Just About Right

By Scott Westerman
“Hey, there’s Smith’s,” she said. “They have Boar’s Head, let’s stop and get some.”

Boar’s Head cold cuts were her faves when we lived in Florida. Only a couple of the Smith’s grocery stores here have the product. It was Sunday. We were on our way back from a cook-out, and since she’s the Queen, we’ll get some Boar’s Head.

Smith’s seemed well appointed and moderately busy when we entered. The first warning sign: Only one person in the deli. There were three of us in line, a line that soon grew to ten people. The teenager behind the counter finally called for help. Another teen from the hot case came over to assist. The fried chicken and onion rings would have to wait.

In this case, one plus one did not equal two. They talked to each other, conversing with customers only when necessary. The service was glacially slow.

It turned out that the Queen had a half dozen different meats and cheeses on her list. When we got to the salami our teen said, “I gotta go in the back to get this.” She disappeared.

There was a palpable sigh among the customers congregated around the deli. Another woman in line told us of a recent weekend day when she found the deli totally deserted. The person at the service desk told her, “nobody here knows how to do that today… so it’s closed.”

How hard is it to slice salami?

The teen reappeared, a chunk of meat in hand. The Queen was satisfied… for the moment.

The checkout lines looked like a queue at Disney World. My next mistake was to suggest we use the wide open self service lanes. There were four scanners, each attached to computer screens, credit card readers and bag carosels. A brave customer was slowly working his way through a grocery cart at scanner one. A lone woman stood behind a control console watching over the proceedings.

“There’s a reason nobody uses this,” the Queen said. I should have listened.

I scanned the first bar code. The machine said, “Put your item on the white square and scan your next item.” I put it in the grocery bag on the white square.

“Scan your Smith’s purchase card or your next item.”

I scanned my Smith’s purchase card.

“Hold your last purchase over the scanner and wait.”

What the hell did that mean? I held the card over the scanner. Nothing. I took the cold cuts out of the grocery bag and held them over the scanner again. Nothing. I tried putting another item on the scanner. Nothing. I looked to the control tower. The woman wasn’t anywhere to be found.

“I told you so,” said the Queen.

I pressed cancel. We eyeballed the lines at Disney World, trying to divine which one looked like it might move fastest. None were moving anywhere near the definition of fast.

Now we were both frustrated. The Queen said, “Why can’t Smith’s staff properly to support a pre-holiday weekend?”

I thought about my last conversation with our mayor. “We have less than 3% unemployment here,” he said. “In real terms that means that everybody who is capable of having a job has a job.”

Our consumer society is founded on the concept of supply and demand. When the supply of hard working workers can’t meet the demand, what do you do?

We pondered that one on our way home. In this world of publicly traded companies where every margin point can contribute to the quarter-over-quarter growth that investors demand, all too often customer service is a “just-about-right” thing.

“Just-about-right” means that if the service was any better, the analysts would complain about wasted expense and it’s unfavorable impact on profitability. If it was any worse customers would be so pissed off they wouldn’t shop there.

Today we were at the lower end of the just-about-right threshold. We bought the Boar’s Head anyway.

Walmart has made billions refining this philosophy. You expect minimal ambiance and marginal help at Walmart so you can save a few cents on your Cheetos. Service there is “just-about-right.”

In the days when there was no cable and only three TV networks, ABC’s Fred Silverman coined a similar concept called Least Objectionable Programming. Yeah the show may stink, but it doesn’t stink as badly as everything else that’s on, so you still get market share without having to pay extra margin points for excellence. If the show’s laugh track chuckles more often than you do, but you still watch it, the program is “just-about-right.”

The least mediocre alternative makes you the “cream of the crap.”

We passed Trader Joe’s. The parking lot was full. People pay a premium price there for stuff grown without chemicals. But part of the value is the ultra clean surroundings and a full compliment of well trained employees who seem to be having fun serving you. Even when the place is packed, shopping (which I hate) is actually enjoyable. I pay more for that privilege. But they don’t stock Boar’s Head.

The Queen opened one of the bags and we each had a slice of smoked turkey. “Smith’s sucks,” she said.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll learn to enjoy something less than Boar’s Head, or resign ourselves to endure lousy service to get it. At best, it will probably be “just about right.”