All Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

It has been awhile since I actually had a social setting observation, so today’s topic is just that.  Admittedly, this a bit of a rant, but it still calls into question whether there is any such thing as altruism when it comes to the shopping experience.  Having just completed listening to the Super Freakonomics I am now curious to see if this “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others” is really a human trait and more to the point, whether I can actually witness this trait in action.  By the way, I did enjoy this book (although, maybe not as much as their first one) and would recommend it for those who have similar interests in understanding how micro economics impacts our day to day lives.

One thing is for sure, this trait was not evident the last time I went to WalMart to pick up some quick snacks for a ping pong party I was having that night.  I was running late at work and needed to get to the store and all the way back home before the designated start time of the party.   Figuring WalMart was close I ducked in there to pick up some needed items.  With about 5 items in my hands I made my way up to the registers.  To my surprise, all the checkouts were busy (well, at least the ones that were open, but that is a story for another time).  An internal assessment was initiated based on years of line analysis – cashier age (especially if you have alcohol to buy), clerk gabbiness (less talk, more scanning), product count (estimations based on cart quantities, container sizes etc.) along with a host of other key indicators that are continually tuned to give the best chance of getting out of there as fast as possible.  After a few seconds, the choice was made and the line position taken.  One of the attributes of this line was that it was the express line and MOST of the people seemed to be in an express frame of mind.  I say most, but about two customers from the checkout (I was 6th) was a mobile cart with a basket full of merchandise.  I quickly confirmed the express limit, which was an unusually high 20 item count, and decided to amp up the observation.  One guy was actually sitting in the mobile cart and another lady was standing in front of it.  Thinking this could work in my favor in the sense it would really make me 5th and possibly allow me to add a critical new criteria to the selection process.  When they approached, the lady began pulling the items out of the mobile cart and I spent the next 7 minutes counting items.  This was definitely hampered by having to wait for the cashier to scan items in order to make room for the new ones.  46 items later they had scanned all the items in the cart.  By my quick math this is over the stated express limit … and not by a few.  My selection process was hampered by not seeing the full size of the cart basket in front of the mobile cart.  They finally paid for their purchases and the cashier turned to attend the next in line.  Still focused on the same two customers, I was completely surprised when the guy in the mobile cart quickly rose from the seat, grabbed up all 7 of their bags and started walking to the door with no apparent hardships.  I let my impression stay at the surprised level because it did not fit my original expectations – rarely do I spend any additional time reviewing those particular situations since medical conditions can be tricky.  What did catch my eye and warrant further observation was the lady informed the guy she had forgotten something and was going back for it while he proceeded out the store.

She ended up going a few aisles away and eventually I lost sight of her.  In the meantime, the line progressed quite well to the point where I was putting my items on the counter waiting for the customer ahead of me to pay.  As the cashier reached for my first item, I noticed the lady coming back from the aisle, but not at the expected angle for the line had actually grown to about  7 people behind me.  Sure enough, she walked directly up to the individual behind me who, by the way, was also in a mobile cart but definitely under the 20 item limit.  She threw her item in his cart and said hello.  That guy was somewhat surprised and actually said “I haven’t seen you in a long time, what have you been doing”.  Meanwhile the cashier had finished my order so I drew my attention away in order to complete the transaction.  Okay, now I am officially intrigued enough to stand back out of the way and watch this come to conclusion.  The lady grabs her item out of the cart and puts it on the register and takes out her billfold.  Yes folks, she simply paid for that item said goodbye to the guy behind her and headed out towards the door.  That, in my opinion, takes some balls.  Not only did she inconvenience the line with her original order, she has the nerve to simply jump in front of everybody else.  I am pretty sure if I was standing behind the second mobile cart guy I would have had to say something.  In contrast, the guy that was in that position said nothing (but did look outwardly annoyed).

Needless to say, this was not one of those times that proved altruism is a true human trait.  In fact, it seems the aggressive are bound to dominate the meek (at least when it comes to groceries).  So the next time you see that WalMart greeter – you know, the one with the “How may I help you?” on the back of his blue vest, tell him you would like him to patrol the express lanes so you will not get screwed on your way out by inconsiderate customers… and then show your altruism when he stares at you blankly by smiling and telling him to have a nice day.

