Monday, December 12, 2011

Stopping the Buck

Last month, I had a short, yet horrifying retail exchange with the owner of a local nationally-branded hardware store.  Not horrifying fiscally, mind you, but rather for the social and ethical implications.  I’ve only just now settled down enough to write about it, and in life’s macroscope (regards to Mr. Anthony), what happened is relatively inconsequential.  I will live comfortably with the resolution to never patronize that particular store or any other merchant wielding such grimly leveraged policies.  The establishment will no doubt continue as a going concern due to the economics of demand.

The Information Age has given way to the Disinformation Age, which I have suspected for some time evolved into the Overload Age in the late 1990s.  Accelerated with the smartphone advent, I believe John Q. Public is now vastly tuning out, not bothering to notice a beastie’s paws in his pockets.  Overload begets abstinence.  Disappear in the noise of anonymity, lest you be an outlier.  John Q’s the one tapping, pinching and sliding away at his smartphone who just now walked into a power pole.  We laugh at his embarrassment, and he pays us no attention.  Fool, we think.  We hit a car while pointing our fingers out the window at John Q.  He never saw or heard the wreck, of course—head down, earbuds installed, in another world altogether.

Students of negotiation tactics may immediately recognize a gambit called “The Overwhelm”.  An Overwhelm occurs when a negotiation utilizes a multitude of possible approaches to achieve a singular goal.  There are probably other names for this strategy, given a different context, but think of a home mortgage or car loan.  You are attempting to buy just one item, and it has a singular price on the bottom line.  Yet, to get to that bottom line, you must negotiate your way down an entire sheet filled with line after line of purposely manufactured and poorly explained fees.  You are absolutely free to negotiate every single line down to the bottom, but in the end, the piranhas have likely nibbled their desired share from your bones.  You either realized it and gave up during the fight, didn’t care in the first place, or never set foot in the river.  In the fight for your personal information, you are being similarly “nibbled”, but the difference is in the ambiguity of leverage.

So, what happened exactly at that treacherous little hardware store?  Simple, really, on the surface.  I bought a $4 replacement aerator nozzle for our bathroom sink (the tip under the end of the faucet with a screen that softens and reduces the flow of water).  Ah, but it was the wrong size, and I needed to exchange it for another.  As it turned out, the replacement cost $1 less.  Hurray for me!, I thought.  Then came the actual exchange.  The clerk spent several moments wrestling with the register, filled out the proper forms, reached into the register, and grabbed my dollar plus loose change.  Just before handing it over, she placed a pad of preprinted personal information forms in front of me, demanding that I completely fill one out first.  Name, address, phone number, and signature, no less.  Of course, if you’ve been paying attention to everything I wrote above, you can guess my response.  What also needs conveyance was the immediate sense of utter disdain at this attempted ransoming.  (Sigh)  And so it began…

“I’d like to speak with the manager.”
Clerks, God bless ‘em, haven’t the authority to skirt policy, and the store’s general manager happened to be standing just to the other side of the clerk.  GMs as they are typically instructed, passively evoke the same lack of power.
“I’m sorry sir, it’s a store policy, and I don’t write those,” said the manager.
Of course!  I’ve had to issue that same statement in years past.  Blame the intangible.  Pass it on to that mystical being nobody dares summon—that man behind the curtain—the ghost of the machine.  Store owners?  Well, this wouldn’t be much of a battle if I didn’t take it to the top, keeping in mind that this was all over a dollar—just one buck.
“I’m not going through with this exchange and would like the name and contact information of your store’s owner.”

That’s it; I’m now branded a hostile in their eyes.  And from this point, things got…pathetic.

The manager and clerk quickly handed over the original purchase, closed out their forms, returned the dollar plus change to the cash drawer and politely (surprisingly!) cited the owner’s name and phone number.  If anything, the piece of mind and my integrity will be worth it, I thought.  I returned to my car, picked up my cell phone, and dialed the number.

“Hi, thank you for calling (store).  How may I help you?”
It was her—the very clerk at the same register I just left.  Unbelievable.
“I hope this isn’t a joke, miss.  I asked for the owner’s number, not yours.”
“Sir, this is the owner’s number.”  She said flatly.
“And is the owner actually there at this moment?”  I suppose she and the manager were thinking they had somehow dodged me with inexplicable lunacy.
“Yes he is.”

I hung up, trudged back into the store and asked for the owner, who quickly materialized.  He was a tall man in his early fifties, evidently irritated by his summons.  I suppose he’s used to dealing with pesky vendors, as anyone in retail could attest.  Even so, I was actually impressed that he would take the time, estimating that the clerks surely forewarned him of me.  In kind, I thoughtfully invited him outside so not to startle his other customers.  He accepted.

I downloaded my grievance, my qualifications as a former retailer, and as a concerned customer.  I explained that those unduly leveraged policies denigrated society, and that my dollar now represented much more than its face value.  My patronage and word-of-mouth were at stake.
Deaf ears.  Without hesitation he replied, “Sir, you need to understand that when you give me your money, it is now mine, and what I choose to do with it is my business.”
It took me a moment to digest this.  Arrogance?  Ignorance?  Insolence?  Oh my!  In defense, I explained that the world’s largest retailers make no such informational demands, and that I knew he was simply leveraging for personal contact information.  Touché’, I thought.  And this is where the BS hit the fan.
“Call it junk mail if you like, mister, but that’s not the reason.  Every time one of my cashiers reaches in to take out money, I need to know to whom it’s going.”
I laughed.  “Gee, under that logic, you should be requesting a form every time you make change for a twenty.”

