone stopped their car, got out, and peered through the bushes, which were about a hundred feet away. I was over 21 and legally occupying the property, but he made me pour our my beer and promised to come back later to make sure that I wasn’t committing any other heinous crimes, like looking at people funny.

In St. Louis, Missouri, I was once almost hit by a car full of (presumably) drunk teenagers who were driving the wrong way down one-way streets, running red lights, etc. I got their license number; I called the cops. When they showed up, they threatened to arrest me. I never did figure out what they might have been thinking of charging me with.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, I was once the victim of a hit-and-run accident. I called the police, and when they finally showed up, I described what had happened. I was trying to turn left (from Josephine St. onto Prytania St.), and someone had illegally parked a truck on the corner. I edged out bit by bit to see whether anything was coming, and saw a black Chevy Corsica coming my way. I stopped; the Corsica slowed down, then sped up again and hit me. He backed up and took off. I didn’t get the license plate, but I needed a police report number anyway in case I needed to make an insurance claim.

By now you know what happened. The cop threatened to arrest me for not observing the stop sign. I had stopped, of course; my car was hit on the side, and it was plain from the damage on the front corner that I hadn’t been moving when I was hit. I don’t contest that I was in the intersection, trying to peer around the illegally-parked truck, when I was hit. But the fact that I’d stayed behind and called the police, and the other guy had left the scene, apparently counted for nothing in the cop’s eyes. And, the last time I checked, running a stop sign isn’t exactly an arrestable offense. Nevertheless, that’s what I got for being the victim of a hit-and-run: threatened with arrest.

I later got threatened with arrest because I didn’t repair the fog light that was broken in the collision. You don’t have to have fog lights on your car, and I never turned mine on, but the law says that if you do have fog lights they have to be in good condition. And apparently the fact that my fog light lens was cracked was enough of a threat to the community that I could be arrested if I didn’t fix it.

And so on. I’m pretty sure that for some reason I draw more police hostility than the average middle-class white guy, but nearly everyone I know has some story about the police giving them a hard time.

And here we have Dr. Gridlock recommending that people just shut up, avert their eyes, and stay out of the way of these bullies with badges. His advice might be good in microcosm: but if everyone follows it, if everyone submits to misapplied authority, we’ll wind up in a police state.

We already see disturbing evidence of this trend in moves toward more use of ‘tactical’ police uniforms — which basically amount to all-black BDUs. The differences between American police and an occupying army are diminishing.

To be fair, I can see how a cop might develop some hostility toward the general population; most of the people he comes into contact with in his everyday work are going to be criminals. They’re so confrontational in part because most of their encounters with the public either start out as or turn into confrontations. In places where the police spend more time interacting with people as people and not as perps, they are noticeably different. The police where I live now are actually friendly and helpful; something that’s rare in a city or in the suburbs.

But none of this means that the police should be given a pass on their hostility. They’re part of society, and they need to be socialized. Let them get away with it and things will only get worse.

Posted by tino at 20:46 13.06.04
Thursday 03 June 2004

Bill Cosby Speaks, Update

The National Review has something about the media coverage of Bill Cosby’s recent comments vis-a-vis low-income black society. There are lots of links to relevant coverage.

I have an MP3 of part of Cosby’s speech available here (3:46, 3.4 mb). I am not sure how heavily-edited this is, though.

Posted by tino at 15:29 3.06.04
Wednesday 02 June 2004

Toy Stores, Business, and Shoddy Journalism

This story in the Washington Post is purportedly about the trouble small, independent toystores are having competing with Wal-Mart, but it seems to say a lot more about declining standards at the Post than anything else.

The independent toy sellers profiled in the story all seem to be incredibly incompetent when it comes to business, but this never really pointed out as possibly contributing to their woes.

In 1997, Tree Top Toys Inc., an independent retailer with stores in the District and McLean, began carrying a nifty children’s toy called Chunky Farm. At $32, the collection of large plastic farm items, including a barn, a rig and a cow, sold briskly and earned Tree Top a nice profit because each cost Tree Top only $16. About 18 months ago, however, the store dropped Chunky Farm from its lineup, not because it sold poorly but because it had suddenly begun flying off the shelves at a nearby Wal-Mart. Tree Top’s toy buyer spotted it there for about $14. “I can’t compete with that,” said the buyer, Susan Hancuff-Sellers.

So the Little Guy here, the downtrodden, is the store that was selling a toy at a 100% retail markup for at least six years. Tsk, tsk. And then Wal-Mart just bullies its way in and cuts into the business of theose proud community servants.

[In the independent toy store] There is no Barbie, Hokey Pokey Elmo or Monopoly, three of the industry’s best-selling toys. There are no realistic-looking guns, no blood-spattering video games or weapon-wielding military action figures. “We want toys that spark the imagination,” Waterstreet said.

They — the people running the small toy stores — want toys that spark the imagination. The public, as indicated by what they buy in the free market, appear to want Barbie, Elmo, and Monopoly. The independent toy stores don’t sell these in-demand items; Wal-Mart does. Certainly that can’t be part of the problem?

