Retail stupidity -- What's up at #Superstore and #Michaels?

The woman rushed up to me with all the urgency of an ER nurse, her expression presaging the importance of what she was about to say.

            “If you want your tax refunded,” she said earnestly, “you need to go over to customer service.”


            I was at the Real Canadian Superstore, a grocery store familiar to many Canadians, where service has been slashed -- but not quite to the bone. One of its sister stores, Loblaws, is slightly fancier while the other sister – the homely one – is aptly named No Frills. And indeed, there are no frills to be found there, only empty boxes stacked high near the checkout area where you are invited to pack your own groceries, and by pack I mean balance them precariously in flimsy boxes with half their original rigidity, before dodging traffic while hauling them out to your car.

            But I digress. I was at the Superstore, on what turned out to be No Tax Day. Since we don’t pay sales tax on most groceries in Ontario, the No Tax hoopla that Superstore rolls out every few months doesn’t register with me. If I were about to buy a TV from my local grocery store, or maybe outfit my whole family with Joe Fresh disposable clothes, then I would punch No Tax Day into my Google calendar and synch it with every device in my house. My toaster would tell me it was No Tax Day.

            However, since I tend to buy mostly non-taxable groceries at the Superstore, my toaster remains out of the loop.


            Where once I balked at the idea of scanning my own groceries, I now search out the opportunity, confident I can get out of the store more quickly than going through the conventional check-out line. (I’ve even been known to steal the odd 5-cent plastic bag – going all Naomi Klein on the global capitalist power structure. Occupy This.)

            I scanned my groceries and then paid quickly and painlessly by simply tapping my credit card on the magic payment screen. That’s when the cashier/ER nurse arrived to tell me what was required if I wanted to get in on Tax Free Day.

            “I tried to get here before you paid, but you were too quick,” she said. Amid my confusion, I felt a twang of guilt for being so gosh darn efficient. “I was going to credit your tax before you paid,” she continued. “But now that you’ve paid, you have to go to customer service to get your tax back.”

            That’s when I noticed how much tax I had paid: 82 cents. I don’t know how low that number needed to go before I would have walked away, but 82 cents was enough incentive for me to head to customer service, where, like all customer service counters, there are two inalienable rules: We move at our own pace and there is always one person at the counter buying lottery tickets.

            I walked out with an 82-cent credit, marveling at the software engineering and development Superstore and its Loblaw parent company were using. They have a machine that allows me to scan anything in their store and then weighs what I’ve scanned to make sure I’m being honest. They allow me to pay by simply tapping my credit card on a pad. But, to rebate the equivalent of the tax I’ve paid, they require their employees to dash amongst six self-check kiosks, interceding just as customers attempt to pay. If they are late or distracted or trip or are perhaps making someone else’s rebate magically appear, well the only recourse is to direct the uber-efficient shopper to customer service.

            Do the IT people at Loblaw head office blush when they send out instructions to hundreds of stores in preparation for No Tax Day? Do they apologize for not being able to insert a line of code that would credit the tax automatically, circa 1986?

            The stupidity of that transaction was still rattling around in my head the next day when I went to buy a picture frame at Michaels, the arts and crafts store that works very hard to bring together two modern-day vices – hoarding and extreme couponing. Clutter is the operating philosophy at Michaels, as is the endless distribution of 40-per-cent-off coupons.

            Standing in line to pay for my picture frame, which, to be fair, was discounted 60 per cent, I got to hear the cashier spiel several times. In addition to asking the inane, “Did you find everything you were looking for today?” question and pimping for a donation to the charity-of-the-day, the friendly woman asked each customer for her email address. In response, every shopper, all clearly regulars, said she had already given Michaels her email address and received coupons that way.

            To that, the cashier had this remarkable comeback: “The more often you give us your email address, the more offers you get. It’s a kind of loyalty program.”

            If I hadn’t heard her explain it several times, I wouldn’t have believed it. The good folks at Michaels have instituted a system that encourages all their customers to dictate their email addresses to the cashier every single time they shop at the store!

            Four deep in line, picture frame in hand, I heard every person ahead of me list her email address in the same manner by which the U.S. president takes the oath of office on inauguration day – section by section, so the cashier could keep up as she entered the information into the computer.

            On an average April weekday afternoon, this ridiculous process created quite an impressive bottleneck at the check-out counter. Imagine how much more havoc it could create on a busy Saturday afternoon. How about in December when every second person is lining up to buy materials to fashion a jolly Christmas wreath?

            Companies everywhere, from Apple to Starbucks, WestJet to Zappos, are simplifying their products and processes to make every interaction as simple and enjoyable as possible. And then we have the Superstore and Michaels, designing systems that do the opposite, in the guise of a customer benefit.

            I guess I should be thankful Michaels doesn’t sell lottery tickets.