Sunday, July 21, 2013

Honesty Policy

It’s sometimes hard to feel sorry for the financial woes of a major retail operation, and a recent experience at one of the big box department stores has me scratching my head over the difficulties of being honest.

This particular retailer filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2002, somehow scraped up the funds to purchase Sears in 2005, and then, late in 2011 announced the closure of more than 100 stores after a poor response from shoppers during the Christmas shopping season. Yes, we are talking about K-Mart of “the Blue Light Special” which, for the years of my youth, was the king of the Twin City Mall on the Fitchburg-Leominster line. Back in the day, they usually didn’t have what I needed, but more recently, they actually carry crap I think I want.

KMart carries “Official” MLB, NHL, and NFL team branded merchandise, and the selection is both different and less costly than that of neighboring store Bob’s. Yes, I am sure the quality is probably of a lower caliber, but I happen to like the specific items carried. It was KMart where I found the wicked cool Bruins logo wall mirror I got for my niece’s birthday in May, when Bob’s had primarily commuter cups, ear buds and the usual array of overpriced lounge pants and tee shirts. It was a most fortunate find as she loved it, and unfortunately, my unemployment-era wallet is more in synch with KMart. (It’s currently more closely aligned with the local Salvation Army Superstore, but that’s another story.)

On a recent Friday, Mom and I visited KMart as we were heading to Cape Cod to visit my brother on his birthday so I could check out the New England Patriots merchandise and also get cash back with my debit card (avoiding a separate trip to my mega-bank’s ATM across town). After gushing over the various team branded infant and toddler clothing, I chose a suitable adult Patriots shirt for my brother and we proceeded to the register.

When I arrived at the cashier, there were no other customers around, but a line quickly formed behind me as if a tour group had just received word their bus would be leaving in five minutes. During my transaction I selected the option for $50 cash back. The cashier lifted her cash drawer and removed three bills, which I jammed into my currently empty wallet with the receipt. I didn’t take the time to count the money, partly because the cashier was already ringing up the next customer and I was feeling a bit rushed and in the way with the next person in line crawling up my back. 

It was a leisurely ride to the Cape, with a stop at the Christmas Tree Shoppe and a pleasant tour of the hydrangeas of every color (including deep maroonish-purple) blooming in the yards along 6A in Sandwich. Now I want a yard with dark purple hydrangeas. Maybe I should move to Sandwich.

After sitting around for a while talking with my brother and his wife, we all headed out for dinner. My dinner was an amazing bowl of lobster stew and a massive fried haddock sandwich with sweet potato fries (in case you were wondering). When it was time to contribute the funds for my share of the check, I dug into my wallet where I expected to find two twenty dollar bills and a ten, and found instead a fifty, a twenty and a ten. And I immediately began to worry.

Having worked in both banking and retail, there are still lingering miserable memories of cash drawer balancing and people getting into trouble for drawer shortages. I had no knowledge of KMart's policy, but I began imagining the cashier getting a lecture, or worse, fired for the missing $30. Another part of me felt like I’d won a prize -- $30 was more than I’d won on any lottery ticket in decades. Knowing that I would certainly contact the store if my money had been short by $30 the right thing to do was to notify the store about my erroneous windfall.

It seemed like it would be easier to explain in person with the receipt in view, so on Monday I returned to KMart. The customer service manager listened to my tale, looked at my receipt and didn’t quite seem to know what to do. I wondered if there was a policy for such events. In her defense, it probably isn’t every day a customer rolls in smiling, waving a receipt and declaring she received too much change. In fact, it probably isn’t ever the case. Until that day, anyway.

The service desk manager called someone else in the building and explained the scenario while I stood awkwardly at the counter waiting, then informed me it would take about 30 minutes to check into the cash reports from Friday and I could do my shopping and return to the counter later. I didn't really have any shopping to do, but a huge yellow banner screaming “Clearance” hanging on a wall above an array of swimsuits caught my eye. In front of the swimsuits (buy one, get 1/2 off another) a cluster of racks was jammed with clothing items reduced by a mere 10%. I felt like I’d been tricked. Someone at KMart needs to look up the definition and perception of clearance pricing.

Back at the service desk I was told that the cashier’s drawer was short by $30 back on Friday, it had been written off as a correction of some sort, “the cash lady” needed to look into what to do, and someone would get back to me in a day or so. Even at minimum wage, the two people working on the problem for the better part of an hour had already cost most of the $30 I was trying to return. And I can imagine the employee conversations. “You’ll never believe the freak that came into the store today, trying to give us back $30! Who the heck does that?”

It’s now been a week and I haven’t heard a whisper about correcting the situation, so I guess the extra $30 is mine. Because I made the extra effort of hauling my ass to the store to fix the store’s mistake, my conscience is clear. And I’m thinking maybe I should shop there more often -- as long as they are handing out free money. Maybe they’ll even get the hang of clearance pricing.

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