By the way, Happy Pie Day!

Random Acts of Kindness

There are those times that an observation brings a smile to my face.  Generally these involve some mishap or fail that provides a chuckle at another’s expense (I’m not proud.. but often they deserve it).  Every now and then one of these is a result of someone doing something nice for their fellow man.  Over the last few weeks I have encountered three such situations giving hope to the fact our society is not completely doomed (well, beyond the threat of becoming a socialist country).

The first of these episodes came at a boutique ice cream shop in Peoria Heights (can’t remember the exact name, but something like Emocks and Bollas but that is a complete guess at the moment).  Linda and I were waiting for two me-centric high school girls to complete their order.  One of the girls had already received her single dip cone and was busy chatting about how much her friends like her fashion statements when gravity reared its ugly head resulting in the scoop of ice cream leaping off the cone to the floor.  I thought she would just leave it there, but she did clean up her mess.  Although there was some poetic justice there, what brought the real smile to my face was the owner saw this event and asked for her cone back so he could replace the lost scoop.  So not only does this place have excellent ice cream, the management is truly attentive to their customers.

A few days later Linda and I were winding down from a long work week at the Par-A-Dice Casino in East Peoria.  It was unusually packed likely due to a local MMA event they were hosting at their hotel.  To my surprise, the casino had also purchased the rights to the UFC Fight Night event and were broadcasting it on all their TVs.  This was a huge bonus for me since I really wanted to watch the Tito-Griffin rematch.  I had taken a seat at a video poker machine with a good view of the TV.  At some point, three men came up and took up roots in the aisle way and proceeded to carry on a 40 minute conversation about their recent divorces and get rich quick in real estate plans.  One was even bragging how he tapped his own phone to catch his wife and for some reason learned how to make a taser gun.  That caught my attention and I was eagerly awaiting this explanation. The reason never arrived because midway through this discussion an older lady came rolling up in a wheelchair.  Rolling is probably a little more generous of a word for she was truly struggling to pull herself forward with one leg and trying to navigate the people in the aisle – of which the threesome I was mentioning was posing a significant obstacle.  One of the three noticed her and alerted the other three to make way while commenting to her how well she was navigating.  She took a differing opinion to this comment and responded on how bad she thought she was doing.  As a complete surprise to me, the guy proceeds to ask her where she was going and upon hearing the response said “Well, let’s go there, I’ll push you over there”.  He really didn’t give her a chance to respond and proceeded to get her to the desired destination.  I decided that the issue just might have been with his ex… but that taser thing still intrigued me.

And lastly, I had to run to WalMart on Allen Road today to pick up a peeler and baster for my wife.  She is having her family over for some juicy bird tomorrow and accidentally broke her old one.  Ever since they reset this store we have been unable to find anything we need without traversing through most of the aisles.  Yes, I realize this is the intent having spent my youth employment at Jewel where we reset the store every 6 months in order to maximize product visibility.  As a consumer, this process absolutely blows.  Well, associating the peeler with food I managed to walk up and down every single food aisle without success.  Swallowing my male pride I asked a worker if she could possibly point me in the right direction.  Expecting to get a row number and continue the quest, she startled me with “Let me just put this back and I’ll take you to them”.    At which point, she proceeds to walk me all the way to the other end of the store (away from the food).  On the walk she asked me if I was finding everything else I needed.  I figured the baster was with the peeler so the response was a definitive YES – some of my ego regained.  About 3/4ths of the way there, I noticed the Kitchenware signed and indicated I could make it the rest of the way.  Having none of that, she told me under no uncertain terms she was committed to getting me to the peelers.  And directly to the peelers we went and you guessed it, I thanked her with a smile.

Based on these events, it seems that I am now -3 on the pay it forward scale.  I better be checking the corners for old ladies needing to cross the street.

