M. Giant's
Throwing stuff at the internet to see what sticks

Tuesday, July 16, 2002  

Something has changed in the world.

I noticed it yesterday, at a local incarnation of a certain gigantic electronics and entertainment chain store. I was striding purposefully towards the section I wanted when a shelf-stocking yellowshirt spotted me out of the corner of his eye, stopped what he was doing, and turned to say to me:

“Are you finding everything you need, sir?”

He was friendly, attentive, and genuinely interested in helping me out. Naturally, he gave me the wiggins.

“So far,” I answered, even though I was clearly empty-handed.

“Let me know if I can help,” he called after me as I accelerated past him. I thanked him, but I was probably out of earshot by then.

I quickly regained my equilibrium. New guy, I thought. He’ll learn.

But then the blueshirt at the cash register greeted me with equal warmth and sincerity. “How are you today, sir?” she asked with a smile. I didn’t tell her that I was starting to get the cheevers. She completed the transaction with evident pleasure and efficiency, then wished me a nice afternoon. I later realized that she had completely neglected to grill me about my ZIP code, as is the normal custom at this store. “She won’t last long,” I assured myself, but it was beginning to sound hollow.

It’s also normal custom at this store to speak with one more employee before you escape into the open. There’s usually an imposing bouncer type sitting by the door, whose purpose is to inspect the still-damp ink on your receipt like a short-tempered KGB agent with a foreign passport, then root through your expensive new possessions searching for unauthorized mousepads or batteries. For years I’ve been putting off buying that Cosmo Makeover software for fear of this guy knowing about it. There’s still a guy between you and the entrance, and he’s still bouncer-shaped. But he’s not perched on a stool like a tightly coiled doomsday weapon any more. Now he ambles happily back and forth, smiling and saying, “How you doing today, sir?” At least that’s what he said to me. If I’d known I was going to catch him in such a good mood, I might have liberated a camcorder for myself.

The obvious question is, ”What the hell is going on here?”

Normally, shopping at this store is an experience to be endured. I can’t tell you how many times Trash and I have walked to the parking lot kvetching about the emotional violations to which we’ve just been subjected in there, and I can’t help but imagine that many other people have come out saying the same thing. If there were a cage by the door with a parrot in it, the only thing it would ever say would be, “BAWK! We’re never buying anything here again! BAWK!”

My first thought was that some kind of company-wide initiative is in effect. It’s taken the form of an edict from on high, and it’s personally aimed at every minion who dons the official polo shirt and khakis: BE NICE. Of course the corporate suits in every company are always telling the people on the front lines to be nice to the customers, which is easy for them because they don’t have to answer the question “Does this computer have the Internet?” twenty times a day. For the same reason, such directives tend to be largely ignored. Perhaps this one carries more force because the store’s new worldwide corporate headquarters is two exits up the freeway, and thus the ignorant yokel looking for a disposable digital camera might be an incognito CEO. But I suspect something more sinister. What, I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.

One of the most important tenets of customer service is the importance of managing expectations. When I go to this store, I expect to deal with people who are surly, withdrawn, introverted, and deeply cheesed off that they even have to be there. People like me, in other words. I’ve gotten to the point where I can just switch on my obligatory black mood as the inner doors slide shut behind me, as if the organ-scrambling death rays from the anti-theft scanners are causing an instantaneous adjustment in brain chemistry. The upside is that when I emerge, the comparatively healthy clouds of carbon monoxide billowing off the nearby eight-laner instantaneously restore my usual sunny mood when they fill my lungs. That was fine when the people helping me in the store were quivering columns of barely suppressed rage, but now that management has apparently issued tinfoil hats to store employees, the unnerving level of cheer and friendliness just makes me feel all alone in my battered metal trash can. When employees of an electronics superstore can make you feel that way, it’s only a matter of time before the earth jinks clean out of its orbit.

Although there’s clearly cause for concern, there’s still hope. Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m going to have to bring in our VCR so they can fix whatever’s causing it to imbue every voice and sound on recorded TV with a strident, high-speed vibrato (don’t tell me about head cleaners, because that didn’t work). If that turns out to be a pleasant and satisfying experience, we’ll all have no choice but to panic, for verily, the end of days will be nigh.

posted by M. Giant 4:02 PM 0 comments


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