Job Errors

I don’t often buy things online. Maybe a book I can’t get anywhere else, but most often coffee I can’t get locally. That, of course, makes me feel like an outsider in this world in which everything seems to be available from internet sources and a huge majority of people seem to be members of Amazon Prime and there are ads on TV that tell me “you already buy almost everything online”. Well, I don’t, and I refuse to. The way I see it, I have a choice between two options:

(a) Ordering from home “in my pajamas” and having the items delivered to my porch, in two or three days, and possibly stolen from there, and potentially having to send them back if they aren’t what I expected.

(b) Driving to a local store, actually seeing and feeling what I’m buying before I pay for it, and taking it home immediately.

Of these, I prefer the second option (b), even if it costs a little bit more (it doesn’t always). That choice also has the added benefit of keeping more of my money here in our community. Some things are more important than getting the lowest price.*

However, there are some things that cannot be purchased in a local store. In the past few years, that has made me aware of two more reasons to avoid ordering something that has to be individually shipped. I’ve heard people complain about both of these problems and I’ve experienced both myself, but I’ll describe each of them separately, then bring them back together because they both stem from the same cause, a modern and increasingly troublesome trend.

Have you ever ordered something online, carefully picking out the specific item you want, only to open the box when it arrives and find that they sent you the wrong color or size or flavor? I’m not talking about ordering a size 6 petite and discovering that it is both smaller and longer than you expected. What I’m referring to is when you order a size 6 and the invoice says size 6 but the warehouse has put a size 10 in the box. Either way, you have to send the item back, but in the first case it was because of a common problem with sizing (because, of course, you couldn’t try it on before you bought it) and in the second case it was an outright error. It could be characterized as, in essence, sloppy work. Oh, and it really does occur often in warehouses, even if the corporate image masters have decided to call the buildings “fulfillment centers”.

Another problem does not happen at the warehouse. It occurs when your package doesn’t end up at your house because it is delivered to someone else. The driver, of course, marks it as delivered because they placed it at the door and rang the doorbell. I have “completed” the delivery of boxes to neighbors when they were put on our porch by mistake, and once, when I didn’t get a package I expected, I walked down the street and found it stuffed behind the screen door of a house three doors away. In all these cases the correct address was clearly visible on both the package and the house. Once again, it was just sloppy work.

It’s not just me. I’ve heard complaints about warehouse workers and delivery truck drivers, about the frustrations that come from returning or reordering or dealing with that automated phone menu and the semi-clueless “customer support” person. Almost inevitably these people blame the worker, or the entire generation of workers, as in “people these days really have no work ethic.” It may be the current equivalent of the long-standing remonstrance “it’s so hard to find good help these days.”

Now, if you are at all familiar with dramas or stories in which the above “good help” complaint is used, you know that the person who says it is generally someone who doesn’t really deserve good help, and the reason they have trouble finding it is they’ve chased away all the good help they’ve hired. The “help” is usually relatively blameless.

Admittedly, the help is sometimes at fault, and in this era of very low unemployment it can be difficult to find good workers. But even that problem is very often overstated. You’ve probably heard some breathless news reports about how millennials are lacking a work ethic that emphasizes quality or loyalty, or how so many younger workers are taking time off from work for a year in Costa Rica, or how women are giving up lucrative careers to concentrate on motherhood. Such stories tend to be little more than “our reporter found a group of friends who decided to do this and went ahead with calling it a widespread movement despite a total lack of statistical evidence.” A few vignettes do not signal the existence of a major national trend affecting corporate productivity.

No, in the case of warehouse errors or delivery misdirection the problem does not stem from the expectations of the people who order the goods or the workers who handle them. It comes from a much more insidious source, one that also often affects the kind of service you get in some local corporate outlets. That source is a new collection of computerized efficiency tools promoting what is commonly called time management.

How does this work? The workers in the warehouse are constantly observed and timed and are expected to “fulfill” a certain number of orders each hour. The driver of the delivery truck is expected to meet a specific schedule based on the route and the number of deliveries. All of this goes into a database that tracks employee performance and produces reports showing which ones are keeping up with the expectations. Those that aren’t are encouraged to improve with the obvious threat that they might lose their job. The corporate goal is to reduce the amount of unproductive downtime and thus avoid paying for more employee hours, and more employees, than they deem necessary. The actual result, however, is that none of these workers have any extra time for such unnecessary tasks as double-checking for accuracy. The warehouse worker packs the box and moves on; the driver drops the box, rings the doorbell, and leaves. In the rush, errors are to be expected.

Similar strategies are used in stores operated as part of many large corporate retail systems. Predictable tasks such as receiving shipments and stocking shelves are timed and recorded. Unpredictable tasks such as answering customer questions and relocating items that customers have moved and mislaid on shelves are given low priority, if any time is allotted at all for them. Some stores monitor customer traffic and send workers home early or call them in on short notice if conditions change. The result of all this is that the minimal number of employees are available to actually provide services to customers (other than taking their money, of course, and with self-checkout lanes they’re doing their best to reduce that, too).

The point is this: You’ve likely experienced a delivery that didn’t arrive or that was not what you ordered and you called customer service and had to wait half an hour on hold, or you went to a store and could find neither what you wanted nor a worker to help you find it, or you found it but couldn’t figure out how much it cost because the price label on the shelf didn’t match the products. All of these problems could, perhaps, have happened because the employees are slackers, but not likely. Don’t blame them. The most likely culprit is the continuing effort by the companies we depend on to do everything they can to reduce their labor costs.

*On a related topic, now that we’ve cleared that up, maybe I should tell you what I think about the idiots who go to a local store, browse the items on sale, then pull out their phones and order the item they’ve selected from the internet instead of the local store because the online price is 86 cents less. Or maybe I should focus on the TV news reports that gush about such behavior as if it were an example of “smart shopping”? Clueless!

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