An Uncomfortable Wait

Yesterday I had the opportunity to read the packaging on numerous brands of condoms.  That’s right, I now know what the various sizes are (marketing genius made sure there were no extra small sizes, but an extra large to capture the bachelor party gag gift revenue), what the various textures are (ultra thin, extra sensitive, ribbed, something labeled twisted pleasure and a concerning offering that apparently pulsates – don’t ask me for details on that, I decided it was best not to know), quantity options, tip construction alternatives and a whole bevy of lube options including grape and strawberry flavor.

But it didn’t end there.  I further enhanced my worldly knowledge by reading all of the personal lubrication gels and a suprisingly large number of pregnancy tests. On the lube front, there was the standard KY options but the most interesting was the His and Hers option which looked like the dual tube packaging for strong epoxies.  Chuckling to myself, I thought that it might be an abstinence conctraceptive based on welding something shut.  I must have read 10 E.P.T boxes trying to figure out the differences.  Admittedly, I couldn’t figure it out beyond possibly the wait cycles or method of displaying the results.  I wondered if the talking greeting card technology had made its way into this market giving us a recorded message based on the results displayed on the stick.  In fact, think of the whole opportunity for Hallmark –

  • “Congratulations, you’re a winner”
  • “You’re gonna need some new clothes”
  • “Another bullet dodged”
  • “Your Mom’s heart attack has been avoided”
  • For him: “Hurray for new boobies”
  • For him: “Sorry, quality control has experienced a failure”

Okay, cutting myself off because that was waaaay to much fun.  I will take any submissions from my readers.  If this idea takes hold, I want it to be known I thought of it first and I want royalties.

Any chance the question popped into your head as to why I was relishing in this particular aisle?  Your assumptions are most likely wrong.   The reality of it is I was waiting to get my prescription filled at the Walmart out on Allen Rd. in Peoria.  I hit a prompt care to get relief from a sinus infection and decided to pop over to Walmart Pharmacy (they wave the co-pay winning the choice over the closer CV).  The benches they have for people to wait are located straight out and perpendicular to the pharmacy counter.  This also places it directly in line with the store shelves which had the contents I discussed above.  I get bored very easy so tend to take in everything I can find and product packaging is a ripe distraction.  So, sorry to burst the image bubble, but I was just sitting in the aisle reading the shelves from about 5 feet away.  Have I mentioned lately how must I love my new eyes?

What this does mean is a complete lack of privacy for individuals that want to actually purchase these products.  Imagine at least four people (men, women, children) sitting there staring at you while you make your selection.  And if that is not enough, you have all the people standing in line to pay for their prescriptions at the pharmacy desk.  Someone in the store layout either has a sense of humor, insensitive to a generally private matter or possibly this is a very common shop lifted item that they feel needs to have an extra layer of free security protection (sometimes I crack myself up).   I actually don’t have an answer for which option really applies in this case.  I am not sure I want to discourage the use of contraceptives since the local state portion of my daily paper seems to indicate the abstinence approach to reducing unwed pregnancies is not that effective.  But I have to vote against the layout guy not knowing what he was doing since he had a logical order to the shelves – condoms, lubes and then the EPTs seems like a pretty smart grouping.

Yes, an individual did come to the aisle to make a purchase.  He was probably in his late 30s or early 40s and was very interested in the top shelves that held the lubes and the EPTs.  In contrast to what my comfort level if it was me, he was pretty much oblivious to me watching him the entire 15 minutes he spent there.  I couldn’t tell exactly what product he was analyzing because his back was to me, but he was very thorough in his assessment.   He even opened the box and began reading the detailed instructions.  Eventually, he repackaged the box and proceed to make the purchase at the pharmacy counter.  I still couldn’t see what he had, but based on the shelf gap, I’m guessing lube.  Nothing like an informed consumer.

Hopefully I did not offend anyone with today’s post.  I blog it as I see it and I didn’t want to waste a solid 30 minuts of field work and some definite business opportunities await.  Hmmm, clarification, business opportunities in the EPT market, not to imply any reference to my previous post on the Vegas women.

