Monday, January 7, 2019

January 2019 - Featured Story of the Month



A Customer Review


At the All-Mart near the mall, Joe Singwell was politely asked to leave. Baffled, he allowed himself to be led to the exit doors before anger replaced his puzzlement. A security guard walked beside him to the parking lot, and left him there fuming to no one.

A little later as he entered the Diamond Discount Pharmacy on Lake Street, one of the cashiers rushed up to him, apologized, and told him to please come back again another time. On the sidewalk outside the store, he watched as the cashier—a squat middle-aged woman—reached out and turned the sign on the door so that to Joe it read, Sorry, We're Closed!

He looked around and saw that there were still other cars in the parking lot. Through the window, he could see at least one other person inside shopping. What was going on?

Well, he thought, to hell with them. He'd been shopping at this drug store for years. If they didn't want his business he would just take it elsewhere.

That very same evening, trying to finish up the last of his errands for the day, Joe stood in line at a Bullseye department store. He waited, tapping his foot with a general low-grade irritation, while the teenage cashier rang up his items one by one. One by one by one. Presently the barcode on a gallon of orange juice wouldn't scan. The cashier turned the juice around and examined the code.

"What's the matter?" Joe asked.

"One moment, sir."

"The price tag said $4.99."

The cashier didn't reply, began pressing buttons on his screen.

Joe fumed. He ground his teeth. His foot kept on tapping, tapping. Now he began rapping the edge of his credit card against the checkout counter.

"Just a moment." The cashier punched in some numbers on the keyboard. At last, the offending item scanned, the computer beeping pleasantly.

When everything had been rung up and totaled, Joe slid his card. There was a beep. Joe focused on the card terminal, waiting, but was not prompted to sign. There followed a second, not-good beep.

"Sir," said the cashier, "I'm afraid I can't finalize this transaction."

"What?" Joe looked up. "Then get someone who can."

"The system has declined your—"

"Impossible, there's plenty of money on it."

"Well, it says—"

"I just used it earlier," Joe added, although he hadn't.

"The card is fine," the young clerk said.

"Then what's the problem?"

"The system is declining you."

Joe sputtered.

"You are Joe Singwell? Address 62035 Redbird Lane?"

"I am."

The cashier nodded at his computer screen, cleared his throat. "Mr. Singwell, I'm afraid that, due to poor reviews from other local retailers, we're unable to serve you this evening, sir. Very sorry about the trouble."

Joe laughed. "Poor reviews?" He motioned towards the credit card reader. "Come on, kid. I don't have time for this. Run it through again." Bringing his card back out, he held it poised above the reader. "Can I slide it?"

"You can try," said the cashier, pushing a button on the screen. "But I imagine," he added, as Joe swiped his card a second time, "that it will say the same thing." A pause. The same not-good beep. "Yep." The cashier looked up at Joe apologetically. "It's declined your transaction again."

"This card is fine," Joe said, teeth clenched.

The cashier nodded. "I understand, sir. Again, I apologize, but the system is declining you. You, Joe Singwell, due to a poor rating."

"Listen here, you little prick," Joe snarled. "I'm getting pretty pissed off right now. I know my card is good, I pay the bill every damn month. I don't know what the hell this ratings business you're talking about is, and I don't care. I want you to take my card and ring this goddamned shit up."

"There's no need to swear," the cashier replied, calmly. "This is exactly the sort of thing mentioned over and over in your reviews. Abusive, aggressive, blows the smallest inconvenience or issue out of proportion."

"It says all that?" Joe leaned forward, but the cashier turned the screen away. "What other shit does it say there? What the hell are you reading?"

"This is a new retail resource. A database which allows us, and all other retailers enrolled in the program, to share information about our potential customers. It allows the companies to make informed decisions about whom to let into their stores and to let purchase their products."

 "This is bullshit. I didn't agree to be on there."

"You don't have to agree to be on here. Buying anything anywhere, making a transaction with any retailer, means you are tacitly agreeing to have the details of the transaction be on record."

"Tacit-who? Look, kid. I don't need this shit, or you and your goddamned fancy words. I just want you to finish ringing me up so I can get the hell out of here." Joe thought back to the previous incidents that day—being asked to leave All-Mart, that strange reception at the pharmacy. "Damnit. Tell me what the hell that review thing says about me."

"Well, for instance, there is one review here. Did you recently return a toaster oven to one of our competitors?"

"Yeah, but—"

"And despite the return policy being posted quite plainly at multiple locations within the store, as well as on each receipt, you attempted to return the oven without your receipt and beyond the stated timeframe for returns."

