Death of a Default, Birth of a Boycott

Walgreens logoI’ve never worked in the retail industry (and I’m not sure why it’s so top of mind recently). But I like to think from the years I’ve covered business that the ultimate goal of a retailer would be to have customers that visit them automatically, almost without thinking. That is, their default.

Isn’t the goal of business customer loyalty? Isn’t it cheaper to retain a customer than to spend money on marketing to entice new ones? You’d think.

I first ran into this situation many years ago with Macy’s. Macy’s was my default department store. Household goods, wedding gifts, clothing. It served my needs. But then I noticed something odd – this loyalty wasn’t being reciprocated. Its customer service deteriorated. Its product quality deteriorated. In frustration, I finally wrote a letter of protest to a company executive and received in reply a grammatically challenged letter from somebody’s executive assistant.

Today, the only time I step inside a Macy’s is to look for Frango’s candies (and even then, I can’t look at a display without thinking how much better the selection is at the store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago).

And there was my well-documented split and reconciliation with the Bank of America.

Now, it’s happening again. Walgreens has been my default drug store. It’s the largest drug store chain in America, but it’s also always been the most convenient to a lot of places I’ve lived. The one around the corner from our house is not only convenient, but the staff is extraordinarily friendly. And you can find the most amazing selection of merchandise there. But now … [grimace].

It all started with the announcement from competitor CVS that it would stop selling cigarettes later this year. That seemed like a pretty good idea for a company like Walgreens that touts itself as being “at the corner of happy and healthy,” but when I asked them online if they would follow suit, the long-winded answer eventually translated to … no. Apparently, cigarettes are simply too profitable a habit to kick.

Then last week, word went out that thanks to its acquisition of Swiss drug store chain Boots, it was planning – at its shareholders’ urging – to become a Swiss company in order to avoid U.S. tax rates. The process is known as inversion, and according to the linked San Francisco Chronicle article, a lot of technology companies do it – but Walgreens is one of the few consumer-facing organizations to consider it. Really? Not a company I want to support.

And just to season the cranky pot a little more, word came out just a couple of days later that three years ago Walgreens had actually fired an employee who – suffering from low blood sugar – had grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf in order to keep from going into diabetic shock. Her crime? She didn’t pay for the bag of chips until later that day. The story hit the news because the EEOC ordered Walgreens to pay the employee $180,000 in compensation for her illegal firing.

I’m not sure how easy this split is going to be. I have to figure out how to move my prescriptions – and where I’m going to move them to. I have to fight the temptation to go to the most convenient drug store, rather than one more deserving of my patronage. And hope they don’t start selling Frango’s.

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If This Is A Capitalist Society, Then Why Can’t I Get What I Want?

Back in the days of the Cold War, one form of propaganda (hey, there’s a word you probably haven’t heard in a long time) was to show people behind the Iron Curtain waiting in line for staples like bread and meat. The lesson: people in communist countries did not have the constitutional right to go down to 7-11 and get a massive cup of soda pop that would eventually give them diabetes and other maladies.

Now, even in so-called Communist countries, like China, capitalism is chic. People have – to use one of my favorite portmanteaus – affluenza. Yet here in the United States, the country that took capitalism to its zenith, we seem to have lost the concept.

Capitalism, after all, is the precept that if enough people want something, some smart cookie will build it. So why can’t I get what I want? To wit:

Groceries. I walked into the brand-new Safeway store in our neighborhood, at least 50% bigger than the store it replaced, and it has seemingly an entire aisle devoted to yogurt. Greek yogurt. Low-fat yogurt. Non-fat yogurt. Fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. Store-brand yogurt. But you know what? No soy yogurt. At least, not the brand of soy yogurt that my wife – in her effort to consume less dairy – wants. How could they miss the one thing I wanted?

Technology. A couple of weeks ago, my Hewlett-Packard laser printer finally died. It was so old I couldn’t even remember how old it was. It wasn’t even the printing mechanism. A little prong on the plastic cover had broken, but it prevented the cover from closing, which in turn apparently made the printer think it was still open.

But when I called the technician that serviced it previously, I got voice mail and left a message. No response. I called again and got a human; asked him if he could replace the plastic cover. He said he’d check and I never heard from him. I left another message and … still haven’t heard from him. I’m still not sure how he makes money, and I didn’t have the heart to explain capitalism to his voice mail.