Design Failure or Insurance Liability

I like looking at everyday things and pondering if there are engineering improvements that can be made.  There appears to be a point in which the specific item becomes a commodity and it moves into a maintenance mode.  Apparently this means that there very little changes from year to year and those are generally in the attempt to make it cheaper, not consumer improved.  This of course is the business model of commodity since I am guessing the profit margins are based almost entirely on the volume.  Disruption events are the only driver for change or rather a shift back to design to win consumers back.  Sometimes, someone comes out with a better functioning widget (think ESATA over USB) or a sleeker hipper look (think IPhone) and the market is stood on end and we actually see creativity back into that market… but only until it the competition dies out and the mundane takes over.  I do recall one of my economics professors telling us that it is always better to actually disrupt your own products before your competitor does.  Apparently this has not happened in the walker business.

At least twice a week, I see an elderly person traversing a parking lot with the aid of a traditional walker.   This is usually a little sad seeing the definite discomfort of the individual, but there are always bright sides to any situation and at least they are still able to get out of the house and get some exercise.  The piece of the picture that always catches my attention is the bottom of the front two legs on the walker.  Probably 4 out of 5 times the owner has placed tennis balls over the ends.  This is an amazing ratio to me, 80% of the market is modifying your product.  There is a definite deficiency viewed by the consumer and there is a common solution that a majority of those customers are using to solve the problem.  I also smiled at the fact Answers.com actually put this use in their definition of a Tennis Ball.  What is preventing the producer of these walkers from improving the design?  Does it cost to much to modify the caps on the front bars so they slide better?  Have they studied what is causing the market to take this action?  I can only come up with five possible answers

  1. There is no competition in that market and therefore the producer has absolutely no monetary incentive to improve the design.  This to me appears to be a ripe market for a disruption and therefore profit
  2. There is a legal implication that trumps the design decision.  For example, the addition of smoother sliding front legs would result in the possible fall of 1 and say a million users, but that single lawsuit by ambulance chasing snakes (I mean lawyers) is too much risk to the business.  This seemed like a viable explanation, but read further in the post to see why I do not believe this.
  3. Profit margins by the company are being compensated via accessories.  If this is the case, I am not sure they have a successful market since the largest majority of users are taking a competitor product (although not actually designed for that use) over your accessory.
  4. The tennis ball lobby has somehow contacted AARP and have a side deal with kickbacks if they keep their names (and thus advertisement) prominent in retail parking lots.  Note, apparently the Penn Lobby is alive and well based on their prominent spot on Wikipedia. I had to laugh at that entry because it actually had a picture of new Penn ball and a picture of a used Penn ball side by side so you can see the difference.

To be honest, there was an event that prompted this particular post.  A disruption appeared in the marketplace.  Last week I was heading into a Walmart and saw a walker modification and it was not tennis balls.  Basically, it was just a small piece of plastic in the shape of a ski.  Something I had not seen before and it caught me off guard – hence the definition of disruption in the marketplace.  I was actually so stunned I went into the store to see if this item had actually made it to the market or whether this was an extremely crafty person.  Sure enough, there it was on the display next to the walkers.  Unfortunately, I forgot to notice if this was the same manufacture of the actual walkers they had (and thus falls in the accessory profit), or whether it was a different enterprising company.  There was actually another package next to it which had a production version of the tennis ball concept which had precut balls and a clever attachment mechanism that screwed into the bottom of the walker legs – that part was actually fuzzy yellow as well so it made it look exactly like they just slapped a tennis ball on the end.. but it was far more secure.  It took me about 10 seconds to get over the cleverness of that package and then put it in the category of stupidity since there was absolutely NO reason to make a better version that looked exactly like a hack in the first place.  This is no different than a programmer making an address storage program that looks and functions like a rolodex.  These options did convince me that option 2 above was not valid.  If it really was a legal issue, these products would not exist because they would have the same fear as the original manufactures of the walker. Therefore, I categorize this as a DESIGN FAILURE

Apparently I have additional field research to do in order to tell if the new skiis will overtake the tried and true slotted tennis ball.  I’ll keep you posted since I am now sure you are as fascinated by this as I am.. okay, maybe a little interested… try to deny it, but I know you will take extra time to check the legs of the next walker you see.