I was getting nowhere with this man.  He tried to pawn it off solely as a theft deterrent, but we both knew better.  He knew he possessed a large and needy customer base.  He had the leverage.  One customer and his dollar won’t matter.  I’m the paperboy from Better Off Dead.  So I spent that dollar on words to him, and parted civilly, lamenting.  The fact that I still needed replacement aerator and that I was indeed actually out $4 didn’t matter.  I was sad for the world.

That was, until I drove to a larger national hardware/home improvement store, found the nozzle (for less), and relayed my experience to a sympathetic and shocked department manager.  Step One to my recovery.  This is Step Two:  writing to you all with this warning:  You are, in fact, being nibbled or wholesale ransomed for your information on a daily basis—many times without your cognizance (see articles concerning smart phone application permissions!), and it’s solely up to you to defend yourself.

And now on to another bit on the practices of deception…
That Syncing Feeling

Did anyone catch Gene Simmons comments toward Madonna a few days ago?  I swear I had already completed diligence and a rough draft of this entry below before that link appeared!  Alas, I’ve been beaten to the punch.  The consolation is that it’s by someone I respect, and who will no doubt have a farther-reaching impact on this next topic:  The “Live” Performance.

As a pseudo tie-in to October’s blog, you may recall that KISS has not been invited to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  It appears they, and most of the others on that blog’s list, have been skirted by the likes of the Beastie Boys, Guns & Roses, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Granted, excellent artists/entertainers and deserving acts, but more deserving than the others on the list?  Start laughing like you do every year, and then let’s get back to what Gene said in that link above.  He’s ticked about performers touting themselves on stage as a “live” act, when in fact, an alarmingly growing number of high-profile entertainers now routinely engage in mass deception.  Not only are they lip-syncing, many if not all of their backing musicians are now miming it.  What exactly is a live performance nowadays?

Let’s take a step back and consider the fact that not long after the dawn of recorded music and amplification, producers discovered that they could create the deception.  Hollywood has been at this, well, forever.  Singing in the Rain, anyone?  But this is in the movies and I think everyone regards the need for absolute perfection in that recorded medium.  If the issue became exposed through poor execution, we laughed at the perpetrators.  The real infraction occurs when you pay obscene amounts of cash to see an advertised live performance.

Rarely has anyone been caught in sync failure live, but you can’t forget the epic catastrophes of Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, and a host of others.  Yet now, lip sync failure has become so commonplace it’s a sort of cry for help.  If paying attention, one can witness it on a weekly basis during several television shows featuring “live” performances.  Has the pursuit of perfection become so overwhelming, producers are willing to risk exposure for it?  Have performers really become that lazy or is it the behest of their bean-counting overlords?

“Have some integrity…disclose it,” says Gene.  A few national governments agree.  Consider this—Australia and S. Korea have tabled laws governing live performances.  Australia wants full disclosure on your concert ticket.  Can you imagine?  “This show uses 80% recorded material.”  Ooh, I like that one!  Korea wants to ban lip-syncing entirely.  Harsh, but admirable.  But again, what is, exactly, a live performance these days?  And do they mean for television or for concerts?  When they say “live”, what exactly do they mean?  Surely not just “in-person”!

As a practicing engineer, my own observations are thus:  “Live” concert performances these days may include any number of recorded and simulated sub-performances.  Singers may have their microphones turned on in between songs so you think it’s active the entire time.  The mic could be active the entire time, but with volume mixed just below the recorded track.  The performers may even have performance-enhancing electronics (software plugins such as Antares' Autotune) running in real-time to correct the pitch of their voices.  Keyboardists, bassists, and guitarists may actually be pros at Guitar Hero instead.  Drummers could be playing “television kits”—those that look exactly like a real drum set, but sound like tapping carpet if you’re on the stage.  And how do these singers sing so well upside down in a trapeze?  It’s not magic, it’s Memorex.  And, in my book, this is categorical fraud, nothing less.  If people paying for a touted “live performance”, it should be a real, live, honest-to-goodness performance.  And for video?  Recorded video and movies are an art unto themselves, given unto a recorded medium.  There is no deception in that disclosure because the artists do not laud the performances contained within as “live” or anything close (with exception to live recordings, which should also be unembellished).  For me, that’s the Line of Demarcation.  Keep marketed live performances real, and let the recorded arts continue as recorded fantasies.  What say you?
And on to the business of this business.  (I mean writing!)

The next few months other endeavors take the forefront, some of which involve this art, some another.  Bolita is enjoying its run as a hardcover novel and we’re working hard for increased exposure.  I am also diligently tapping away for Emily’s sake, but she would quickly accuse me of wanton procrastination.  I expect no less from a young girl in her situation, and if not for the multitasking, I’d say she’s spot-on.
You may expect some exciting announcements before the next equinox concerning Dust and Bolita.  Keep your eyes on this blog in the meantime.  I will be back next month.

…and of course, Happy Holidays!


1 comment:

  1. How does one reach you to ask if you could work a gig in mid May 2012?


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