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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 purchase.

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 seriously.

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 be there.

 

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