Clerk shortage, food shortage

Regularly at Walmart, I’ll want to buy onions, but the onion bin is empty. Or a pouch (Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!) of salmon. There’s a space on the shelf, maybe an empty cardboard box where the salmon used to be, but there’s no salmon. Or gherkins, or oyster crackers, or hot dog buns. The stuff is in the store, but it’s on the pallet back in the back. The shelves look like the Moscow Central Grocery Collective might have looked in 1982. In Soviet Russia you could slip some money to the clerk, and she’d sell you some of the salmon hidden under the counter. In Walmart, there are no clerks.

In Communist Russia, the central planners set the price of salmon below its market price, so alternate mechanisms developed for distributing salmon. Maybe fish was rationed by hassle — the salmon cost twenty kopecks plus two hours in line, or twenty kopecks plus a bribe for the clerk. Or maybe you bought your salmon from a guy who stole it from the cannery.

In America today, it’s completely different. To keep costs down (Thanks, Obamacare!), Walmart has thinned out their supply chain until they have too few people working too few hours to keep the shelves stocked, and there are long lines to check out. They have, in effect, set the price of salmon below what it costs. But this is America! Here, we don’t wait for hours or bribe the clerks (there are no clerks; that’s the point!) Here in America, we buy something else, or we make a scene. We stand in the aisle and holler “Where’s the salmon!” or “Customer need assistance!” I mean, one would rather politely ask a clerk for help, but like I said there are no clerks.

People could shop somewhere else, but circumstances are the same there. Mom and Pop’s closed because they couldn’t compete with Walmart prices. Ritzy Organic’s prices are too high for someone on disability or working part time at, wait for it, Walmart! where their hours just got cut. Before the current food price inflation (which of course is not really happening), I thought the retail business model of the future might be membership. Customers would pay a flat monthly fee for whatever they wanted to carry out of the warehouse. Now, I don’t know. Maybe we need federal food insurance.

UPDATE 28 March 2013: more here with links.


9 Replies to “Clerk shortage, food shortage”

  1. When you said, “Maybe we need federal food insurance.” my gut response was, “Shhh!! No! They’ll hear you, and they won’t know you’re joking. Or they won’t care.”

    1. As a companion program to the Affordable Care Act covering people who work over 30 hours a week, they could mandate that anyone employed fewer than 30 hours a week have employer-paid food insurance.

      It’s as if a few years ago the best and brightest concluded that the work force participation rate was too high and needed to be reduced, and then went to work reducing it. Which, if we someone wanted to say that it was in fact too high, and society would be better off if fewer people worked at better-paying jobs, would be something we could talk about.

  2. The stuff is in the store, but it’s on the pallet back in the back.

    Are you sure? The only place I know that has more than two day’s worth of stock on hand–due to being taxed on stock, rather than sales– is the Base Exchange. Which gets away with a lot of stuff private business can’t, including the baggers not being paid. (They work for tips.)

    That means that, say, a news story that mentions salmon burgers can trigger higher demand, and wipe out the “expected” two day’s worth of stock in an hour.

    1. You’re right about the failures of just-in-time logistics. What’s happening at Walmart (that is, what’s failing to happen…) I think is related but different. It sounds like the stuff they want to have in the store is there, for however many days of sales they mean to have on hand, but it’s not on the shelves because they have too few employees to get it out of the back and off the pallets. An article from Bloomberg News says Customers Flee Wal-Mart Empty Shelves for Target, Costco.

      My take on this is Walmart is a victim of its own personnel policies (and indirectly of Walmart’s support for Obamacare). And gosh, das tut mir leid. Organizations of all kinds do this all the time – lay off or fail to replace people, and demand that those left take up the load. And they keep doing that, quarter after quarter, until something fails – an important job doesn’t get done, profits fall, or there’s a large public embarrassment. Then additional “human resources” are made available. It seems to me it’s better for the employees left if the failure occurs before what will otherwise be the next round of layoffs or hour reductions.

      1. It sounds like it, yes, but is it actually true?

        The only source is the Bloomburg article, where the only solid information is leaked minutes from a meeting last month where they identified a problem and moved to fix it.

        Oh, and “slowing sales growth“. As in, sales are still growing, but not hand over fist like they were. And the massive growth coincides with management identifying a “stocking problem.”

        Other than that, there are quotes from “experts” and activists that want to unionize Walmart, and select quotes from those interviewed for padding for a story on how WalMart is dying.

        Contrast with my local store, where I go when it’s not rush hour, and not only is stuff mostly stocked (because they restock at night, when there’s less demand for customer service) but if you go to the Site to Store area, the nice lady will flirt with my kids while some kid from stock checks if things are there or not.

        Usually, it’s not there.

        Bet if they’d interviewed me, it would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor.

      2. It’s kinda funny they mention Target so often as a better option– and Costco, for that matter. I’m familiar with both, and my sister would probably laugh at the lady reporter’s trying to sell Target as somehow not doing all the same things that are pointed out as causing Walmart’s problems– she’s worked there for years and they keep cutting her time, too. EVERYONE would “like to work 40 hours, but sometimes get only 14.” (I can’t remember if that’s the correct number quoted, but it’s what my sister has been randomly getting. At one point, yes, she was getting close to 40 hours at a go, but…like you said, Obamacare.)

        Cut people and expect those left to pick up the slack? She’s now being assigned the same amount of work, but with half the hours. While training new employees.

        Costco, meanwhile, really doesn’t have any customer service and stuff can’t be in the back in storage because they don’t have storage. There’s staging for post-delivery, but that’s about it.

  3. Hm, the article you link has a glaring problem in the first paragraph– part of the reason I like WalMart is because they actually stock stuff made in America. 90% of it I can’t get at, say, Fred Meyers or Safeway– especially the baby stuff, but also the bargain bakeware.

    Looks like warmed-over complaining about WalMart not being 100% Made In USA. (Yes, I know that was once their “thing,”)

    1. The salmon says “product of Thailand.” The kippered herring that’s been on sale lately is from Germany. I don’t blame Walmart for this – you have to go where the fish are. :-)

      1. Stuff, not food; our fish industry got destroyed when Congress ordered American Samoa to follow the minimum wage laws. (Which also greatly inflated my local parish, since we ARE the go-to Samoan community for my area.)

        As I understand it, we’ll actually catch fish in the US, then ship it elsewhere to be processed.

Comments are closed.