Figuring I’d gotten enough use about of the first printer, I bought another HP LaserJet. I took it out, plugged it in, downloaded the drivers … and nothing. Just an arcane error message and blinking red lights. I called the support number that came with the printer, and the technician’s response floored me. “I’m going to send you a reconditioned printer,” she said. “No, you’re not,” I told her quickly. “I just bought a new printer. Why do you think I would accept a reconditioned printer?”

I took it back to Office Depot, where there was a little bit of a kerfuffle because they’d given me the option of e-mailing me my receipt. I couldn’t show it to them, of course, BECAUSE THAT WOULD HAVE REQUIRED A WORKING PRINTER. Hesitantly, I exchanged the printer for an exact same model, the only difference between the first one and the second one being that the second one actually worked when I plugged it in.

Phones. Last week I finally got fed up with being razzed for having a flip phone, so I went to the local outlet of Sprint – from whom I get wireless broadband, cellular service, and a 4G-enabled iPad – to upgrade to a smartphone. I was told the wait would be about 20 minutes. I spent most of the time thinking about some case studies I’ve been writing about wireless carrier T-Mobile, which is making extensive efforts to provide exceptional customer service to win customers away from competitors like Sprint.

After twenty-five minutes, there were still two people ahead of me, so it seemed less important to move from the 20th to the 21st century, cell phone-wise. Realizing that Sprint is now attempting to acquire T-Mobile, I left, much sadder than when I walked in.

Tumblers. We had a couple of coffee travel mugs that, after many years of use, were getting harder to clean. So we set out to find new tumblers with two parameters, neither of which we thought of as daunting. We wanted them to be dishwasher safe, and we wanted them to be made in the United States. [Insert raucous laughter here.]

In our search, we mostly found tumblers from China. Sometimes only the lids were dishwasher safe (who the hell cares if the lid is dishwasher safe?). Thermos makes plastic tumblers in the United States, but they don’t hold coffee. Their coffee tumblers were built “in the Orient.” I wanted to inform Thermos that referring to Asia as “the Orient” was considered racist, but I didn’t want to prolong the interaction. They were, however, dishwasher-safe, so I ordered two.

These are just the recent examples. I could tell you stories about shopping forays in the pre-Internet past that were just tortuous, especially after the realization that the moronic salespeople not helping me were probably allowed to both drive and vote.

I can only console myself with the realization that, as we’ve gotten older, we just don’t need that much stuff anymore. That’s good, because if this keeps up, I’m never buying anything ever again anyway. Take that, capitalism.

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High School Graduations Ain’t What They Used To Be

mortarboardMy wife’s nephew graduated from high school last weekend, a joyous occasion all around, especially since his mother sat in a completely different part of the amphitheater. This meant that at no time before, during, or after the ceremony did we have to clench our jaws into a frozen and completely insincere smile aimed in her general direction.

While I was enjoying not clenching my jaw, I observed a few things about this ceremony that were just a tad different from the day I graduated from high school – which, although it was some 41 years ago, seems like yesterday. For instance:

At my ceremony, not one of the girls talked about how proud she was to be setting an example for her daughter by getting her diploma. If memory serves, the first girl to have a child in my high school class was actually married at the time. Notice I didn’t say, “the first girl to get pregnant.” We did not talk of those things in those days.

  • No one at my ceremony was dressed in an outfit that bared their midriff, the better to show off a pierced navel. The only time the word “pierce” was mentioned is when my classmate Matt got his diploma.
  • No one wore a jersey with the name and number of their favorite sports star. Everyone wore actual clothing appropriate for a graduation ceremony.
  • Family members arrived before it began and left after it was over. It wasn’t like a cocktail party that you dropped in on whenever it was convenient to your schedule.
  • When my high school’s principal asked that family members hold their applause until all the graduates had received their diplomas, family members held their applause until all the graduates had received their diplomas. At last weekend’s ceremony, no one made such a request and no one would have complied anyway.
  • No one brought a klaxon horn to blow at the mention of particular graduates. Last weekend, I couldn’t tell if we were celebrating or moving to DEFCON 2.

Some traditions were observed, I’m happy to say. Everyone seemed genuinely happy at being paroled from high school, an emotion that never really goes out of style. The whole switching-the-tassel from one side to the other went smoothly. The go-out-and-make-the-world-better mantra still reigned in a lot of the speeches, because apparently all these decades later, the world still sucks.

And kids keep growing up and getting older, which kind of sucks too.

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No Party For Me

One of the great things about California is that when you get fed up with being part of any of the two major political parties, rather than aligning yourself with a splinter party that makes noise but not laws, you can sidle under a designation known as “decline to state.”

