Sunday, September 17, 2006

Oh these prices, they are a changin'

Nothing really sets people off like the item being one price on the shelf and another when it rings up at the register. I've hit this topic in various post, but always from a sideways perspective. I'm not a merchandise supervisor (that's what Wal-Mart calls department managers) nor do I ever hope to be, but I think I understand the process (and where it goes sideways) well enough to try to explain it. But please, don't take this as gospel. I've been known to be wrong.

And I'm not defending the fact the stuff ALWAYS rings up wrong. I just want to illustrate the ways that under-staffing, incompetence and the economies of scale have all failed to keep customers in mind.

It is my opinion, especially after working in the store for two years now, that Wal-Mart as a whole is a soulless evil entity. The long-term AND short-term goals of the company involve only the acquisition of cash ad infinitum. There is not one single goal of the company that is about anything other than making money, no matter how many sides of their mouth they talk out of.

However, I truly do not believe that the company purposefully advertises merchandise at one price on the shelf and deliberately has them ring up at another, higher price at the register. This implies planning, coordination and intelligence, all of which are in VERY short supply at any Wal-Mart.

Price changes are directed from the Home Office (this is always a proper noun) in Bentonville. They usually come once or twice during the week and again on Saturdays. The Saturday price changes are always markdowns in response to the Target, Kmart and grocery store chains' weekend discount sale papers.

For about six months, we actually had an associate whose only job on Saturdays was to buy the newspaper as soon as it was delivered to the newspaper box outside, go through the sale papers and then mark all of our comparable merchandise down to a few pennies below whatever Target, Kmart, Kroger, et al. was selling it for.

The regular prices changes come up on the handheld computers called Talxons that the merchandise supervisors use. These are like gold in any Wal-Mart. Although they are supposed to be turned in at the end of a shift and checked back out the next day, each department manager usually hides the thing somewhere so no one else can get them or the accompanying handheld printers - because there's never enough. (Yeah, Wal-Mart is cheap. Each SuperCenter only gets a certain allotment - and no more.) I've even seen a co-manager opening every associate's locker and then confiscating the contraband Talxons.

Anyway. The price changes come up on the screen to let you know that you need to mark down the red bell peppers. Not the green or yellow, but the red. You have to make a new label and change the price on shelf AND then press the appropriate buttons to signify that you have changed the price in the computer. I did price changes during store set-up. IT IS NOT FINISHED UNTIL A MESSAGE POPS UP THAT SAYS 'PRICE CHANGE COMPLETE' MOVE TO NEXT ITEM IN LIST? Or something like that.

At our store, this is where the problem is.

I would say that 90 percent of our price changes are being done overnight - where 90 percent of the staff does not speak English. What's happening is that the people who are stocking are given a big roll of "new" labels for everything they are restocking. They can't read, but they can read numbers. UPC 01245 67892 needs changing? It's done. So while they restock, they change the label for the price of rice from $2.50 to $2.38. But the price of rice is still $2.50 in the computer.

Someone "intends" to go around and fix these prices in the computer. But if that person gets pulled off on a tangent, then it never gets done. Or, if they forget to do it, it never gets done.

Price changes during the day are better. All merchandise supervisors are usually working an 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. shift - to better handle customers and merchandise. Then, they can do their own price changes. Of course - this is when the customer load is the greatest - so very little gets done other than "can you help me find this in a smaller size in green." So the work defaults to overnight. After three or four days, price changes are considered "overdue" and the department is flagged in the computer. At which point, the co-manager or store manager will have a "chat" with the department manager or overnight managers. But the problem is never really solved because there is never enough help.

Scanning laws. Some states do actually have scanning laws. The state I work in is not one of them. A fact that seems to drive people irrationally insane is that scanning integrity laws are not a national thing. One man once screamed at the assistant manager on duty, demanded that she sign his receipt and said that he'd be back in the morning with a lawyer. Still waiting dude ...

Official Wal-Mart policy is that we're supposed to do a price override, reason code 1, which gives the customer the item for free if it is under $3.00 and $3.00 off if the item is priced more than $3.00. The reason code 1 also sends an immediate message to the department manager to go check the shelf label for that item. Of course, they have to be on the clock AND have a working handheld computer in front of them.

Personally, I think a scanning integrity law may actually force Wal-Mart to change the way it approaches price changes. At the very least it would mean more attention being paid to the issue.

