Sunday, February 12, 2012

Big Retailer Is Watching You

Not too long ago, I visited the retail shop of an old friend. Well, actually, the owner of a pet food and supply superstore successfully waging battle against national chains’ Petco and PetSmart. Once upon a time I worked alongside this very same man in the very same industry. I daresay it was a simpler time on a whole host of fronts. In my fledgling years in this business, the aforementioned big-box retailers didn’t exist. And even after they arrived on the scene, they were relatively few in number and not yet in the New York City metropolitan area. By and large, mom-and-pops ruled the roost in the 1980s and into the early-1990s in what was definitely a fast-expanding trade.

In the early years of my affiliation with the business of pets, primitive computers played an infinitesimal role only. We didn’t scan merchandise at the point-of-sale and track store inventory with them. We actually hand wrote product orders and called our suppliers on land-line telephones. As you might imagine, this process took an awful lot of time with hundreds of individual products having to be read out—one by one—and transcribed by hand on the receiving end. As far as we were concerned, the advent of the Fax machine was akin to the invention of the wheel and the printing press.

But what was most striking to me in my friend’s contemporary retail setting—in close proximity of where the old place conducted business—was modern technology meeting the modern consumer. Thievery is more rampant than ever, I was told. It was a concern with customers and employees alike once upon a time. But now it’s endemic. So much of the merchandise is locked tightly in cases, or on hooks that require a manager’s key to set them free. In the store’s office is a wall of cameras covering every square foot of the place, including the cashiers’ stations. My old friend can thus watch all the goings-on from the comforts of his office and, he says, in his living room at home, too.

When I was on the retail frontlines, the pinching of stuff was largely for personal use. You know: somebody would steal a flea collar for his dog, or a tube of Petromalt for his cat’s hairball problem. Now, apparently, stealing big-ticket items to sell on eBay and elsewhere is big…really big. It’s all kind of sad that it’s come to this: Big-box retailers driving out mom-and-pops—both small and not so small—and all of them having little choice but to watch our every move, be we shoppers or hired hands.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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