Monday, October 4, 2010

Let's Go to the Videotape


Nearly two decades ago, while toiling in the vineyards of a place called Pet Nosh, an independent chain of pet food and supply stores in the Greater New York City area, a funny thing happened. A 101 Dalmatians VHS tape set in motion a series of unfortunate events that threatened to sully a reputation.

In the business world, it often takes years to nurture a reputation, and only seconds to cast away some of that hard-earned luster. For sure, this video episode put a small dent in Pet Nosh's reputational armor—and it didn't have to be. It was here where “the best laid plans of mice and men” intersected “the road to hell,” which, of course, was “paved with good intentions.”

It was a huge Pet Nosh promo for its time: a multi-page, full-color supplement included in numerous Sunday newspapers around town. The flier teemed with great buys on a cross-section of goods—something for everyone. And as the icing on the cake—while supplies lasted—a free 101 Dalmatians videotape would be awarded customers who spent over $25, or some such figure that I've since forgotten.

The horsefly in the ointment was that only a finite number of tapes were on hand. And happily, most customers didn’t ask for one, even when they exceeded the not especially high threshold to qualify for a tape. Still, these freebies didn't last very long at all. In fact, within only a few days of what was a two-week sale, the Pet Nosh stores had run completely dry of the giveaways. And even though the advertisement plainly stated, “While supplies last,” it didn’t look good. It was bad P.R.

I regret to say that more than a few of our patrons foamed at the mouth and went off the deep end because of this. This free videotape obviously meant the world to them, and they would risk heart attacks and strokes to get their hands on a copy. I was privy to one rather dramatic meltdown replete with a fusillade of F-bombs and not-so-veiled threats of violence—this R-rated theater courtesy of a customer whom I remembered as a quiet, unassuming sort. That is, a man who stood silently by, and said hardly a thing, while his wife did all of the shopping and transacting week after week after week.

This hot head ultimately took his case to a higher authority: the Better Business Bureau. The bureau forwarded us his missive, which nastily accused Pet Nosh of all kinds of chicanery and gross unprofessionalism. With the bossman’s consent, I drafted our reasoned response to this bully boy, whose mouth really needed to be washed out with Irish Spring. The Better Business Bureau promptly sent us his response to our response as this pointless back and forth continued. A reasoned argument made before a hyperventilating oaf is an exercise in futility—and very bad business policy. It was a big mistake venturing down this road.

And, too, the Better Business Bureau is not interested in adjudicating cases. This outfit’s mission asks of its member businesses complete capitulation to complaining customers, even if they feel they are in the right. Such gracious acts remove grievances from the public record. Despite this accuser of ours being a foul-mouthed little turd, if you will, it was foolish to get into a pissing match with the guy, even if we felt innocent of the charges.

Granted, it was na├»ve on our parts to expect “While supplies last” to be a potent enough disclaimer to ward off the wrath of the sometimes unforgiving, often suspicious public at large. In the final analysis, the aforementioned militant, and several of his equally aggrieved comrades, received their free copies of 101 Dalmatians. Multiple business and life lessons were, however, learned in the wake of this unseemly debacle. I've often wondered what the brute felt when he slipped his VHS tape into the VCR, and then hit the play button for the benefit of his children.

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