June 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

This one’s tricky, folks, because in order to write this post today I have to admit that recently I went to Ross.

Alright. Fine. Have it your way.

Recently I went to Ross.

If you’re not familiar with that company, allow me to enlighten.

Ross is a nation-wide department store specializing in “designer, brand-name apparel” for humans of all sizes, sexes (right now we only know of two but I’m keeping my options open for fear of offending) and moods, usually leaning toward the depressed. Their devastatingly persuasive slogan is “Dress For Less”.

It all hinges on how you define “less”, doesn’t it? But we’ll get to that.

Ross department stores garnered revenues in 2010 of over seven billion dollars. Now, I didn’t know that at the time but I was aware of the company’s success, noting the presence of their gilded ivory cathedrals in strip malls across this great corporation posing as a country called the United States. With that in mind, I fully expected not only superb service provided by beaming sales associates, giddy over the latest upgrade in their flush benefits packages and competitive living wage but also magnificent, finely appointed aisles of quality product at delightfully low prices.

Man, was I in for a surprise. It didn’t quite live up to expectations but then again, hey, I was at the Burbank store and maybe this particular one wasn’t meeting Ross’s lofty standards. This column should sort that out. I can almost hear the Ross quality-control men in black getting in their unmarked cars and speeding off, chattering into their earpieces about how they’re going to clean things up over there.

But let’s return to the past. I opened the door to my local Ross with a plan. I needed a cheap pair of trousers (do I look old in that word?), some dress shirts and a couple of ties. A simple objective. I figured I’d be in and out in fifteen minutes, twenty tops.

I now know what it’s like to do time. I emerged from the store around midnight, having arrived there just as the sun had passed its apex.

The first thing you need to know is that I found what I needed downstairs in menswear almost instantly. Two shirts, one blue and one white. Red tie. Reduced Calvin Klein undershirts (you may not be able to see the label when I’m wearing them but I’ll know). One pair of grey pants (just as I suspected – trousers does sound better). I had also grabbed a set of puce-colored place mats, a Scott Baio coffee mug and a bouquet of plastic flowers attached to a vase with Michael Dukakis’ face on it but decided at the last minute I could come back for them tomorrow- this was all starting to add up and I only had twenty bucks to spend.

It was at that point that I started to notice that the store was, well… a little understaffed. Except for the security detail: there must have been thirty of these uniformed characters, most of whom looking as though they needed a good lie down. But as for floor staff, people who might actually help a customer and not tase them, not a soul. The moment my stomach really plunged was when I saw the queue that had formed leading to a solitary lady behind the register.

As I fell into line behind a blind man carrying seven hawaiian shirts and an Emmanuel Lewis velcro wallet, my hopes were temporarily raised when I heard the security man whisper breathlessly into his 1983 Motorola two-way: “we need backup down here.” I assumed that meant opening another register and, feeling a little more optimistic about my chances of getting back to my car before sundown, I took to examining my fellow customers in line and that’s when I became aware of the commonality that binded all of us, workers and staff alike.

We all did indeed look depressed. Damn it, I felt depressed. The glaring fluorescent lights, the tacky detritus lining the aisles posing as desirable commodities, the slumped workers with countenances devoid of all humour and spontaneity. This wasn’t a retail store; it was a morgue. Dead objects, dead air, lifeless people. Low prices.

It was at this point that I started to think about how much money this company was making (seven billion gross, in case you’d forgotten). Someone was having a gay old time, sipping pina coladas out of crystal champagne saucers on some privately owned tropical island they’d bought from Marlon Brando for a song. Don’t tell me their margins were slim- they were raking in the dough but somehow couldn’t afford to man their registers or throw us an occasional person who might be able to tell us where to find shirts that weren’t hawaiian. I started to feel annoyed and, as the wait time for my solitary check out lady (sorry, “sales associate”) increased, so did my outrage.

It’s at this point that I have to include another factor: I’d initially bought another pair of trousers without trying them on (I know, foolish), having decided to take advantage of the fact that there was no one in line at that particular moment. On my way out of the store and seemingly ahead of schedule, I had taken a detour to the change room to make sure they fit. They didn’t and you can imagine my frustration when, having picked out, tried on and finally chosen this latest pair of trousers, I returned to the register only to find fifteen people in front of me. Committing the classic not-try-before-you-buy retail blunder in the first place, my annoyance with the company and myself began to push the mercury level to dizzy heights.

But, as with all things good and bad, it came to an end. I was on deck and my spirits lifted as the person in front of me left with four large trash-sized bags full of, well, trash and I took my place in front of the beloved check out lady. I told her I needed to purchase these trousers here, and also, I need to return these.

“No returns here. You have to go upstairs.”

….. what?

“Yeah, upstairs. But you can purchase the new trousers there as well.”

Pause. Stunned silence. Murder in my heart. Next choice: tears or rage?

Rage won out, a victory so immediate and complete in its manifestation that it surprised even me. A loud, guttural NO!  let loose. I backed away, as an Elizabethan monolog ensued, a rant against corporate malfeasance, customer neglect and Scott Baio. It continued all the way up the stairs, at which point I stopped, not wanting to disturb the sleep of the staff on the ground floor.

Long story short (as I look at my word count, I realize that this is a lie), I returned my fifteen-dollar trousers and got the hell out of there, vowing never to return until I needed another cheap, disposable item of clothing and was prepared to spend hours of my time obtaining it.

And there’s the rub. While things may appear to be cheap, we might find upon closer inspection that we’re paying for them in other ways. Is a fifteen dollar shirt at Ross really a better deal than buying a more expensive (and presumably higher quality) one somewhere else if it leaves me feeling angry, depressed and neglected, not to mention behind schedule for the rest of my day?

Here’s how you know when you’re handing your money over to a crummy company: the staffing is thin, the people are lifeless and you can only return items in one place. I know corporations are in this to make money but I don’t think it’s naive to expect them to at least pretend to try to make their customers (not to mention their workers) happy. But that might mean they make only 4 billion a year instead of 4 and a half.

At Ross, you might be dressing for less, but the company’s also hiring for less, operating for less and making ever more cash for less at the same time as more and more people, the kind who regularly shop at stores like Ross, attempt to get by with less.

They’ve gotten my last dime. It’s time to upgrade to Target.

Picture  :  A pox on Scott Baio’s house.


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