Commentary: Walmart’s Speedy Checkout May Not Mean Fast
Speedy check-out doesn’t mean fast. It could mean glacial pace. I was thinking about semantics today while standing in a long-line at the nation’s largest retailer. I’m not a big Walmart guy but this morning I read a story about the company telling some suppliers it won’t any longer need them. Walmart, builder of massive stores, is paring down the choices on shelves. Many suppliers re-tooled their own businesses during the last 20 years in order to gain access to Walmart’s brand.
This morning I mentioned the upcoming change during the show (in an exchange about the shaky U.S. economy) and explained I don’t go there much. Unless I really need something I can’t find anywhere else and the empire founded by Sam Walton always seemed to have everything. After leaving work I decided to drive cross-town and make a stop. As usual the greeter was very friendly. Score one for Walmart’s ability to find the pleasant personalities for very public duties. Then I walked past the deli and decided I would buy some oranges. There were no bagged oranges on display. A woman tidying up the area showed me limes. It appears there was a language barrier, however. She was still sweeter than the limes and walked me to some swinging doors where some very nice men provided me with a 3 pound bag.
After wandering a few more aisles I found some things on markdown and filled not only my hand held basket but the crook of my left arm. When I arrived at speedy checkout there was a long line. The clerk pulled out a printed flyer and had an intense conversation with a woman. The customer then opened a large box and there was more discussion. Then the next customer, buying only a bottle of rose-colored wine, got into a chat about the price. The woman with the wine explained she was a regular wine drinker and the stated price on the shelf was wrong. After an investigation by the cashier there was a moment where both parties appeared satisfied. Then there was only one person ahead of me. A young man. He had a large jug of tea and some hot food in a bag. The label on the bottom of the bag was missing. As I waited on his return from the deli a fly started roving over my left-hand, which was clutching a box and I could feel some muscles tiring. My hand was twitching by the time I put my things on the counter. The cashier then scanned them in a snap and I swiped my debit card and was on my way.
Walmart appears to still be very busy but I imagine people are buying mainly necessities. There weren’t many large boxes leaving the store while I was there. You could argue the consumer is monetarily exhausted. Or there’s another possible explanation. The broadcast consultant, Walt Sabo, wrote some weeks back Walmart needs to hire more cashiers. While retail may not be his specialty he does know customer service. During a visit to a store near his home he observed rows of empty cash registers. I was aching waiting with a small load. How many customers with larger loads have simply given up? Americans love convenience. I noticed rows of prepared salads and microwaveable mashed potatoes in the deli. A wide swath of the frozen food section is devoted to heat and eat. There are hot pizzas ready to go by the speedy checkout. Maybe we’re missing something larger. While there I was thinking I had to get home soon and feed the cat, change a litter box and then fix my lunch. And I waited. An old joke when the Soviet Union was still in business was that Russians waited in long lines to get their hands on goods. We get our hands on goods quickly and then wait in long lines to pay for them.
Last week I was at my neighborhood grocery. One check-out of 12 was open and the line snaked across the perpendicular aisle and down the frozen food aisle. Finally, as I was sandwiched between two shelves of candy and chewing gum and had only one exit a woman arrived and announced, “I can take someone on aisle 5!” All the newcomers who had blocked my escape route to the rear rushed to aisle number 5 and smoke poured from my ears. I’m surprised the fire department didn’t respond. A rote, “I’m Sorry,” is the response to any complaints. A loyalty card doesn’t buy loyalty. Not when I feel nobody cares about my time, my tired arms or the self-centered rude people behind me. Occasionally someone in the back of the queue will insist I take number 5 but it’s rare. No wonder online shopping threatens the old model. Oh, and when I ordered an air-conditioner last spring from Walmart I did it online. I still had to drive across town to pick it up at a counter in the far reaches of the store. And the fan included in the order didn’t arrive for another two days. Rinse and repeat! I never believed Walmart would rule forever. I had breakfast at a Woolworth’s counter in Watertown, New York a few days before the counter closed for good. F.W. Woolworth launched his massive retail chain in nearby Utica and it spread across the country. Woolworth is now consigned to old folks memories. Any lessons here?