Saturday, February 24, 2007

Someone From Grocery Team to Customer Service, Please!

I am not afraid to use the Customer Service desk at Whole Foods. In fact, I've spent a good deal of time at the Customer Service desk. So if you are at Whole Foods and hear over the loudspeaker, "Someone from the grocery team to Customer Service to assist a customer," that's probably because I need something and I can't find it. When I can't find something, I don't waste time looking for it anymore. I don't even pretend to keep up with the way things move around at Whole Foods. Intead, I go straight to the Customer Service desk and wait for a "team member" to show up. Isn't that what Customer Service is for?

But 99 times out of 100--and not necessarily at Whole Foods; it could be anywhere--after you explain to the grocery "team member" that you are having trouble locating, say, the dried porcini mushrooms, that they're always hanging on a little rack at the end of the aisle with the olive oil and capers, but today they don't seem to be there, the first thing the "team member" does is lead you right back to that exact spot next to the olive oil and capers and look for the porcini mushrooms exactly where you already said they weren't. Then the "team member" will start looking around at other shelves--the canned vegetables, the beans, the marinated artichoke hearts, the hearts of palm--and you realize that this "team member" has not a clue where the dried porcini mushrooms are any more than you do, and that when you went to the Customer Service desk you should have asked for the store psychic.
I don't know why we go into a grocery store thinking the employees know where everything is (perhaps because we see them stocking the shelves?), because it just isn't so. They usually don't know diddly.

But, really, I don't mind. This has happened so often, I know the drill by heart. It's kind of like Groundhog Day. You're Bill Murray and each morning you wake up and you're back at Whole Foods following a "team member" around looking for some missing item. After the "team member" scans a number of aisles where your missing item cannot possibly be, you get 20 Questions, starting with, "Did you check our bulk section?" And after you explain that, yes, you did go through the bulk section, and mostly what you saw were raisins and granola and wasabi peas and such, but no dried porcini mushrooms, the "team member" will usually scratch his head and say something like, "Well, we just reconfigured the whole store and that's probably one of the items we discontinued." You mean, like when you got rid of the whole wheat couscous?

At this point you turn away to continue your shopping and hear the "team member" asking another "team member," Hey Frank, have you seen the dried porcini mushroom? And 99 time out of 100, the "team member" will track you down in the cheese section fives minutes later and hand you a package of dried porcini mushrooms. The "team member" has such a triumphant look on his face, you don't even bother asking where he found them. I much prefer to do my shopping this way, where you just plant an idea in the brain of a "team member" and let him scour the store for it. This is a great time saver.

Sometimes--on rare occasions--you do get unpleasant pushback from employees. Recently, for instance, I was in the Whole Foods looking for steel cut oats. For oatmeal, I much prefer the chewier, healthier steel cut oats to conventional rolled oats, and I always buy them in the bulk section. On this particular morning, I headed for the steel cut oats and what I found was the usual bin marked "Steel Cut Oat Groats." What was in the bin, however, was not the usual steel cut oats but a grain that looked a little like brown rice. I realized that these must be whole oat groats--not cut up at all, and not suitable for oatmeal--and I thought this was a great find, since I'd never seen whole oat groats in the bulk section before. Except they weren't the steel cut oats I was looking for.

Just then, a "team member" appeared on the scene and I explained that whole oats apparently had found their way into the steel cut oats bin by mistake. What followed was one of those surreal, "Who's on First?" conversations wherein the "team member" tried to convince me that what was in the bin I was looking at were in fact "oat groats," and I kept pointing to the words "steel cut," and he then said the "steel cut" oats must be "out of stock," and I replied, Then what is this stuff in the bin marked "steel cut"? Whereupon he tried to one-up me by claiming he was the "buyer" for the bulk section (and therefore knew everything) and I had to try and one-up him by claiming (truthfully) that I had been visiting that bulk section on an almost daily basis since the store opened three years ago and had everything in it practically memorized. When he couldn't find a good response to that, he tried to claim victory and walk away, saying, "Sir, please don't spit on me."

Well, I had no choice but to march up to Customer Service and find a manager to settle the dispute over the oat groats. And the manager proceded to explain that the "buyer" for the bulk section was really pretty new (as I had suspected all along). Then we marched back to the bulk section and all three of us had a little huddle over the bin marked "steel cut oat groats," wherein the manager explained to the "buyer" that what was in the bin were indeed oat groats, but not the "steel cut" variety (Exactly!). The manager told the "buyer" to change the label on the bin to accurately reflect its contents. Then the manager walked me around the corner to another dry goods aisle and introduced me to a box of steel cut oats that solved the problem temporarily, at a cost probably three times what I would have paid for steel cut oats in the bulk section.

But, as I said, I really don't mind all this. I know there is a lot of turnover in the ranks of the "team members." They can't be expected to know everything. Where the bulk section is concerned, I see my role as a kind of volunteer ombudsman, a concerned friend of Whole Foods who will take the time to make sure the oat groats are accurately labeled and the rest of the section properly organized. In fact, one time when I was looking in bulk for brown basmati rice I found that the bin marked "brown basmati rice" was filled instead with a completely different variety of short grain brown rice. Further inspection revealed that the same short grain brown rice had insinuated intself into a total of three different bins, all with different labels. Of course, I was kind enough to point this out to the nearest "team member."

This particular story has a happy ending, though. About a week after the oat groats incident, I returned to the bulk section for some quinoa or something and bumped into the "buyer" and he was smiling from ear to ear. He practically threw his arms around me like a long lost friend, saying, "Did you see?" And he directed me to one of the cereal grain bins and there was a bin brimming with steel cut oats. As instructed, he had changed the label. It now read, simply, "Oat Groats." Still, the steel cut oats had been restored. The "buyer" and I had bonded like war veterans. And all was right with the world.


Kevin said...

Great story.

Ed Bruske said...

Thanks, Kevin. Thanks for visiting the site.