Why you will leave shops empty-handed this Christmas season, just the same as last year, and the year before that….

As sure as night follows day, in the days leading up to Christmas supermarkets will run out of packets of dehydrated French onion soup, just when you had the idea to make your own cheap but tasty party dips out of cream cheese or sour cream and the aforementioned processed soup. I’m guessing this happens every year because the state-of-the-art stock ordering computer programs used by the supermarkets group products into categories, and soup being a product range that generally sells more in winter, is not ordered in any quantity in the summer season leading up to Christmas in Australia. Perhaps a similar logic explains why breakfast foods such as hash browns and kippers become scarce in the festive season. I’m guessing that cooked breakfast foods aren’t items in the summer range, even though big cooked breakfasts have been a popular form of family Christmas meal in Australia since the 1990s.

More common and perennial problems in stock replenishment in retail establishments are the big empty chasms where useful and desirable products are supposed to be stocked, and the related problem of the wrong product housed in slots on variety and supermarket shelves. These issues are a problem for retailers, as in the former situation a sale does not happen and in the latter situation the item stocked will most likely be advertised at the wrong price. If the shopper has seen a box of 375g salted mixed nuts stocked in a slot displaying a price of $3.00, around $3.05 less than the price that it scans at, the customer has every right to insist that they be sold the item at the lesser price that they saw when they selected the item, even though I’ve found that staff at a local Woolworths supermarket will defend their right to display $8 pots of bubble-mix in the slot in the toy section designated to $3 bubble mix, not conceding one red cent of discount, whatever the consumer law might say. Shoppers also have a problem when stuff isn’t kept in the shops where stuff is meant to be found. When confronted with fresh air where an item on their shopping list should be found a shopper could feel peeved, because they then have to walk across the shopping centre or drive across town to source an alternative, or do without. And when they are confronted with incorrectly shelved items they may become misled or confused over the price. And the problem goes deeper than that. When some dunce fills a box of Fimo soft light modelling clay packets into a slot at an Officeworks store which was supposed to house similar-sized packages of Das air-drying modelling clay, and hangs an “out-of-stock” sign where the Fimo item should reside, the Fimo is then advertised at the wrong price as a different product, and I’m guessing when the automatic stock-ordering system delivers more of the Das clay, which is really out-of-stock, the shelf-stocking person might find an full slot where their box of Das product should be placed. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but I know that in supermarket night-fill operations the workers are placed under constant pressure to throw product onto the shelves fast, so there isn’t time for anyone to pull the twenty-three blackcurrant jam jars out of the blackberry jam slot, rebox or rehouse them all, and then refill the slot with the contents of the box of blackberry jam. What will probably happen is that the box of blackberry jam will be marked as overstock and returned to the back of the supermarket on a cage to languish in darkness for an indefinite sentence. I hope you like blackcurrant jam, and I hope you don’t have an allergic reaction to the hazelnut wafers that were shelved in the chocolate wafers slot.

I understand that once retail shelves have been allowed to degrade into a state of chaos the disorder becomes a self-perpetuating system, and I know that hope can never be held for any logic or order in any retail space devoted to an extensive range of light globes, but I also wonder whether I’m the only one who sees the errors in product stocking every time I walk into a shop or walk down a retail aisle. Do other shoppers notice the boxes of fish fingers heaped six-high above the fill-line in the freezers? Do store managers notice the expired use-by dates, the 600ml bottles sitting in the 300ml bottle slot, the grey bacon, or does it not register? If they do see the mess and the mistakes, does it not bother them?

The phrase “an eye for detail” pops up fairly frequently in the world of recruiting and HR but no one ever tests for it, and as far as I know, there are no valid, reliable, standardised tests relevant to “eye for detail” and I know of no scientific definition of this ability (readers please correct me and inform me if you know more about this than I do). The standard of spelling ability of job applicants might be used to estimate “eye for detail”, but this standard is a fairly low bar, and it is also not an area of ability that another poor speller is able to judge. One fundamental truth that I’ve learned in researching the science of face memory and visual recognition is that seeing doesn’t simply happen in the eyes, it happens in the eyes and brain. You can have your eyes open but not really see if your brain isn’t processing the information supplied by your eyes, and that is why we all get to see so many dark, empty spaces when we are trying to stock up for the silly season.

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