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Wattle Twaddle

turkey

It’s two weeks until Thanksgiving! You know what that means? Any second now the talking heads and “experts” will rise up and moan and rail against retail. Suddenly the plight of the employee and the sanctity of family will take on grave importance. The siren song of the big box store will lure people away from the sacredness of their nuclear hearth! How dire it is to impose commercialism onto such a pure holiday! Never mind the millions of turkey and pilgrim tchotcke festooning tables and mantels. Disregard the families barcalounged in front of football games all. day. long. It is shopping that threatens to erode this holy Norman Rockwell day!

“People shouldn’t have to work on Thanksgiving”; the bobble talking heads will shout. I suppose we should close the hospitals, police force & diners as well. Lots of people work on Thanksgiving. Do we expect the secret service or any branch of the military to lay down their arms and hoist a drumstick? I’m not sure anyone would want pilots, gas station attendants or bus drivers to have the day off. It’s interesting that retail employees are often the concern during this sacred poultry time. Retail workers regularly work evenings and weekends and often quite erratic schedules. Depending upon the shop they can be forced to wear a uniform and carry a see-though bag containing their belongings (the assumption being that they steal.) Retail workers are often on their feet all day long, not allowed to use the same bathroom as the customers and not given their week’s work schedule until the last minute. Throughout most of the year their interests aren’t exactly a priority. Let us just assume the moaners/ranters are just grasping at (cheese) straws and spouting twaddle.

But what of the family?! Whose family exactly? Is there a family so functional and fun loving and their time together so sacred? Is this fictional (if not entirely creepy) family so enamored with each other yet powerless to resist the charms of a doorbuster sale? Many many people do not have a family or one with whom they’d like to be sequestered. To impose some ideal onto every single person is if not callous than surely annoying. Would anyone care if family members went to the movies (spending obscene amounts of money to sit in dark silence together?) What is it about shopping that rankles the pundits? Is it that the shopping in question is for Christmas? Is the melding of holidays the equivalent of “my corn is touching my sweet potatoes!!!!”? If that’s it I suggest they take on the Thanksgiving/Chanukah synchronized celebrating of 2013.

I suspect that at the core of the whining is that any kind of change can make people cranky. Thanksgiving is nothing else if not a holiday revered for its stasis. We eat the same exact foods every year (heaven help the host who changes the stuffing recipe!) We go to or watch the same parade or movies. We take the post-feast walk or nap. There’s nothing wrong with clinging fast to the comfort of tradition. But there are lots of people out there with lots of different needs and desires. The idea that there is only one way to do something is a bit offensive. There’s a reason we serve more than one kind of pie.

 
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Posted by on November 14, 2013 in Holiday, Well-Being

 

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Keeping Our Gift Giving Heads

spearman5

You’d have to be living under a rock (or someplace wonderful that I’d love to hear about) to not sense the holiday retail desperation/frenzy. The sales and offers are coming in multiple chaotic waves. Online prices are jumping up and down like an untrained puppy. This curated and cultivated frenzy is designed to be contagious. There is nothing as frightening to retail as a cool, calm and collected shopper. List makers with moderate blood pressure and blood sugar are kryptonite to retail. So bring on the confusing and conflicting offers and the wonky gift items. (Is there really anyone with candy cane scented body lotion on his or her wish list?) It’s the time to convince shoppers that strangers know best. “Gift” items are positioned strategically in and around key areas of shops. Reindeer corkscrew? Who wouldn’t just love to have that in their junk drawer? Sugar plum flavored lip gloss? Okay, but does anyone even know what a sugar plum is? Personally, I’d prefer partridge in a pear tree scent.

The items being pushed as ‘perfect’ for every and anyone on your list aren’t merely Christmas themed. The latest (excruciatingly distasteful) fashion trend seems to be apparel usually seen on people very down on their luck. A torn sweatshirt with a ragged and fringed hem is being sold for $185. This is a garment you would not allow your partner or child to be seen in. You would wrestle it from their hands and relegate it to the rag bin. The full page newspaper advert showed this pathetic piece of cloth draped over the sharp and glossy frame of a highly styled young woman otherwise dressed for a night out. Ordinarily this would just be stupid and ridiculous, but five weeks after a devastating natural disaster which has left many people choosing their clothes from mounds of discards, it is just distatesful. Distasteful, but not unique. Today’s full page newspaper advert shows a similarly glam model wearing a pair of shredded jeans. The jeans are not decorated with strategically placed signs of distressed. No, the holes are stringy and show pronounced areas of skin. These can make that special person on your gift list happy for just $205.

Not sure if $200 rags are the perfect gift? Fear not, you can now pay someone to tell you what your friends and family would like. These clairvoyant personal shoppers will advise you as to what will make someone who means enough to you to warrant a gift, happy. Nifty, no? Keep in mind, they don’t purchase the gift or even wrap the gift. No no. They ask you the recipient’s age and gender and tell you what to buy. It’s like paying Santa to sit on your lap.

