Thursday, April 3, 2008

Modern Times at the Store

I've felt a blog coming on about "modern times and the shopping experience" for a long time, and finally something has happened to get me motivated enough to write about it. It's going to be hard to keep this brief as there sure is a long list of things "that really bother me" about the various stores we've been shopping at. This'll take more than one post.

What really bothers me? It's not just about high prices. But that too - like onions that nearly cost a dollar and apples that cost more than two - but what else is new? I'm striving, though, to avoid being like my father, who I remember remarking, when he himself was middle aged, that elderly people live in a world with a skewed evaluation of what things are worth, going back mentally to all the old prices of their younger days and tending to be unable to comprehend just how much the dollar had changed in value. Dad seemed to say (like I'm saying now) that he "wasn't going to be like that." Yet he was unable to avoid this fate when he got to be in his 80's, generating some family stories about various things he said and did. He did develop a form of dementia, I should note; but are we all doomed to wind up living in the past when it comes to the dollar?

Outside of inflation, though, I find myself getting quite aggravated shopping, especially at the grocery store. Things have changed. Not so long ago, we'd be able to go to a single store and get all of our shopping done at once. Now, though, it takes a trip to at least two different grocers, and not because we are too picky; stores are perfectly capable of being out of staples. You can't get these stores to admit it, but a large part of the problem seems to be computerized inventory control. Sometimes it seems clear someone has been assigned to check out the shelf stock the old fashioned way, but this never lasts long. It seems clear when this is just being done by computer; you have the phenomenon now of finding empty shelf space one day, going back for the next few months and discovering it still empty. A sample of the things that have been missing for months from certain shelves that I have noticed include cranberry juice, lime juice, black peppercorns, tomato soup, lard, specialty brands generally, and club soda; in some cases what was missing was the most popular size container.

The reactions of the store employees has been very interesting. In modern times, the idea is to provide lip service, while doing nothing to actually correct a problem. One employee told Sue that she wasn't finding black peppercorns because of the difficulties the neighborhood was causing as far as when they were allowed to empty trucks. Supposedly this problem was causing the peppercorns to be missing from the shelf for months on end. Another employee, told that lime juice in an economical size had been missing every time we checked, reacted by getting temporary approval to reprice the smaller size if we bought several. I'm sure that guy went home and told his wife that he was proud of how he solved this problem for us. But really, he didn't do what I would want him to do, and that is to make sure in future that the proper size was going to be there so that we didn't have to stop and try to find an assistant manager or somebody every time we needed the item. After all, he didn't deny it was supposed to be available, but as the weeks went by I saw that nothing had been done to correct the stocking error. When we stated we felt computerized stocking was the problem, oddly these employees tended to deny it.

Now I do have a slight sympathy for those trying to use computers for stocking, humans are not perfect either. My own experience with it is that you tend to overstock certain items, especially popular ones, fearing a loss of profit and wanting to avoid that reputation of being out of essential items. I've screwed it up in my day, and I've seen others do worse; company Buyers can absolutely put a company out of business with their mistakes. We once had a neighbor who could explain what happens when computerized stocking goes bad, though, and it's not all the machine's fault. We went over the missing cranberry juice phenomenon with this neighbor, and I complained the shelves were full of a dazzling array of choices, cranberry juice, cran-apple, cran-grape, cran-apple lite, low fat low salt cran-lemon, high-fiber sugar free cran-mango-soy that doesn't harm the environment, etc., yet the plain regular cranberry juice was not to be found. He concurred, saying his job was to try to make these very systems work, so he would find some guy doing inventory at the cranberry juice aisle grouping all these different choices together as just cranberry juice "because they are all the same price." Well, now of course the computer thinks the store is jam packed with regular juice and desperately needs to order all the other items, being absolutely out of them. I've even become convinced that some items vanish completely, never to be seen again, because some computer notes that the very product that supposedly is vastly overstocked also never sells!

It would seem to be true that buying the items, which all get bar-coded, has no effect on stocking decisions. And all these choices have another irritating effect: it's too darn easy to grab the wrong item, wanting the regular version and accidentally picking up the "lite" version or whatever. Anyway, we are finding ourselves having to go to more than one store these days, we just accept it as a fact. So shopping is a lot more involved, and burns up a lot more time and gas, than it used to. Al Gore call your office.

This isn't what set me off enough to do a post, so stay tuned.


Louise said...

I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes I wish we had less choice at the stores. I just want to go in and come out with a product, not to stand there for hours comparing labels and prices, wondering which one is the best value for the price.

Matt said...

Oh my god! Testify my brother!!!

This is an issue that is high on my list of things that drive me freaking crazy. I have had words with managers of the stores (and it doesn't seem to matter where you shop) about this.

I asked the manager of Super Fresh and Giant why they can't keep something in stock that purchase every week. They of course had no answer. I followed up with another question. "Do you not track what people buy with the annoying little cards you make us carry around?" The answer was "no". Then what is the point of having a card that is identifiable to the consumer, if you are not going to track what they purchase? Would it not be valuable for marketing purposes? Would it not make inventory control easier? My god, this isn't rocket science. It's keeping the shelves stocked with what people buy the most of.

I think you are right on with your ideas as to why this happens, but also consider this. Somewhat recently, we saw a story on the news about grocery stores are stocking their shelves, not with the most popular items. They are actually selling shelf space to food companies. So it doesn't matter if consumers want to buy Branola bread each week, if Pepridge Farms is paying them more for shelf space. Certain brands either have to cough up to this extortion or get squeezed. Of course small and independent food producers have no chance in this system. I don't think this is the way the market is supposed to work. It's supposed to be whatever item sells the best. This is too much like the payola schemes of the record companies back in the 70's.

I do believe that the computer systems also contribute to this problem because the people who work at these store really don't have a clue about what they stock. They simply do whatever the computer tells them to. No thought necessary.

The other thing this controls is how things are scanned at the register. There are 3 types of cheese that I buy probably once a month at Giant for spaghetti; Romano, Parmesan, and Assiago. The Assiago and Romano ring up fine, as marked. The Parmesan never rings up. It practically freezes the system and then tells me that "Help is on the way." Like I've just tried to hack in and hijack the computer. I have told the manager that this happens every time for years and why can't they fix it. Of course, they have no answer. They can't adjust the machines.

Man this really boils me. Giant has been out of Brawny print paper towels for 1 month and 3 weeks and counting.

Sorry to sound like a raving lunatic, but this is near and dear to my heart.

Carlw4514 said...

I'm really glad to find out it isn't just me! interesting that there could be other things causing problems I didn't know about

Marsha said...

Oh good Lord, you got him started.

The thing that drives me most crazy is when you know you have bought something before then they don't have it. Then they look at you like you are a dope when you say, but you used to carry it. As if that matters or as if they care.

I am glad I do not do the shopping regularly because I would go ballistic in about an instant. I am also the one who says, well, don't you have any in the back and wait for them to go scurrying to find what I want. Half the time I succeed. I am also the kind who would go to customer service and complain. Complaining to the stockers is a waste of time.

I have to say, I also have the luxury of knowing what may be substituted, if I need a substitute or if I can wait.

And one last thing, why the hell can't I get a Wii??? Talking about stocking problems.