Some of the strangest things go on in retail. I worked retail when I worked my way through university for 5 years at, what was then, Canada’s largest department store (Eaton’s). My kids have also each worked retail. The wages aren’t great, which you don’t usually mind as a student, but as a long-term career, retail at the “floor level” doesn’t tend to attract lots of, how shall I put this, “gifted” people.

But it’s all part of the retail equation: Put near foolproof systems in place and then hire low-wage workers to just follow the recipe. Unfortunately, human beings being what we are, this rarely works very well; there are just too many cases that don’t perfectly fit the foolproof “rules”, requiring, as a consequence, that those who interact with customers actually have both good intelligence and sound judgement – something tough to get consistently at minimum wage.

A stunning case in point today:

About a month ago, I went to our local l’Equipeur (Mark’s Work Wearhouse in the rest of Canada), a large national retailer of mid-range, durable clothing (coats, jackets, shirts, t-shirts, shoes, work-wear, etc.). I think they’re part of the massive Canadian Tire family of companies. I like this chain primarily because they carry clothing in larger sizes to fit gorillas like me. They make an excellent line of t-shirts up to 5XL. I wear a 2XL because I find they quickly shrink a full size after a couple of washes.

I scoured the shelves looking for a few t-shirts in my size. Nada. I asked the sales girl for help and together we still couldn’t find any. “Must be sold out because of the sale, so come back in a couple of weeks we should be all stocked up”, she said.

I went again today and still no 2XL or larger t-shirts. I asked another sales girl about this paucity of t-shirts and she replied that they were out of stock. Standing near her was an older lady who appeared to be in some position of authority. “We do have them”, she chimed in, “but we’ve been trying an experiment, and have moved all the larger sizes to another part of the store”. There was no explanation as to the reason for the experiment.

I looked at her coldly and said, “Frankly, your experiment isn’t working. If I hadn’t run into you, I was a hair away from assuming you still didn’t have stock and walking out”.

Now comes the good part. She looked at me and said, “You know, in the six weeks since we’ve been trying it, you’re the first one to complain!”. I looked at her in amazement and replied, “How do you know how many didn’t complain and just walked out?”. You could almost hear the gears in her brain trying to process that one, but I suspect she was unsuccessful because she just said, “Let me show you where they are”. When I heard that the “experiment” had been going on for six weeks, I realized that the last time I had been there a month ago, the sales clerk and I spent an hour looking for nothing because even SHE didn’t know where they were.

When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

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