Thursday, August 6, 2009

Can I Help You?

Upon entering any large retail chain store in Jakarta, one of the first things you will notice is that there are so many people working. Sometimes there are more employees than customers. One of my oldest and most vivid memories of this is from Gramedia (a large book store that also sells sporting goods, musical instruments, computers, and stationary). Having made my decision on which book I wanted to buy, I proceeded to the checkout counter. One girl scanned the book and (in an amazing display of multitasking) took my money. Another girl put my book into a plastic bag. A different girl took my receipt from the cash register and handed it to yet another new girl who stapled it to the bag and then handed it to me along with my change. I thanked all 4 (or was it 5?) of them and was on my way. This struck me as being strange, there was no lineup and the store was pretty much empty. As the years went by, this phenomenon has begun to seem normal to me.

Fast forward to last weekend. Against my better judgement, I decided to make a Sunday visit to that big box mega store that sells everything you can imagine known as Carrefour. It was not yet noon so I hoped that it wouldn't be too crowded. Luckily, it wasn't very busy with shoppers. The aisles were, however, very congested with sales reps and Carrefour staff stocking shelves. The times that people choose to do things around here always amazes me. When I was a younger man and worked in a supermarket, we used to stock shelves on Tuesday nights 30 minutes before closing when there was 1 shopper in the store, not on the weekend. All of these people and very large pallets can make some aisles very difficult to navigate. Throw over sized shopping carts and deal-drunk drivers and some aisles begin to resemble the traffic jams outside the store. What does amaze me is the sheer look of surprise on some shelf stockers' faces when they realize that they are blocking access to an entire aisle.

My favourite workers are the product reps. They market a certain product or line of products while stocking said product. I don't really know if they are employed by the store or if they are independent and go from store to store. These reps (almost always female) are usually clad in a blouse/skirt combo outfit that features the logo and colours of the product they are selling. One of the first ones I noticed on Sunday was a Pampers diapers rep. Her outfit made a 24 pack of pampers look like the perfect accessory as it was an exact match. As I turned the corner (don't ask why I was on the diaper aisle), she was busy giving her pitch to a very interested customer. This whole exchange is hilarious to me, no matter how many times I hear it. These reps seem to have no real insight into the products they are hawking, they just state the facts. The (translated) pitch on this particular day went something like this "here we have the 12 pack of ultra absorbent for Rp. 30 000. Next to that, we have the 24 pack of ultra absorbent for Rp. 55 000. On the shelf below this, we have the pull-ups 16 pack for Rp. 42 000....." The woman listening to her sales pitch was hanging on her every word. This absolutely blows my mind as they are reading exactly what it says on the package and pointing to the label with the price below the package. If you were to ask them which diaper would best suit a 2.5 year old male who is potty training, they'd most likely start reading the labels and pointing at the prices again. How could anybody possibly make an informed decision without the sales rep present?

A couple of aisles later, I noticed that 6 packs of You-C 1000 were on sale for Rp. 20 000. There were 3 gigantic signs written in marker that said "MAXIMUM 3 PER VISIT". As I was planning on buying some anyways, I proceeded to grab my 3 packs (savings of 1 dollar, yess!). Right after the first pack entered my cart, the You-C 1000 sales rep literally ran over to me and proceeded to explain to me that they were on sale for Rp. 20 000. I told her that I was sold and that I was going to buy 3 packs. She then pointed out that they come in lemon and orange flavour. This solved the mystery in my mind of why half of the packs are yellow and half of them are orange. I told her that I liked lemon and that was why I was filling my cart with 3 packs of lemon. Diligent in her work, she tried to persuade me to get 1 more pack of orange just to try it. I then pointed at one of the gigantic signs that said "MAXIMUM 3 PER VISIT" and told her that I already had 3 packs. When I did this, she looked genuinely stunned as if she had no idea that you weren't allowed to buy more than 3. After a few seconds of looking like a deer in headlights, she asked me if I wanted to buy some You-C lemon water. I politely declined at which point she pointed out that the water also came in orange flavour. Again I politely declined and made my way to the checkout.

Now let's say for example you wanted to buy something expensive like an air conditioning unit at Carrefour. You would most likely have to search for somebody to help you. If you are lucky enough to find somebody, they will have no knowledge of the appliance in question. If one asks a question about a specific model, they will tell you that that one is bagus (good). If you ask about a different one, you'll probably get the same answer. If you tell them that you would like to purchase a certain model, they may tell you that that model is out of stock without even going into the back to check because they don't feel like doing that. This has happened to me a few times. If you are lucky, you can ask another clerk who will promptly go to the stock room and get you what you have asked for. On one occasion, I wanted to buy a water dispenser. They had around a dozen demo models set up. Turned out that 7 of them were completely sold out and that they had not bothered to take down the floor model or put up any 'sold out' signs. When I asked which ones they did have in stock (after the guy had gone to the back 3 times), he told me that he wasn't sure. If any of the Carrefour brass read this blog, I have a suggestion: Switch the product reps with the clueless people who sell expensive appliances. I don't need assistance when choosing the right bug spray but I may need some from time to time when attempting to buy a washing machine or a refrigerator. The only problem is that I don't think that the guys from electronics and home appliances would look very good in those product rep skirts.

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