When Tree Top employees believe the stores must keep a more expensive product on the shelves, they often cut back on quantity, leaving just enough inventory to satisfy demand.

Because their normal practice would be to stock way more of the item than is needed. But this isn’t why these people are struggling — it’s clearly that evil Wal-Mart!

Because of its size, Wal-Mart has the flexibility to break even or even lose money on toys, making up the revenue with sales in other departments. The tactic builds customer loyalty and helps steals market share from competitors, said Jim Silver, publisher of ToyBook, a trade publication.

This is actually the only bit of sense in the article; almost all of the year’s toy sales come between Thanksgiving and Christmas anyway, so selling just toys — even if you’re just trying to make money from this, and not on some Quixotic social-engineering experiment — is in the end a losing proposition as you have to pay rent, salaries, etc. all year.

While it slashes costs on some toys, Wal-Mart earns a substantial profit on others, according to a toy executive who has sold products to the chain for 10 years. To save money, Wal-Mart contracts with manufacturers to make several private label toys, which are sold under names such as Wal-Mart’s Kid Connection. Profit margins on these products, many of which are manufactured outside the United States, are often twice those of brand-name toys, said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he continues to do business with the retailer.

Gasp! Greater profit margins! Doesn’t Wal-Mart know it’s about sparking the imagination? Apparently not, which is why you don’t see any stories in the Washington Post about how tough things are for Wal-Mart.

That’s an interesting non-sequitur, the mention that Wal-Mart’s house-brand toys are manufactured outside the United States. Nearly all toys are manufactured outside the United States, something that isn’t touched upon anywhere else in the article.

For example, a Kid Connection light and sound robot with matching action figures and helicopter cost $3.11 to manufacture in China, said the toy executive, who has visited the factory in Shenzhen where it was made. Last week, it cost $9.88 at an Oklahoma City Wal-Mart Supercenter, giving the chain a profit of $6.77 per toy.

And they get that ‘profit’ of $6.77 because, of course, Wal-Mart has the ability to teleport goods around without cost, their buildings and land are given to them by anonymous benefactors, their employees work for nothing, and electricity is free.

It is worth noting that Wal-Mart’s retail profit on this toy is almost certainly less than 100%; compare this with the first paragraph I quoted, about the Chunky Farm at Tree Top Toys.

But the real idiocy of the ‘independent’ toy industry is yet to come:

But manufacturers who take their toys from specialty stores into Wal-Mart face some risks. In 1994, Hands on Toys Inc., a small toymaker in Wilmington, Mass., launched Toobers & Zots, a foam construction kit, in the specialty store market. It was an overnight success, earning the company $4 million in its first year, the company’s president, Andy Farrar, said. Hands on Toys declined an offer from Sam’s Club, a unit of Wal-Mart, to stock its products. Soon after, Farrar said, Sam’s Club introduced a line of toys strikingly similar to Toobers & Zots, which began eating into his sales. To regain ground, Farrar licensed the toy to Hasbro, one of the nation’s biggest toymakers, which in turn sold it to Wal-Mart and Target Inc. In response, hundreds of independent toy stores across the country canceled their orders. “People felt that we had betrayed them,” Farrar said. “They were screaming at me at toy conferences.” To this day, he said, some independent toy stores will not carry his products.

Independent toy stores will not stock his products because he sold another product to Wal-Mart, who, had he not sold his idea, would have simply imitated him out of that business anyway. Wal-Mart is famous for cracking the whip on their suppliers, but I don’t recall ever reading anything about them wanting you to not sell to anyone else. Imagine the uproar there would be if Wal-Mart told one of their suppliers that they had to sell exclusively to Wal-Mart or do without Wal-Mart’s business entirely. It would be front-page news. In this story in the Washington Post business section, it’s not even pointed out that the same behavior is still illegal — not to mention mind-bogglingly stupid — when the ‘little guy’ does it.

Independent stores are finding other ways to compete. Earlier this year, Jeff Franklin, the owner of Be Beep A Toy in Annapolis, hired a therapist to teach his staff of 10 about the developmental benefits of play, hoping to give them an edge over their big-box counterparts. “You cannot find that kind of training at Wal-Mart,” he said.

You certainly can’t find that kind of training at Wal-Mart. And, as I pointed out above, you also can’t find stories about Wal-Mart’s financial woes in the Washington Post. Maybe there’s a connection.

The toy store people are clearly off their collective rocker. Running a toy store might be interesting work, and, I imagine, it would be great for people who like children and who are themselves still kids at heart. Like children, though, these people — at least the ones quoted in this article — don’t seem to have the first clue about how the world of business works. They are poor businesspeople, to put it very lightly.

Does the Washington Post business section point this out at any point? No. It instead talks about how Wal-Mart has their own-brand toys made in China, and how they sell them at a profit. Business, ladies and gentlemen! Step right up and see the business writing!

Posted by tino at 14:20 2.06.04