By Arthur Vidro

One reason I favor small shops is that proprietors – and by extension their hand-picked employees – truly care if they can sell you their product or service.

And because they want your business, they will gladly place a special order on your behalf, just to get into stock the item you want.

Our local bookstores score very highly on that regard.

Proprietors think for themselves and care enough to get things done right. Heck, they have to, if they’re going to stay in business.

Chain stores, on the other hand, hire workers and managers by a cookie-cutter method to ensure mindless adherence to the corporate playbook. Too often, though, this results in a total lack of initiative and discourages individual thinking.

For instance, it should be obvious that all merchandise should be priced. Or at least obvious to those of us who grew up with price stickers on each item.

What’s the point of having unpriced merchandise in your store?

But far too often, merchandise for sale is not priced, especially at chain retail stores. Not even a sign displaying a price.

Though one can’t always rely on the signs.

I once found a bottle of maple syrup from a maker I never heard of on a shelf at Hannaford. I relied on the information beneath the product to give me its price. But at checkout, it refused to ring up. Eventually an employee said since it wasn’t scanning, the product wasn’t in the system and they couldn’t charge me, even though I reported to her the price on the shelf. So I got it for free.

Next time I visited, I checked the syrup shelf again. All the jars for the syrup not ringing up had been removed. Probably it was easier to remove the product than coax the computerized register into recognizing it.

I don’t blame employees for a product’s not scanning. But I find it ridiculous that everyone is powerless to help a customer or correct a system when the computerized process isn’t rolling smoothly.

Two years ago at Big Lots, a shelf-cap display of large boxes of chocolates caught my attention. I looked in vain for a price. Lifted a couple boxes and turned them every which way, but no price. So I put them back on the shelf. If the store doesn’t care enough to affix a price, I won’t purchase the item.

While the cashier rang up my purchase, I pointed to the display and asked, “Those chocolates five yards away, I couldn’t find the price. Do you know the price?”

“No.”

Two weeks later I asked a different cashier the same question. Got the same one-word answer.

Nobody cared enough to research the price of items on display. It’s as if they want you to carry the item to the register and decide after it’s been scanned if you still want it.

And because it’s a chain store, the employees aren’t motivated to take it upon themselves to bring the matter to management’s attention. It doesn’t affect anyone there if an item sells or not. They get paid the same amount, regardless.

For the same reason, maybe it doesn’t affect management either.

On the way home, the normally two lanes of traffic merged into one. Some sort of construction.

I studied the wordless merge sign, and followed its instruction by getting into the left lane. I was startled a little later when the left lane disappeared; I had a long wait before someone in the right lane would let me back in.

I had merged the wrong way. Yet I had followed the sign’s guidance. How many more had done so, and how many more would continue to do so?

To prevent others from falling into the same trap, I stopped at the construction site, where a road worker was overseeing traffic flow. I informed the worker that the merge sign was indicating Merge Left when it should be indicating Merge Right. Even though it didn’t contain anything as old-fashioned as words.

The sign, I explained, was upside down.

The road worker silently listened, then shrugged and turned away. He didn’t care that the lane-merge sign was upside down. It didn’t matter to him if folks messed up their mergers. He’d get paid the same no matter what. He just didn’t care.

At the post office, the workers behind the counter, I am convinced, truly do care. But they’re often not allowed to think. I handed over a package while saying, “It contains only paper. Nothing liquid, flammable, perishable, or potentially hazardous. Also, no lithium batteries and no mercury.”

“I still have to ask,” the clerk told me. And rattled off the question I had already answered: “Does it contain anything liquid, flammable, perishable, or potentially hazardous, including lithium batteries or mercury?”

Because the post office is a chain system, rules are rules and employees are hired based on their mindless adherence to the rules. Even if the employees have great minds, they’re not allowed to use them.

At the end of the transaction, she tried to circle a segment of the receipt alerting customers to a survey. Her pen didn’t work.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I never take part in online surveys.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “If I don’t circle it and tell you about it, I could get fired.”

Because I needed the receipt, I waited until a working pen could be found.

I wish workers were still allowed to think for themselves.

Arthur Vidro’s “EQMM Goes to College” appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

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