by Vincent Cardegin
Back in aught-seven, during the big remodel at Exwork, the tanks of live fish were moved from the pet department all the way over to the wall behind Health and Beauty Aids (HBA), with the last aisle there filled with food and tank décor, as well as other products for caged pets. No one could explain to me the merchandising strategy of that. I don’t believe there was one. But HBA is right around the corner from Garden, and us workers were routinely tasked with bagging fish. The natural consequence was predictable: customers started waiting a long time to be noticed, and when they weren’t, they wandered over to tell our cashier to call someone.
Eventually, we in Garden were threatened. A temporary Dephead got annoyed with hearing over his walkie-talkie that customers needed service in live fish, so he demanded that from now on one of us had to check around the corner every five minutes to see if someone needed help, or he’d write us all up! There were, he pointed out, eight of us in Garden every day. And it only takes five minutes to get a fish!
None of us could do that, of course, and no one was written up. The eight (and there weren’t always eight) came in at different times during two shifts, and there were meals and breaks. There were never eight of us on the floor all at once, and those two or four on the clock were often spread pretty thin throughout the vastness of Garden Center and the bigger area of the whole store.
But he was correct about the five minutes. It can even take less time to get a fish, but that’s only when one customer wants one fish and doesn’t care which of that kind of fish it is. Multiply five minutes by ten or twenty or thirty fish, and not just any fish, but a particular fish, when the customer moves his finger across the front of the tank, pointing at one out of a hundred or more, and suddenly it becomes a chore, which is much longer than a task. I once spent seventy-five minutes getting fish for six people. My Dephead was pissed.
I protested to a Comag that the last person who should dip for fish is a guy soaked with sweat and covered from fingernails to elbows in cow manure compost. (A vendor had vehemently complained about that after fish in several tanks got sick.) The Comag didn’t want to hear it, told me I should wash my hands first. I had done that always, until the same vendor caught me doing so in the sink between the separate walls of fresh and saltwater tanks, and proclaimed with pointing finger on her shaking hand, “That’s why the tanks are contaminated!” According to her, debris from my hands was splashing into the small tub where they kept the nets in fishy disinfectants. Why the disinfectants didn’t work, she wouldn’t explain. We all continued to use that sink because washing in the bathroom would make the customer wait even longer.
The problem is that individual departments no longer have their own department heads. The person in charge of all the food and sundries in Pets is also responsible for paper (napkins, towels, and toilet) and chemicals (household cleaners and everything related). As the variety of products increases and the number of workers decreases, attention to detail plummets. No one can attend to thousands of products in three or more departments with any accuracy. Prices are wrong, shelves are empty, and fish die.
And too many times customers mistakenly got mad at me because, after they got food for their dogs or cats, they had to walk across the store from Grocery to just outside of Garden to get food for their parakeets and gerbils and such. My solution was simple and ignored: move all live pet paraphernalia over to the cat and dog aisles and put more HBA products on that wall around the corner from Garden. (Personally, I’d like a wider selection of toenail clippers—do they make long-handled ones? That’s what I want, so I don’t have to bend over.)
Heads up to customers: Employees cannot distract themselves with other areas of the store that will interfere with their own departmental obligations. Those who sell ammo will not know the various flavors of packaged stuffing in Grocery just because they’re walking down that aisle. Those who stock and zone Toys will not know where a particular vitamin is in HBA. Those who cut cloth in Fabrics will not know the brands of bikes that are hung in the tall racks or chained up out front. And those who heft lawnmowers, grills, patio sets, and dirt will not know what the tank mates are, or the recommended food, for any fish. It’s not that they can’t learn those things; it’s a matter of familiarity, of opportunity and repetition, and workers generally have enough ever-changing products in their own departments to keep them busy and guessing and even confused.
(Correction for last week’s article: 5 X 108 is a misprint! The 8 is supposed to be an exponent, as in ten-to-the-eighth-power, which then gives you 500,000,000 years, not 540. Bit of difference there, yeah?)