Amer­ica is fail­ing Re­tail 101

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Gina Bar­reca is a board of trustees dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut and the au­thor of 10 books. She can be reached at www.gin­abar­

It was a bad week for re­tail in the


States. I haven't looked up sta­tis­tics, but I am The Generic Con­sumer, and I can tell you that Amer­ica is fail­ing Re­tail 101 and is on the verge of flunk­ing Cus­tomer Ser­vice un­less it can get the notes from some­body who's been pay­ing at­ten­tion. My aware­ness of the peril was trig­gered by the process of try­ing to buy a new phone. I had suf­fi­cient funds and a fo­cused need for a spe­cific prod­uct. Straight­for­ward, right?

I sin­cerely be­lieve it would have been eas­ier to con­vert to any ma­jor re­li­gion, se­cure a new job and find a le­gal park­ing space in a cos­mopoli­tan city — si­mul­ta­ne­ously — than it was to ac­quire a new phone from Ap­ple.

As a long­time and de­voted Ap­ple fan, the kind who ar­gues with non-fruit users, I was par­tic­u­larly frus­trated; I wanted it all to go smoothly. I wanted to be able to brag. I wanted that lovely glow of sel­f­righ­teous­ness that makes Mac users in­tol­er­a­ble to oth­ers. The prob­lem prob­a­bly started when I re­fused to call the process of pur­chas­ing the de­vice an "up­grade." When I buy a new roll of toi­let pa­per, I do not re­fer to it as "up­grad­ing" my toi­let pa­per even if, for some un­canny rea­son, the new roll is slightly bet­ter than the pre­vi­ous one.

In the same re­spect, I do not "up­grade" my soap, my kitty lit­ter, my seltzer or my tooth­paste. I buy new stuff when the old stuff is de­pleted. It's not that I want any­thing shiny and new for the sake of it, but I do re­quire sta­bil­ity and rec­og­niz­able in­gre­di­ents. In that re­spect, it's pretty much like dat­ing, at least as I re­mem­ber it.

But now it's as if buy­ing a new phone is like win­ning some kind of con­test. I felt as if I were in a bid­ding war for the color I wanted, not that I ac­tu­ally care, be­cause I'll get a case to pre­vent the thing from shat­ter­ing the first time it falls out of my bra strap, which is where I tuck it to have long con­ver­sa­tions on speaker phone as I walk around the house do­ing chores.

It didn't take mere hours to get what I wanted. It took days — not to men­tion lengthy on-line chats, then ac­tual hu­man-be­ing phone calls (made from my land­line) and fi­nally petty threats about switch­ing to the car­rier who uses tin cans and string.

And all I re­ally wanted was for a re­tailer to take my money and, in ex­change, give me the item I pur­chased. Re­tail­ers, how­ever, no longer seem pre­pared to make these kinds of tawdry deals. It's not just Ap­ple.

On an­other day, I tried to buy four tow­els, four wash­cloths and a bath mat from a ma­jor depart­ment store. It was tough enough to lo­cate a clearly over­worked sales as­so­ciate — she had to go to the back to see whether they had, in stock, an ac­tual bath mat in the same color as the tow­els — but then this poor soul started ask­ing me to fill out forms for a store credit card that would give me 4 per­cent sav­ings over a life­time of pur­chases, mean­ing I could get $11.45 if I paid on time un­til I dropped dead but would be charged $7,873,974 in fees ev­ery month if I was late be­cause their in­ter­est rate is higher than my weight and then also they could put a lien on my house.

It was not a happy shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.

On an­other day, I called one of those na­tion­ally ad­ver­tised de­liv­ery ser­vices to have food from a lit­tle lo­cal place brought to my of­fice so that some ter­rific stu­dents could have a good lunch. I'd have been de­lighted by the irony of the de­liv­ery ser­vice not be­ing able to de­liver, but the mood was ru­ined. I had to pick up the food my­self, which meant los­ing my cam­pus park­ing space, and the stu­dents couldn't wait around. They went off to class lunch­less, look­ing like the cast of "Oliver!"

Board mem­bers, of­fi­cers, ex­ec­u­tives, di­rec­tors, man­agers, client ser­vice ex­perts and ge­niuses: We, the con­sumers, want you to suc­ceed. We dearly want to be­lieve you know what you're do­ing — and that you care about our re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion. It doesn't take much to make us feel both looked af­ter and loyal. But it doesn't take much to make us feel like fools, ei­ther, and we're less afraid to talk about it. Caveat ven­di­tor: let the seller be­ware. The guy with the tin cans is now of­fer­ing a 10 per­cent dis­count.

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