No matter how good our intentions not every gift will be perfect or even happily given. It’s inevitable that we will be socially forced into a grab bag situation or find ourselves spending the holiday with someone’s new partner. The important thing is not to panic. Let us not focus on checking off the list, but of keeping our heads. As we get closer to the big day keep your resolve. Write a little message to yourself if you think it will help; “Would I want to receive a glitter embossed cardboard box shaped like a gingerbread man?” For grab baggers consider something edible. If the spending parameters allow, how about something edible and a modest gift to a food pantry? Now how about that niece, colleague, stranger who you don’t know well enough to select a nice gift but feel compelled to give them a gift nonetheless? Money works. Money always fits and can’t be returned. Gift cards are usually to benefit the store/business and are no less crass than money. They are no less crass and more offensive. “I’m giving you money and telling you where to spend it.” isn’t the most giving sentiment. Still feel that cash is cold? How about giving an equal amount (in the recipient’s name) to a local charity or not for profit organization? Who wouldn’t be touched by that thought?

Less landfill more goodwill.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2012 in Holiday, Style

 

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Spend A Little Time With Me*

Been shopping lately? By the looks of mall parking lots and the bruises on my knees from shopping bag laden pedestrians, there’s a reasonable chance that you have in fact been shopping lately. It’s early enough in the season that you may have been aware of your surroundings. In three or four weeks your shopping awareness will narrow to whatever stands in your way of finishing your list. But right now, unless you’re shipping gifts around the world or creating eight nights for eight people in two weeks, you still have hold of your senses while shopping.

If you’ve shopped more than one store you may have noticed a dichotomy in customer service. There are shops; chain, department or independent, that subscribe to the “we want to help you spend your money” retail mission statement. You will know relatively quickly if you will be a serviced customer. The clue is not the robotic yet eerily chirpy; “Hello” or “Welcome to _____” as you walk through the door. That unfortunate selector of the short straw is not there to help you. They are there to give the party line and watch who’s sneaking out with a mysteriously lumpy mid-section. The first indication you have of a customer service oriented staff is being able to identify individual staff. If they are in a huddle you’re on your own, good luck to you. If they look no different than a shopper (gazing around without intent, checking their phone, playing with their hair/clothes/make-up) you’re on the ice floe. This distracted disinterested display is not distinct to seasonal staff. All through the year you can walk into many stores and be ignored. (Ex. I asked for a smaller size four weeks ago and would still be waiting hopefully in that dressing room of “unnamed chain store” if it wasn’t for a pesky eating habit.)

No doubt some of this disinterest in extracting money from customers (via some modicum of service) is due to a non-commission structure. But it’s also simply a matter of corporate (or independent owner) philosophy. There is at least one chain store (to whom the First Lady is rather partial) that must use commissions. The sales person mentions his/her name far too many times for it to be anything else (the staff exhibits no other shared tics.)  They know the inventory and can assess one’s size in a second (a sure sign that a customer is actually being seen.) This particular chain is really no different (in style and market) than many other retailers. Yet shopping there is a dramatically different experience. You could walk in off the street and ask; “I’m in need of a sweater, but not a really sweatery sweater, just something that makes you think: sweater” and be shown several options. Try making this request in the BananaTyalorGap and you will receive a glazed eye; “uhm you need to find a manager.” (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that I need to find a manager. I need to. As if I work there.) There are independent shops and department stores that vary as dramatically as chain stores in their customer service philosophy. It’s always fun to walk into a boutique filled with exquisite one-of-a-kind odor absorbing clothing and hit a wall of curried lunch. The sales person is eating at the counter while engaging in an impassioned and excruciatingly personal phone conversation and glaring at you for listening. If that doesn’t make you want to hand over your hard-earned money, I don’t know what does.

That is why when you hear those words; “May I start a fitting room for you?” “Is there anything special you’re looking for?” or “I brought you a few other things I thought you might like.” you never want to leave. The rarity of this shopping experience is all the more baffling as online shopping becomes more robust and ubiquitous. It would stand to reason that customer service is how you lure people out of their homes. Yet sales staff training seems to consist of 3 parts folding lessons and 1 part cash register lesson. I dare suggest that the job would be more interesting if there was an actual sales component. Employees might just stick around and perhaps consider retail as a career. The majority of sales staff eating, chatting/texting and sulking are doing so out of boredom (the minority just dislike people and should seriously consider a move to a health insurance call center.)

Retailers: in a world of indistinguishable goods and competitive pricing the way to differentiate oneself is through the shopping experience. Make it easy for customers to happily part with their money.

*Big Spender – (1966) Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2012 in Holiday

 

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The Mother’s Day Mystique

Mother’s Day is coming around. Even if you don’t own a calendar app, you would know. You can not open a newspaper, walk through a pharmacy, or click on anything, without a pinkish flower festooned banner reminding you that the day is near. The ‘holiday’ was first conceived as a call to disarmament (a family friendly version of Lysistrata) and later revised as a way to honor mothers. But it did not take hold in the public’s imagination until an enormous department store got behind it (evidently the miracle of motherhood takes place on 34th street too.) So it really should come as no surprise that the day is seen as such a major retail event.