When I departed the Republican Party out of disgust at the beginning of George Bush’s second term, that’s where I landed. I got tired of the hypocrisy that insisted government should keep its nose out of everyone’s wallets, but in wombs and bedrooms. Nothing any Republican has said since has made me regret my decision.

You’d think over time, I would have wandered over to the Democratic Party, but it apparently never met a law it didn’t like. Whenever one person does something bad, bam, they want a regulation to govern everyone else.

The problem – as I have discovered in excess over the past few weeks – is that even though some might think regulations and laws and all those nasty niceties are the government’s job, it doesn’t seem to do it very well. Sometimes it doesn’t even bother to enforce the laws it’s so hell-bent to enact. The evidence of this ranges from local to statewide to federal instances.

Let’s start with local. Here in our cul-de-sac, one of our very nice neighbors is doing so well that he decided to remodel his single-story house – and when I say remodel, I mean tear it down and create a two-story house in its place. I have no problem with that, except that our city has enacted very specific rules about when contractors can work. They’re not supposed to work before 8 a.m. or after 6 p.m.

Because this crew represents typical contractors, they regularly don’t show up, or when they do, they come at 11 a.m., and because it stays light late, they keep working after 6 p.m., continuing the banging I’ve heard all day at my desk into the dinner hour. I’ve asked them to stop, and they’ve kept on doing it. I’ve notified the police, but because it’s not an emergency, they’ll mosey on by an hour later to see if the crew is still on premises. By that time, of course, it’s gone. It makes me wonder why we have a law at all.

On a statewide level, there was the charming story in the San Francisco Chronicle this week about laws enacted to control agricultural water usage during droughts which said in part:

“The state designed laws to push agricultural water districts to track their water flow and make the largest districts charge farmers based on how much they use. … But those rules are widely being ignored amid one of the state’s most severe droughts on record. All but the smallest agricultural water districts were required to track and report to the state how much water they deliver to customers as the result of a 2007 law. Only 20 percent – 48 of 242 districts – have filed those reports, according to California Department of Water Resources data. They were due 10 months ago.”

The kicker appears later in the story: “There’s no penalty for agricultural districts that don’t report how much water they’re delivering to farms.” This is what’s known as a law with no teeth.

Other instances: 

  • When we filed our tax returns in April, the federal government notified us that someone had already filed a tax return with one of our social security numbers, and that ours was being rejected. Given that we had been filing tax returns using those numbers for more than 30 years, I’m a little confused as to why the government didn’t reject the incorrect return, rather than ours. 
  • My wife’s state medical license was set to expire this week. She had sent in the paperwork weeks ago, but it still hadn’t been processed. Her employer (the federal government, I hasten to note) insisted that if she didn’t have her license, she couldn’t practice after last Friday. She finally called the state medical board and found out that she had neglected to check “box G” (whatever box G was). After some faxing back and forth, her status was correctly updated. While all this was happening, she received a letter sent by U.S. mail to her office notifying her of this box G situation. There are phones. There is e-mail. The state government prefers to rely on the mail to communicate in matters like this – what, because it’s faster? 
  • Similar thing happened to a friend of mine. He and his wife are trying to have an amicable divorce (although it’s unclear that she understands the meaning of the word “amicable”), handled through arbitrators. They each submitted the proper forms, but because she neglected to put the date on one of them, this triggered the scheduling of a meeting at which both of them had to leave work and be present. I’m still not clear on the reasoning or the efficacy of this, but it sounds like something government agency employees would do to keep themselves gainfully employed until they die, or perhaps longer.

 I suspect that if this keeps up, everyone will become as disillusioned with the established political parties as I am, leading to a future when California’s nickname evolves from “the golden state” to “the decline to state.”

 

 

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Drought Intolerant

As most of you know, while the rest of the country has been hit by snowstorms, rainstorms, and mudslides, California is entering into its third year of drought. If you don’t know, just start watching your produce prices this summer and you’re bound to notice.

Californians have lived through this sequence before; I remember back in the mid-70s being forced to take “Army” showers (I also remember my roommate cavalierly leaving the water running while he brushed his teeth).

There are, truth be told, some advantages to a drought. You can drive a filthy car without being criticized. You can skip the pretext of pre-washing your dishes and let the dishwasher attack the grime. You can skip a shower, and when someone says you stink of body odor, you can respond with morally superior civic-mindedness.

But while I’m happy to take advantage of those perks, at the same time, I must admit to becoming somewhat inured to the politicians’ cries that to the effect that – even though rain might not be falling – the sky is.

