I’m wondering when we humans started assuming that commerce must be perfect? After all, the adage “let the buyer beware” has been in circulation since folks ran around saying it in Latin. A kind of passivity seems to have crept into transactions. Except for the act of opening one’s wallet, buying has become more of a reactive, spectator sport.
Maybe we should go back to friendly haggling in the marketplace, if only to remind us that we get to do more than consume: We get to participate.
This fact was made clear to me a few weekends ago when I set out to install window shades in my new digs. (They had to be shades. I think blinds were invented by a sadist, or at least someone with a full-time housekeeper.) It was Sunday afternoon, but so what? As a conscientious consumer, I know how to spend money seven days a week, if need be. However, I wanted to complete the project in one day, so I didn’t want to mess around with the buying part. I wanted to grab, go home, and put the things up before work on Monday.
I went to Lowe’s, which has a substantial presence in my town. It turned out I wasn’t the only one with a householder mission that day; the place was infested with weekend warriors pushing carts of hoses and paint cans and pieces of appliances. In the “window treatment” aisle, I lucked out and found a woman sporting the red Lowe’s smock and a harried expression. She was helping another customer, but was soon finished and turned to me. I showed her my list of carefully measured windows. The off-the-shelf shades would need to be cut to size with the nifty little in-store machine they have.
“All of these?” she said, not judgmentally, but not thrilled, either.
“Yep,” I said, still at full throttle. I began to lift shades off the rack to speed things along.
“No, wait.” She took a shade from me. “That’s room-darkening, see the little moon?” pointing at an icon near the label. “That shade’s in the wrong place. Who stocked these last night, anyway?” Some irritable rattling of the inventory ensued. “Here, give me your list. It will be easier if I work from the top.”
It wasn’t. We proceeded into a splendid, slow-mo train wreck that derailed us both for the next hour. The surface issue was one of semantics. I’d labeled the windows in each room numerically: window 1, window 2. The Lowe’s employee, for some reason, kept adding them up: Window 1 and window 2 equals three windows total, so three shades were needed for the room. “No,” I kept saying. “I only need two shades for that room.” She’d barely nod and then try, once again, to explain her math to me. Neither of us could manage to convince the other we were right.
Meanwhile, the rest of the warriors remembered they, too, needed window treatments and converged in the aisle. Shopping carts began to close in and menace our battlefield of disputed shades. People were staring. She started saying, “I’ll be right with you, sorry,” a lot, and her tone with me took on a “if you weren’t a customer” edge. The phone on her hip kept ringing: other train wrecks elsewhere in the store.
It was only when she said, “Ma’am, I’ll explain it one more time,” that inspiration hit. I grabbed the list back (her tone was getting to me), crossed out the 1 and 2, and replaced them with A and B. Window A, window B. Two windows total. Comprehension dawned in her eyes but also a gleam of resentment. She’d lost the argument, and there were still all the shades to be trimmed.
Nothing for it: I apologized profusely for her mistake, and as her ruffled feathers settled, we got down to business. I gave up the idea of getting my project done that day, leaned against a pillar, and covertly interviewed her while she made short work of the trimming. It was obvious, once she got into her rhythm, that she’d done it many times before. Where moments ago there had been tension, there was now flow. The clogged aisle gradually emptied of shoppers, like water released from a stopped drain.
This is when I learned about some of the subsurface issues that drove our transaction. They were short-handed that day and most days; this woman was one of few full-time employees left, hence the SOS calls on her phone; despite the benefits that Lowe’s offers, she couldn’t afford health insurance, even after working there eight years; the part-time stockers, by and large students uninterested in a career there, generally made a hash of things; Lowe’s was hurting from online competition; the trimming machine needed calibrating; and the maker of the shades, Levelor, had been bought out by Rubbermaid with unfortunate results (she tossed a couple of rejects aside as she worked).
By the end of the transaction, here’s where things stood: The employee’s self-respect was restored, even if her work prospects weren’t the rosiest. I had all the shades I needed for my project, but not enough time left to hang them. But I left having had an unexpectedly human encounter, in a process created by humans to be as efficient (read: depersonalized) as possible.
I thought I’d be writing about this experience from a supply-chain angle, since I found it interesting that no one—from the factory workers cranking out the shades in Mexico, to Lowe’s, to Lowe’s employee, to me, the consumer—was particularly satisfied with the process. When I got home, the shades proved to be not-quite-unacceptably short; I should have paid more attention to her comment about calibrating the cutter.
But really, in the great scheme of things (is there a great scheme of things?) the process worked remarkably well. Everyone except me, the wallet-opener, made some money, and I got, in one stop and one afternoon, what I wanted. No, the process wasn’t perfect, but it was vast and complicated and worked, mainly because a chain of less-than-perfect humans collaborated to make it work. The Lowe’s employee and I, the last two links in the chain, figured out what our parts were and did them. Mine involved more than rushing into the store and single-mindedly grabbing and departing.
We all manage to do way more with less time than ever before. We just maybe need to pay more attention to the individual transactions that make up the blur of our days.
So is that really “let the buyer beware” or “let the buyer be aware?”