John Common and Blinding Flashes Of Light, "Go To Hell (With Me)"

>> Thursday, December 22, 2011

The ScatterKat and I realized that we were going to be separated Christmas Day, spending it with our respective families, so we went ahead and did unwrapping days early. I'm afraid this was partly selfishness on my part: I really wanted to go ahead and give her my present, (1) because it seemed like such an obvious thing to give her that I wanted to make sure I beat anybody else to the punch and (2) because there had been a couple of times over the past weeks when I wanted to tell her what an awful experience I'd had at Best Buy and couldn't, because that whole experience involved buying her present.

A brief outbreak of kerfuffle occurred earlier this month because ran a promotion where you could get a discount for using their smartphone app that allows you to take a picture of a bar code in a store and comparison shop it on their website. Lots of people (more than just the New York Times in the previous link) went frothy over the threat this posed to booksellers even though books apparently weren't part of the promotion. But the relevant part is that at least one author attempted to tie the Amazon deal to Best Buy's recent disappointing third-quarter profits report even though the Amazon deal happened, like, weeks and weeks after Best Buy's Q3.

What I'd submit to you, and the reason I went into all that, is that Best Buy's lousy profit reports might have something to do with the shitty and incompetent service I got a couple of weeks ago. The ScatterKat needed a new car stereo and I'm a gallant white knight who wants his baby to have good tunes to shake to while she's driving, so I went down to the nearest Best Buy; there, I stood in car audio for about ten minutes waiting for someone to notice me, until I finally asked someone at customer service if they could find someone to help me, which prompted another fifteen minutes of waiting until someone helpfully came over and told me she didn't know anything about the department but would see if she could "bullshit an answer for you" (seriously, my hand on a stack of Silmarillions, that's an honest-to-Ilúvatar direct quote). Her honesty was of dubious merit, since while it was appreciated, I also had done a little homework before going to the store and actually had specific questions that I hadn't been able to answer online and expected an actual car audio person to be able to answer; nonetheless, I let her waste my time until she and a co-worker more-or-less lied to me, probably not out of malice so much as they hadn't actually read their own website and I had.

At this point, I vowed never to spend a dime at the store again. Only to discover I couldn't get a better price anywhere else, whereupon I was forced by my bank account to swallow my pride and dignity and buy the thing from Best Buy after all, though I at least did myself the honor of ordering it online and scheduling an in-store pickup, and of choosing a device I might (from the online documentation) be able to install myself. (If I can't, I may have to return to the accursed place. At least ScatterKat will be able to ease my suffering by sharing it now.)

The bottom line being that the one thing brick-and-mortars still have on online vendors is that you supposedly can get help from an actual honest-to-goodness meat creature. But if these companies--whether we're talking about your friendly local mom'n'pop biz or evil megacongloms like Best Buy and Walmart--aren't going to pay their employees enough to make it worth the employees' while to know what the fuck they're talking about and be legitimately helpful, what's the point? I mean, I don't want to defend Amazon, here: I'm trying to resolve my own qualms about being addicted to the easy-to-use services offered by a company that runs sweatshops and doesn't collect sales tax1 and sucks money out of the local community. However, on the other hand, I'm one of these neurotics who starts feeling anxiety in most stores (ironic, considering time I've spent working retail in my lifetime), and if I can just type some things into a search bar, get a summary of three hundred user reviews of a couple of items, make a final decision with a mouse-click and then the thing arrives as if by magic on my doorstep--I can't even begin to express how well that works for me on a visceral, non-anxious, I would totally buy my groceries like this if we had one of those online supermarket things around here like they have in New York, level. What I'm getting at, here, is that what actually may make the difference between whether I go to an intimidating store full of things or whether I just go clickity-click and do a happy dance while I wait for the mailman are (a) liberal guilt and (b) the need for real-time Q&A with a knowledgeable and physically-present fellow-mammal; and if you're going to deny me the latter, I don't know if even I am guilty enough to go down and suffer and spend just to assuage my need to "put back into the community", especially if my fellow mammal is going to leave me full of frustration and rage and a possibly unfair sense that it would be nothing more than just desserts if her workplace went belly-up in the midnight hour and had to be demolished by the city to make way for another parking lot.