Here’s why. I’ve come to notice a rather annoying pattern in the reporting on the drought. We’ll be told that a certain reservoir’s capacity is done to 50 percent of normal, or that rainfall is 25 percent of normal. (Insert shrieks of panic regarding these completely random numbers here.) But no one actually reveals what normal usage is.

If my gas tank is 25 percent full, and I’m going to drive 500 miles, that’s a cause for concern. But if it’s 25 percent full, and I’m going across town, it’s not. So if a certain reservoir is 50 percent full, and we use 25% of that capacity annually, yes, that’s probably a problem. But if we only use 1% of its capacity annually, excuse me, I think I’ll go top off the swimming pool. I have not seen a single article that explains how much water we actually use annually.

I’m also beginning to get a little cavalier for other reasons. For instance, I’ve read that industrial water usage far outstrips residential usage, so my taking an Army shower really doesn’t have much of an effect compared to a farm reducing its consumption by 5 percent, say (again, making these numbers up). According to a letter to the editor in this morning’s Chronicle, the cotton, rice, and alfalfa crops alone soak up 15 percent of agricultural water usage in California.

And while some northern California cities are imposing water limits and fines, there are no such restrictions being imposed in southern California. The golf courses in Palm Springs are still emerald green.

Speaking of restrictions, it would be nice if there were some consistency to them. I realize that certain water districts have access to more liquid resources than others, but yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle reported that the East Bay city of Dublin is restricting its citizens to 640 gallons of water a day. Think about that a moment. The paper noted, without wry intent, that the cap “is expected to affect a fraction of residential customers.”

And as some of my conservation-minded friends note, it’s harder for someone who conserves regularly to cut back than it is for someone who’s been watering their lawn in the middle of the day.

At the same time, Santa Cruz has imposed a limit of approximately 249 gallons a day. That still sounds like a lot, but here’s the kicker I love: according to the story, “the caps don’t apply to businesses.” That means restaurants can keep slinging water glasses onto patrons’ tables and keep filling them up with impunity.

I can see there’s no rain. I’m being told there’s a drought. But until I get some real information about when we might actually run out of water, or see some consistency in how California’s citizens – both commercial and residential – are told to respond to the “emergency,” I have to admit that I’m getting more and more drought intolerant.

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The New New York

Ford To City HeadlineI first visited New York City on Wednesday, July 12, 1972. I remember this vividly because I was on a student tour of the United States, and I was neurotically nervous about what to expect.

It wasn’t that I followed the news religiously, but even as a teen-ager, I’d heard about callous New Yorkers ignoring Kitty Genovese’s screams. But I also didn’t know that New York was on the verge of bankruptcy (this was three years before the famous Daily News headline reading “Ford To City: Drop Dead”); or that the homeless would soon take over a vestibule of Grand Central Station; or that antagonists Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses were tussling over whether development was destroying the city.

I just remember that I ran into a lot of sullen, angry people. There was the woman whose foot I accidentally stepped on in a crosswalk as I was gawking at taller buildings than I’d ever seen. Even after apologizing to her, she wailed, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”

There was the bellman in our hotel, the Commodore (now remodeled into the Grand Hyatt, one of Donald Trump’s first big real estate deals). Though in every other destination we carried our own luggage, the Commodore had insisted their staff deliver the bags (and get a big collective tip as well), but mine was not in my room. When I explained to the bellman that I needed my suitcase by a certain time in order to make it to the Broadway show I had tickets for, he snapped at me, “You’ll get it when you get it.”

So it was a nice surprise when I visited New York last month and realized how much the city had changed in the last few years. Whether this is all former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s doing, I don’t know (here’s New York magazine’s article on his legacy). As we approached La Guardia, we flew above a glittering nighttime Manhattan, downtown’s Freedom Tower optimistically reaching up seemingly as high as the plane. Tony, the longtime doorman at the Roosevelt, was affable and helpful.

I was there for my annual writer’s conference – the one that spawned this blog – and I spent one evening walking with friends on the High Line. The High Line was a railroad line built to serve the Lower West Side factories, but with the factories gone, the line was going to be torn down. A couple of preservationists saved it, and we ambled with other tourists one night after dinner, peering into newly built or newly converted apartment buildings. It was night in New York, but it still seemed safe.