"Yeah, but those rules are just—"

"And then when informed of the store's return policy yet again, and when offered store credit in the form of a gift card—even though the store was in no way obligated to offer you such a thing—you began yelling and slamming the counter, swearing loudly, and calling both the young female employee and the manager present unrepeatable names."

"Those damn fascists," Joe muttered, remembering the incident.

"Or here," continued the cashier. "At the local grocery store: you routinely pick up items and then later deposit them in various, incorrect places around the store."

"Oh, now it's a crime to change my mind?"

"It creates extra work for store employees, who could better use that time directly serving customers."

"That's their damn job," Joe grumbled.

"Furthermore, it directly affects other customers, who may be unable to find an item they wish to purchase because it has been moved from its correct location."

"Look, that's happened, like, one time."

"It's been recorded each of the last five times you've been there. In addition"—and now the cashier leaned forward, reading directly from the screen—"'customer is often rude, argumentative, and uses inappropriate, foul language'. And look here, you often use the express lane despite having more than twelve items."

"This is some goddamned ridiculous bullshit, you know that? You little punk. I don't have to stand here and take this—get a damned manager over here."

The cashier sighed, picked up a telephone receiver. "Manager to Six, please."

Joe smiled at the young man, anticipating a change in his fortune. Both their fortunes. He'd get this kid fired, by God! Within a minute, a sharp-dressed, skirted woman approached. Obviously the manager.

"Tacitly watch this," a smug Joe told the cashier. He opened his mouth, ready to explain the whole thing as he saw it to this lady manager.

She nodded to him in courteous acknowledgment, "Good evening, sir," and then turned her attention directly to the pimply young kid. Joe's mouth hung in the air.

"What's the issue, Kevin?"

Joe stood, trembling with a growing fury, while blood rose to his head. He listened to the cashier recount their present conversation, gesturing several times as he did so to the screen from which he had been reading those review things. The woman nodded often, made sounds of understanding, studied whatever the cashier indicated. At last, she turned to Joe.

"Thank you for your patience, sir. I understand the situation has been amply explained to you."

"You must be joking." Joe felt himself shaking, and there was a pain growing around the area of both temples.

"I'd like to offer you this coupon," said the manager, holding out a slip of paper, "for your next visit. We would like for you to return. Just get those scores up a bit."

Joe did not take the coupon.

"We do maintain a 3-star level here at Bullseye, and your average review of 2.90 is just below where we would like our customers to be." She leaned in close, lowering her voice. "To be honest, this business of going over the head of an entirely competent, lower-level employee because you believe that a manager will simply acquiesce to your demands is precisely the type of behavior that will keep on earning you poor reviews. I'll cut you a break today, because we have a broken door sensor. It should have stopped you ever getting into the store. So you did have a valid reason to be upset, although the cursing and the poor attitude certainly aren't needed."

"I have a bad attitude?" demanded Joe. "You people have the shitty-ass attitude, you got that?" He broke into a very long and very curse-filled rant—an inspired monologue—which hit all of the major swear words, utilizing several variations and compound-constructions for many of them; he dabbled in some sexist comments and tossed in several off-color instances of a term for the female reproductive organs; then, as a finale of sorts, he even added a few bits of physical violence (kicking a cart, knocking over a display).

By now, two security guards and a uniformed police officer were approaching. Joe stalked away from the register area and brushed passed the officer and the security guards. They turned and followed him towards the exit.

"I'm afraid," the manager called after his retreating form, "I'm going to have to write that review after all. And it won't be a positive one." She shook her head.

Beside her, Kevin let out a long whistle. "What a nutjob," he said.

Belinda, his manager, gave him a brief, disapproving glare, before a smile cracked her face. She laughed lightly. "I'm sorry, Kevin. That was an ordeal, huh? Why don't you run back and take a breather? I'll cover your register for as long as you need."

 * * *

"Sir?" The thin man with glasses cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave. Perhaps come back another time." The bespectacled manager smiled. Behind him, standing quietly with hands clasped together, a security guard watched. The badge on the guard's breast gleamed.

Joe nodded. With a weary sigh, he turned and exited through the door which he had only moments earlier entered. The manager and the security man walked along with him.

"You know," Joe said, when they were standing outside, "this is crazy."

The last three weeks since the incident in the Bullseye had been much the same for Joe nearly everywhere he went. Again and again, he was shooed away, asked to leave; or if not banished, then followed around stores, up and down aisles, by watchful security men. Watching him.

"I am sorry," the manager replied. "But here at the Wholesome Health Hut, we take customer reviews quite seriously. Unfortunately, your customer history isn't presently up to our standards."

"Yeah, yeah," Joe muttered. "My rating."