What always does take me somewhat by surprise is how marketers and publicists view mothers and motherhood. If you were to try and understand motherhood by reading greeting cards (presumably created for adults to give to their mothers) you would believe that throughout her entire lifespan a mother gives selflessly of herself, denying herself to the extent of needing a ‘special day’ on which she can put up her feet. You would be hard pressed to find even one card that speaks to how an adult may feel about his/her mother (ex. “Thank you for helping to make me the person I am today.” OR “Isn’t it nice we’re still speaking?”)

The gift suggestions that have been bombarding consumers since midnight on Easter would have us believe that every woman who has ever parented is in fact Donna Reed (who in fact is not even Donna Reed.) Her interests (if I can use that term) include; decorative scarves, perfume, manicure devices, make-up sets or cardigans.This time of year is when any and every version of “chicken soup for the postnatal soul” is strategically placed on a table front and center of the store. (Noticeably absent from the displays are copies of Mommie Dearest or that lovely book by Bette Davis’ daughter.) There are stores that offer specially decorated (cue pink and roses) gift cards for the day. You know, for the person who’s never actually met his/her mother.

Mother’s Day is one of the more profitable days for retail. Some of that cash is coming out of husband’s wallets (which from a psychological perspective seems a bit icky.) I suppose when a macaroni necklace simply won’t do… Grown men purchasing gifts and passing them off as being from their children (which is kind of the inverse of Santa, isn’t it?) might explain the Mother’s Day marketing of some youthful apparel. An adult is not buying his/her mother “whimsical/retro apparel” unless there’s a biologically improbably minute difference in their ages. Nor are most adult children buying mommy a diamond tennis bracelet (I said, most; I can just hear the dissent of professional athletes, captains of industry and show people.)

Many of us have (or are) mothers who have actual interests, and who read books not pitched to them from a mass retailer or talk show hosts. We delight in the many gift options we enjoy giving and receiving, and don’t use promotions or advertising to guide us. But isn’t it just mildly offensive to walk through these few weeks with a vague sense of being caricatured? If we were to jot down each and every message being broadcast (re: Mother’s Day) and try to distill it into a portrait of motherhood, we’d find ourselves with some sort of apron wearing, vapid drag version of motherhood. Isn’t the whole point of this holiday to honor the woman (not the cartoon) who has played an important part in our lives?

*Photo – Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft and Judy Garland

 

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There’s Gotta Be Something Better To Do*

The world of work has changed dramatically in this country during the past fifty years.  If we conjure “work” from the early 1960s, most of us will flash on some sort of variation on Mad Men.  Homogeneity in the workplace was de rigueur, and many retired from the very same company with which they began their work life.  Unskilled labor opportunities were somewhat divided between manufacturing and the service industry.  Labor was pretty well organized during this period and again it would not be unusual to retire from the same factory/department store where one began their work life.

While we still have a fair share of light manufacturing in this country, most would agree that the service industry makes up the majority of our unskilled labor industry today.  The funny thing about the service industry is that the world sees you working.  Most of us would have little cause to witness an administrative assistant at work, but we’ve all probably seen a home health aide or shop assistant.  And from where I’m standing, it would appear that we are the only people watching.

Recently I have observed a desire by (what we consider) unskilled workers to make their job as small as possible.  Some of this should be attributed to self-check out for customers, automated phone trees and the like.  But some of it is clearly a lack of training and professional development programs.  No doubt most of us had (or have) jobs at which the clock moves very very slowly.  It makes the day all the more endless to do less!  When the check-out woman at the (relatively gourmet) food store tells me to move my reusable shopping bags to exactly where she likes them, I have to wonder.  Her arms are fully engaged in checking her cell phone, so we know it’s not a mobility issue.  Her eyes do not need to scrutinize prices, as she only need sweep them in the general vicinity of the scanner.  She is not distracted by the register as I am checking myself out with a credit card.  There is no heavy lifting to speak of as gourmet tidbits rarely come in bulk.  So why would she want to make her job as robotic as possible?  No doubt she tires of waiting on people who might be paying a bit too much for that pound of coffee.  However, acting sullen and hostile is not always the most direct path to management.  Where exactly is her supervisor in this story?

The service industry can be a very rewarding career option.  Working in retail needn’t be the least bit mind numbing or dead end. The same is true for any number of service sector jobs.  The industry, by its very nature, often attracts those with the least amount of formal education.  All classes and cultures have a slightly different orientation towards work.  The great equalizer should be the workplace.  It is in the best interest of the employer and the economy, to train workers and illuminate their way towards a lifelong career.  It would not be realistic or sustainable to expect independent companies to have training and professional development guidelines in place.  But certainly any company or agency doing business with any branch of government need to demonstrate their commitment to their employees.  High schools could have a huge impact on workplace readiness, either with mandatory internships or classes.

Work has changed, industry has changed, higher education has changed and work readiness has definitely changed in the last fifty years.  When manufacturing was our largest (unskilled) employer, changes were made to the (once heralded) assembly line to address the needs of the worker.  Our economy is now sufficiently shifted to do the same for service workers.

*There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This – Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity (1966)

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2012 in Cultural Critique

 

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