Thursday, December 27, 2012

An Arresting Experience

I almost got arrested inside a retail store, hardly proper behavior for an editor and publisher of a retail industry magazine. This was nearly 28 winters ago when I ventured out one snowy February to purchase a Toro snow shovel from a home center chain now defunct but whose name I will not abuse again.

I say “again” because I exacted revenge for a less than optimal shopping experience. I recounted the deficiencies of the retailer and its store manager, by their respective names, in an editorial column in my magazine the following month. Shortly, I will relate details of the incident, but I bring this matter to your attention today because of an Op-Ed piece in The NY Times the day before Christmas and a Letter to the Editor in response that appeared this morning. 

Like many of you who read Delia Ephron’s commentary, I identified with her hellish online shopping experience ( Yours and mine might not have come at the hands of overburdened and doubtless underappreciated J. Crew order fulfillment workers, but we’ve probably all been disappointed when the online purchase we made failed to deliver the desired result, whether it be because of late arrival, improper packaging, wrong product, a missing or incorrect note, or some other blunder. Given the volume of non-store retailing these days—nearly $100 billion—mistakes are bound to happen. It’s human nature to want to get even, but when you have a bully pulpit, as Ephron had via The Times, and I had in Chain Store Age, you possess retaliatory power that may be disproportionate to the offense incurred.

That was a central point of the response from Millard Drexler, chairman and CEO of J. Crew. His first sentence said it all—”I was more than surprised that a customer complaint was elevated to an indictment of online retailing on your Op-Ed page” ( 

I am not against citing retailers, by name, if their strategic practices warrant criticism. But public exposure must be commensurate with the crime. Specificity is desired in journalism, yet singling out one retailer for misdeeds common to the industry is a little too heavy-handed, especially when they are not germane to the overall viability of that retailer. 

Now, on to details of my near-arrest but nevertheless arresting experience. I arrived at the home center at 12:30 pm on a Saturday. I quickly found the Toro snow shovel, got in line and waited my turn. And waited my turn. And waited my turn. By 1:20, my patience had been exhausted. For some reason the store manager had scheduled half of his cashiers for their lunch break at the same hour, during prime shopping time. Lines at the open registers were 10 deep, and growing. From his perch in the office near the front of the store the manager looked on without shifting into overdrive. Customers were getting militant. They were demanding action. Open more registers, they cried. I was caught up in the revolt. 

The store must have expected such behavior because it employed a burly security guard, an off-duty patrolman from the town, which too shall go nameless lest I find myself once more face-to-face with a officer of the law from that community. The policeman-cum-security guard confronted me. He asked if I had a problem. I said I did. He inched closer. He repeated his question. I quickly realized several things. First, he was much bigger than I. Second, he was a policeman and could easily arrest me on any number of pretenses (that town was notorious for its aggressive policing). Third, the 20% discount on the snow shovel wasn’t worth an arrest. Fourth, it was a short walk to the Caldor in the same shopping center where I could buy the same product, albeit at full price. Fifth, actually, there was no fifth. By that number I had determined the wiser course of action was to hand the snow shovel to the guard and walk out of the store. 

In case you’re wondering, the retailer exacted a printed apology from me two issues later for overstepping my “editorial privilege” for extrapolating one incident into a chain-wide defect. I never went back to that store or chain. Several years later the company went out of business, partly because Home Depot had arrived in its trading area, partly because the lack of service throughout its store network failed to provide a reason customers would remain loyal to it. I gleefully noted its demise. But not in print. 

(By the way, as long as I'm admitting to being less than perfect, I have been advised by my wife I would not make a good scientist. Seems my disdain Wednesday for research into the effect air conditioning might have on lowering the death rate during times of excessive heat was ill-placed. Gilda says it is quite useful to study what might seem to be common sense as it could be discovered just the opposite effect transpires. In the case at hand, it might have shown people better tolerated extreme heat before the widespread placement of air conditioning in homes, offices and public buildings. Mea culpa.)