Ever since the reviews had come to his attention, he found himself more and more often being turned away from a variety of different establishments. At first, like the incident at the Bullseye, he responded with outrage. But this seemed only to aggravate the situation. In just a matter of days, he accumulated several more poor reviews, which only added to his problem. Now he was being denied service almost everywhere.

"How can you turn people away?" Joe asked. "You're a grocery store. How's a person supposed to get food? It isn't right."

"There are other alternatives, of course," the manager said. "Although we hope that you get your rating up—we'd love to have you back as a customer. In the meantime, I believe there is the chain grocery store over on Center Road. They offer special membership conditions for customers such as yourself. And of course, the majority of the fast-food restaurants." The bespectacled manager shivered as he spoke of them. "Many of those still cater to all classes of customer."

"Yeah, yeah," said Joe. He turned and began to walk out to his parked car. "Thanks for nothing."

 * * *

Joe drove across town to the chain grocery store. It was always his second choice behind the Wholesome Health Hut. The produce in particular was always inferior. Often over-ripe, over-priced, and not locally grown. And now he had no choice but to shop there anyway, all because of this new customer review nonsense. He felt himself growing angry simply thinking about it, but forced himself to relax. That's exactly what they want, he thought bitterly. These damn fascists.

At least, he thought, taking a sip from his cup and then replacing it in the car's cupholder, he could still get his Sunburst coffee. His rating hadn't dropped that low yet; however, it had dipped enough that he was now having to pay their premium, high-risk customer prices. That pissed him off, of course; and that first time he had yelled at the barista and earned himself yet another poor review. But after swearing up a storm and promising that he wouldn't ever be back there to buy coffee, he returned three days later. That's as long as he could last: three days. What was he going to do, not drink coffee? He loved Sunburst coffee.

So he joined their high-risk customer program, and got his card. It worked just like any rewards program. He was charged a higher rate than regular customers, whose ratings were in good standing. After some number of drinks, five or six, he was able to get his next coffee for the regular price. It was a lousy program, he thought, glumly. What kind of reward was a drink at the regular price? But goddamnit if he didn't need his Sunburst coffee every morning.

Presently he pulled his car into a spot, parked, and entered the grocery store. No one came to stop him or block his way, or prevent him from shopping. He was allowed to wander the aisles with his cart, getting the items he needed without hassle. He noticed with a twinge of irritation that he was careful not to put any items he changed his mind about just wherever he could stuff them out of sight, like he previously would have done. He glanced around for cameras or for anyone watching him, thinking more than once that there was a security guard keeping tabs on him. Or was he just doing his usual rounds? Joe couldn't be sure. Christ, he thought, they're turning me into a damned paranoid.

His cart filled and everything on his list crossed off, Joe made his way to a checkout lane. He glanced around nervously, expecting any moment someone to approach and inform him that he couldn't purchase anything after all, that a mistake had been made. But no one came, and momentarily he was unloading his cart onto the conveyer as the female shopper in front of him took her change from the cashier and moved to collect her bagged goods. Joe watched her walk away, and then turned to the clerk—a young man—who smiled in greeting.

"Hello, sir. Do you have one of our cards?"

Joe fumbled through his wallet; he did indeed have a card for this place, because even though he didn't care for it, he shopped here sometimes since this chain store was closer to his home than the Wholesome Health Hut across town. He found the card and handed it over to the clerk, who scanned it into the system. There was a beep.

The cashier offered the card back. "Mr. Singwell?" Joe nodded, bracing himself. He took back his member card and mechanically returned it to his wallet. He was so tired, he wondered if he would have the strength to scream and shout when the cashier told him to leave. Except the cashier said no such thing. Instead, the young man began scanning his items.

Joe said nothing, watching the cashier scan and bag. Any minute, he thought, this little twerp is going to tell me I can't buy this stuff after all. Joe clenched and unclenched his fists. At last, the final item was scanned and placed into a bag. The cashier punched a couple buttons on the screen and then looked up at Joe.

"I can tell you've had a bad time lately," the young employee said. He leaned forward towards Joe, lowered his voice. "Between you and me, my rating was pretty low there for a while, too. I've been practicing being a better customer, and sometimes when I'm working, I like to give folks a break." He pressed a few more buttons on the screen. "I'm going give you the valued member discount, today. Knock a few dollars off that total for you." He smiled, face full of kindness.

Holding his credit card in his hand, preparing to swipe it, Joe paused. He looked at the credit machine. "What's my new total?"

"There it is," the clerk said, pointing.

"Christ! That much?" Joe muttered. "That's still pretty damn expensive." He slid his card through the machine.




THE END
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Thank you for reading!

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