The ScatterKat, being a woman of sweet disposition and good taste, apparently had a much better holiday shopping experience and gave me a couple of things (some of which haven't arrived yet--it's like early Christmas plus late Chanukkah!) including an album by John Common and Blinding Flashes Of Light, 2011's Beautiful Empty, which includes the delicious number performed acoustically (and for some reason in a conference room) above. I am pleased. Actually, she did have one issue finding a DVD for someone else, involving a moron who should be strapped to a chair and made to watch Turner Classic Movies for days at a time; I won't go into further detail but to say that it sadly reaffirms what I was saying a moment ago about businesses not paying their employees enough to care about knowing what they're selling. Oh well.

1Though, to be fair, is this really an issue? There's actually a bit of a con going on here, and while I don't think Amazon comes away clean, I don't think they're wholly at fault, either.

See, Amazon doesn't collect sales tax, and Amazon has a history of making arguments (many of them kinda dubious) about why they shouldn't have to (though they may be changing their tune about that), and Amazon leverages that as a kind of implicit promotion for their wares (a good price made better because there won't be a tax surcharge added at checkout!).

But here's the thing: most states, if not all, require taxpayers to pay sales tax even if a retailer doesn't collect it. There's almost certainly a box on your state tax forms for a consumption or use tax, where you're obligated to report how much you spent that you didn't pay state sales tax on, and you're supposed to accurately report it or make a good-faith estimate and then pay the appropriate tax as part of your state tax filing. Which most people don't do, and is why so many states are irate at Amazon for not collecting. The rub being that while states have some right to complain that Amazon is helping their customers cheat on their taxes, those mostly-cheating, tax-evading consumers really don't have quite the same moral legs to stand on. Even if you're one of the few who do accurately report your online and mail-order expenditures, shouldn't you really be blaming your no-goodnik tax-dodging neighbor at least as much as the megacorp?

Municipal sales taxes (where applicable), on the other hand, are certainly another issue, however.


Seth Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 9:17:00 AM EST  

I try to avoid saying, "It's the system, man." But... it's the system, man. Retail is fucked, and it's fucked of its own doing, because it has systematically and consistently chosen to marginalize its own employees -- underpaying them, giving them little or no training, making the jobs so dead-end and futureless as to ensure high turnover. Why? Why would you run a business that way? I suspect it's the intractable logic of the publicly-traded company, where the pressure is always, always in the direction of cutting costs to create "growth" -- i.e., an inflated stock price.

Compare places like Best Buy to privately-held companies like Trader Joe's where actual adults make a career in retail. I'm not saying privately-held companies always do things perfectly. But because the pressure of the stock market isn't constantly pushing down on them, they have (it seems to me) more space to create a tolerable working environment, which attracts better-informed and more-engaged employees.

(Of course, Amazon is a publicly-traded company, too. But, as you pointed out, they've been accused of running sweatshops, and, more importantly, what Amazon does for you is precisely to remove the customer service interaction from retail altogether.)

Blahblahblah. Anyway, my point is -- down with the stock market!

Phiala Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 9:52:00 AM EST  

And Best Buy customer service is even worse if you're female, in my experience. I am a geek, and if I have a question it's a very specific and technical one, and I do in fact know what all those words mean.

Also, I am one of the horrible people who doesn't file use tax. I do for business purchases, but not for personal. Why? Because I can't be arsed keeping track of exactly what Nick buys online. I would be happy to pay the money, but the time cost is too much for me.

Maybe I should just make something up quarterly. But I'm afraid that if I come to the tax department's notice then they'll audit me or something, even though I was well-intentioned.

Steve Buchheit Thursday, December 22, 2011 at 9:32:00 PM EST  

Can't stand Best Buy, and as a result I often don't include them in my price searching. Their customer service is universally poor (unless your asking where the computer department is, or where they keep the DVDs).

Hell, I remember when grocery stores would send their bag boys to a class to learn how to bag groceries. Now they don't get much more training than, "Ask the customer if the want paper or plastic."

Warner Friday, December 23, 2011 at 10:34:00 AM EST  

Bag boys? Haven't seen one of those in decades.

Costco doesn't even have bags.

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