On Saturday afternoon, I walked up Fifth Avenue to what they now call Museum Mile: the Upper East Side neighborhood graced by the Guggenheim and others. The streets were cleaner than that first summer. There were vans selling soft ice cream every few blocks. Tourists from all over the world peppered the sidewalks. I walked across Central Park toward the Museum of Natural History, and there were friends and families sitting on blankets, playing sports, laughing. Lots of laughing.

But of course, the comparison isn’t fair for many reasons. It was springtime in New York, a long-awaited spring after a horrible winter. On my first trip, it was mid-summer, when the humidity hits you like an invisible spray of warm, dingy water. And I was in midtown Manhattan, a bubble as protected from the real world as my own Silicon Valley. Perhaps if I’d gone out to Coney Island, or taken the Staten Island Ferry – as I did when I was younger – I might have met some disgruntled New Yorkers.

But no – everyone seemed remarkably … gruntled. And I couldn’t help but think that if New York of all places can undergo that kind of transformation, perhaps there’s hope for the rest of the world.

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The Sad Parade of Things That Boomers Can’t Even Give Away

Mad Magazine 1967How odd life is sometimes. The things we prized, craved, coveted at one time are now bereft of value, candidates for landfill. (Unfortunately, some Boomers feel this about themselves; sometimes I do myself.)

As I’ve written, I recently had to clean out my father’s independent-living apartment, as he made the transition to assisted living. It was an eye-opening experience – not just in the revelation that my father as a clothes horse, but my realization that it was time to start de-cluttering. There is no way I want to put anyone I love – heck, not even a total stranger – through the ordeal of wading through my stuff and figuring out what has value and what doesn’t.

But as often happens, revelations lead to other revelations. And that is that a whole lot of stuff the most boomers think has value … actually really, really doesn’t. Consider this a partial list.

Televisions. I remember vividly when my family got its second television set. This was an auspicious occasion because it meant that my sisters and I no longer had to argue about what we were going to watch. I also remember how cool it was when I bought my own first television set, my freshman year of college. At the time, my roommate criticized it as a passive waste of time, but that didn’t stop him from sneaking peeks at it when I wasn’t there – something I caught him at one day.

And yet today, television technology moves so fast that you can’t even give the puppies away. This is not a new phenomenon. When we moved into our first house in 1993, the late owner’s daughter left behind a console television set – the kind that was more a piece of furniture than a television – and promised to pick it up later. She never did. I called a family friend who was an expert in early television technology and asked if it was worth anything. “Only as a boat anchor,” he replied.

And sure enough, the last thing to come out of my father’s apartment was the television set. Everyone wants flat screens these days, with HD and 3D and probably other kinds of D that I don’t know about. Even the plywood-veneer bookshelves that had graced my childhood home went before it. I eventually had to pay a recycling service to come haul it away.

VHS Tapes. One drawback to new DVR technology I’ve noticed is that you can’t record something and then loan it to a friend, the way we could with VHS tapes. (Well, you can likely do it technically, but it’s probably illegal and definitely beyond my technical capabilities.) Even so, you can’t give away VHS tapes, which you can loan to friends. I know this because I found two unused ones in my own house, posted them on Freecycle.org, the reduce/reuse/recycle Web site is a wonderful way to meet scroungers, if those are the people you like to socialize with. Nobody, but nobody, wants them.

Old issues of MAD magazine. This list is not limited to technologically obsolete items. You can’t get rid of your old MAD magazines either. This will come as a big surprise to former teen-age boys who have a stash of well-read copies of the humor magazine that came out of New York City back in the day. But go onto eBay and you’ll see that everyone else kept their stashes as well, so there are 40-year-old issues going for less than one dollar each. And some of those in better condition from the Sixties have no bids and price cuts posted. The only ones that come close to being valuable are the ones that are pristine – which means you couldn’t have attempted the back-cover fold-in. Which, of course, we all did.

Toys. I’m trying to keep this a secret from the IRS, but I had cabinets built in my home office not for work materials, but to display my toy car collection. It’s my diecast heaven, not to mention a round-up of what are known as promos – plastic 1:43 scale cars that were both given away by dealerships during the baby boom and sold by companies like Jo-Han in cellophane-windowed boxes in toy stores.

My sweet spot, of course, are the years of my childhood when I lusted after cars – not the engines, mind you, but rather the changing designs. These, too, are widely available on eBay, and I’m growing increasingly confident that as my generation ages, there will be fewer and fewer people enamored of car models boasting obscene fins.

Perhaps the only saving grace is that I won’t be around to see somebody paid to haul all my toys and comics away. I just don’t think I could stand that.

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