A Tale Of Two Markets
by The Cranky Media Guy
It's not every day that you get actual proof that a pet theory of
yours might actually be correct. I got some today and now I feel
like the Albert Einstein of amateur sociology or something.
I've had the feeling for some time now that, down the road,
society is going to regard the current business philosophy of
"bottom line is everything" as having been an element in
the destruction of American society.
The way I look at it, everything has its price, in one way or
another. Yeah, you can pay people as little as possible and
you can cut their benefits because it will help your stock price
short-term, but what does that do to the people you treat that
way? I mean, people aren't entirely stupid; they know when
their employer is paying them as little as the law allows.
They can figure out that they would get paid even less if it were
legal to do so. Would you figure that people dealt with that
way make much of an effort to do their best on the job? I
don't. I figure, statistically speaking, they do as little as
possible, just enough to keep from getting fired. Because it's
hard to quantify things like "employee discontent" in hard
dollar figures, bean counters tend to act like they don't exist.
Anyway, as I was saying, I kind of got confirmation of this
theory today. The supermarket closest to where I'm living is a
Food Lion. According to an article I read in the local
paper, Food Lion is the only employer in the area that has the balls
to list minimum wage-paying jobs with the state Job Service.
As you would guess, they're a non-union operation.
The local Food Lion isn't terrible. It's just kind
of...well, adequate would be appropriate, I'd say. The
people who work there aren't exactly killing themselves; they do
what they have to and not much more. Why should they put
themselves out when their employer values their services at the
lowest per-hour rate the law allows?
About 20 miles away from here, near where I work, is a Safeway
supermarket. Sometimes, the little woman and I do our shopping
there on the way home. We stopped there today.
Contrasted with Food Lion, the difference is like night and
day. As we walked in to the store, a lady stocking some
shelves greeted us. We don't shop there often enough for her
to recognize us, I don't think. She was just being friendly.
The checkout people always seem to be cheerful, as opposed to the
ones in Food Lion who act as if they just got turned down--again--
by the parole board. The guy we had today at Safeway actually
called my wife by name and told her to have a nice day. He was
able to do that because Safeway has these nifty little screens
hooked up to their cash registers that show how much each item is as
it's rung up and displays the customer's name. I think the
checkout people at Food Lion have to use an abacus to tote up your
While Chrissy was reeling from the hospitality of the cash
register guy, I went over to the service counter to buy a lottery
ticket (okay, so I'm a chump). The guy behind the counter was
filling out some forms regarding the previous customer who had
returned a carpet cleaning machine. I made a joke about the
paperwork and the employee explained to me that he was wrestling
with the forms because the customer had returned the machine late
and claimed that no one had told him that there would be a late
fee. I said, "I'm sure there's something on the contract
he signed about that," and the Safeway man said, "Well,
yeah, but sometimes you just have to be nice to the
customer." He was voiding the late fee. To get
service like that at Food Lion would require a mask and a pistol.
Oh, and as you exit Safeway, there are people who actually help
you load your groceries into your car. At Food Lion, the
unofficial motto seems to be, "Don't let the door hit you in
the ass on the way out."
Will it surprise you if I tell you that Safeway is a union shop
that starts its employees off at a salary a few dollars more than
the miserable minimum wage Food Lion offers? From the time you
enter the respective stores until you get back into your car, you
can see the difference. At Food Lion, the attitude of the
employees is one of barely tolerating the customers. At
Safeway, the employees actually seem to not hate their jobs and rue
the day they signed up for them.
See how it works? You treat employees like they're an
expense and an inconvenience and you get employees who just don't
care. You treat them like they actually matter (and pay them
enough to live on) and you get employees who take their jobs
I wouldn't be surprised to find out that Food Lion has a bigger
profit margin than Safeway. I wouldn't be surprised to hear
that Food Lion is one of the "darlings of Wall Street" or
something. All I know is that, compared with Safeway, they
treat their employees like lepers and it shows.
American business can continue to act as if its employees are
merely an expense and a nuisance (and it probably will). It
can continue to act as if every dollar that doesn't go into the
"profit" column is a wasted dollar (and it probably
will). The only thing is, one day we'll all wake up and
realize we live in a country full of people who don't give a rat's
ass about their jobs because they realize that, to their employer,
they have as little value as the law allows. Hmm, you know
what? Come to think of it, I think we might already just about
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