Price changes are not supposed to be such a problem. There exists, on paper, the solution to this mess. Wal-Mart has, on the books, positions for what it calls the "modular team" - modulars being the Wal-Mart word for merchandise displays - shelves, pricing points, etc.

When the store opened, we actually had a "modular team." When I worked the 3 p.m. - midnight shift, I met two of the girls who worked in the hardlines area. What the modular team is SUPPOSED to do is work price changes and also change out displays that need altering.

Imagine that - train people to change the prices - then let them do it while the store is quiet. Train them to switch out displays - then let them do it while there are few shoppers in the store. It is how modern business is supposed to work, no?

Well, that never did work. Because Wal-mart is unable or unwilling to hire enough help, the two girls on the modular team were put to work stocking. One told me that she never actually did any price changes before she quit two weeks later after nearly breaking her leg on a pallet of cosmetics.

So you see, the solution is there. Wal-Mart just won't utilize it - because it believes that it can have cake, ice cream and a soda - and get double helpings too. It is the same logic that has the fitting room attendant serving as the telephone operator. Fewer people doing more work.

This is the Wal-Mart line of thought: Overnight stockers are going to do price changes - because they put new merchandise out. We don't really care if they don't know how to speak English or operate the handheld computers. We'll take care of that. And when the details slip through the cracks, it's not really Wal-Mart that pays the price - its the customers.

And what has Wal-Mart gained? The two cents on every can of cat food that you didn't check your receipt for. The salaries of that non-existent modular team that still exists on paper but won't be hired. And the ability to keep slinging that "Everyday Low Prices" slogan.

5 comments:

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FARfetched said...

That was actually highly informative! While you warn us that it might not be 100% accurate, it's logical enough to be pretty dang close.

Red Stapler said...

Hey, I came in from consumerist.com. Having worked retail, I have felt and lived your pain and know full well the "woman of a certain age" phenomenon. Although I haven't worked retail since, oh 1992, I'll share a tale experienced last christmas.

I was at EB purchasing a game for my nephew and there was this loud-mouthed cow and her son buying a PSP. The kid was about 13 and you can tell he wanted to be anywhere but there with his mom. They had just bought a PSP with a 256mb memory stick and realized the 1gig pack was a better value. So, they returned a 15 minute old PSP, and the mom was "Isn't this better for you Bryan? You can save more on it you know, you always have to look for the bargains, etc etc". Not the kid's idea to return the PSP obviously.

Keep in mind, this is 2 weeks before xmas and only 2 clerks in the store and they were manning the till. Massive lineup behind this woman, I get served and the loudmouth is still bleating and embarrasing her kid. "What I'm doing is teaching you find the best deals, etc..." - and then I lost it... All my repressed memory of this kind of customer comes out - "All you're doing lady is pissing off the 20 people behind you because you're too busy listening to the sound of your own voice and not moving along with your return."

Stunned. Dead. Silence.

"Well you should just mind your own business mister." - Whoops, wrong answer. I don't work at EB so I can tell you exactly what the clerks want me to tell you - "Shut up you fat, inconsiderate, loudmouth slag or can pay me for the 20 minutes of my life you wasted having to listen to your bullsh1t." Other customers are giggling, the sales clerks are shaking trying to hold it in. I have blood and thunder in my eyes, cow realizes that discretion may be the better part of valour, pays the difference on her product and storms out of the store.

The guy that was helping her looks over to me "Man, that was awesome. Thanks!". I don't know how this would add up in the karma bank though...

Anyway, just thought I'd share. I love your blog. Great reading, and very entertaining, Keep it up.

Chimera said...

Red Stapler: Wow! Nice going with the loud-mouth! You might consider starting your own business, hiring out to downtrodden CS clerks who can't say anything in their own defense. Bet you could make a fortune!

KG4ZOW said...

There is not one single goal of the company that is about anything other than making money, no matter how many sides of their mouth they talk out of.

This is true of ANY corporation where shares of ownership are traded on a stock market. LEGALLY, the #1 goal of ANY publicly held corporation is to generate profit, so that they can generate a positive return on the stockholders' investment.

If WM or any other corporation does ANYTHING and is not able to show how it increases (or should increase) the stock value, the stockholders can sue the board of directors, which is not something that any board member really wants.