B.J.ís Auto Store and the Collapse of U.S. Retail

Amid the roar of the collapsing sub-prime mortgage market and its resulting in the stock market reacting like a herd of sheep baaing in terror as it runs from one side of its pen to the other, eyes bulging, is the deeper story of the gradual collapse of the U.S. retail market. This is a story far more serious than the eruptions of worker anger over low wages or of maddening top management greed. For without its retail markets, the U.S. is a goner.

In the past ten months I have purchased six new tires for my two cars, all at the local B.J.ís Wholesale Club. All six are Uniroyal Tiger Paw all weather radials, which are not inexpensive and come with a three-year guarantee against defects and road hazards. Four of the six disintegrated after 5,000 miles, the other two after 11,000. And I mean disintegrated. I frequently check the air pressure in my carsí tires and was aghast to find that those on one car had developed 360 degree cracks through the sidewalls, on all four tires, after 5,000 miles. Not two weeks later I found when checking the two Uniroyals on the other carís rear wheels that the tread had begun to separate with deep, 1/8 inch cracks at the base of the tread around the entire tire circumference.

Not in the best of moods, I had to return to B.J.ís with each car and there found bedlam. The store opened 20 minutes late, the workers standing around in the parking lot eating McMuffin sandwiches and warily eyeing the line of customers at the door. The shop supervisor is from some other land and speaks English only haltingly and almost unintelligibly. The shop was filled almost entirely with people who had also returned because the work done by or product sold by the shop had failed. Angry, short-tempered people who could not afford to take half a day off work to come back and stand in a line and pay for B.J.ís shortcomings. The average wait to be served was one-and-a-half hours, as workers shuffled into and out of the office while ignoring customers. Most of the staff seemed to have cognitive or behavioral disabilities (I am not trying to be snide here, just factual). The waiting room was a shambles of dirt, papers, more dirt, and several sagging chairs, through which the staff marched, slouched, or stumbled. Almost every single event requires the involvement of a supervisor from the main store who has to make a special trip to the auto shop Ė while the customer stands there and cools his or her heels -- and use a special key and a special card to allow the cash register to complete any return, any discount, or perform any function other than a direct sale. All events are logged into an ancient, grease-covered computer terminal equipped with a line-feed printer last sold in 1979. There are several employees who seem to be trying to do a good job, but they are simply overwhelmed by a system that does not work. In the Navy such a performance would earn one a captainís mast, at least. At B.J.ís itís business as usual.

Upon my first trip back I was told that my replacement tires would have to be specially ordered. After my second trip back, while I was waiting for tires to be changed, I walked to the main store and asked to see the manager. I told him of six failures out of six new tires and suggested that B.J.ís was probably looking at a giant liability as their tires blew on highways and people were hurt of killed. He insisted that there was no problem with their tires. I then suggested that the auto shop needed some serious help, to which he replied that they had just hired a new manager.

So, three trips and parts of three days later, I have my replacement tires, which I will watch keenly. But when viewed in conjunction with the serious problems in the finance and banking industries, such experiences at the retail level give little reason for optimism regarding the American economy. Meanwhile, high school graduates canít make change for a dollar but are full of high self-esteem. I wish it were otherwise. I donít see a bright future under these circumstances.


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