business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week, MNB took note of a Time, magazine piece about Zeynep Ton, a Professor of Operations Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, who argues that "viewing retail labor as an expense to be cut, rather than as an asset to be invested in, is unsound," and that "by underinvesting in their employees, retailers are actually making their operations much more inefficient, and therefore much less profitable."

According to the story, Ton has found after a decade of study that "companies that buck the status quo and invest heavily in their workforce actually are able to not only compete with their competitors on service but on price too."

One MNB user responded:

Great article! Ton might add to the challenges of the hours, evenings, weekends, and holidays. While I have chosen this field for my livelihood, it doesn’t make it any easier on the family times I have missed and will continue to miss. Young people entering into this industry often are amazed at the variation of hours in any given week, morning, afternoons, and evenings (over nights thrown in here and there). While I have found this a rewarding career, it is tough to start at the bottom and see a future.

True. But if one believes that one is being nurtured as a corporate asset, as opposed to a cost, it helps.

Trust me on this. I've spent my entire career in editorial, but when i've worked for other people, it was always the ad people who were treated like assets because they brought in sales dollars. We were treated like costs because we spent the money ... ignoring, of course, the fact that without editorial, there would be no sales dollars coming in. But it would not matter how long or hard or smart we worked ... editorial is the poor stepchild in many publishing organizations. So for those of you in retail who feel like they are not treated appropriately ... I feel your pain.

Another MNB user wrote:

I think Ton’s study further reinforces what I am observing and calling the self-inflicted demise of Walmart.

I shop one of their nicest stores in the NW Arkansas area. It was at one time the model prototype store, #5260.

Part of the less labor equation is we were not able to find an item after a store reset and we could not find ANYONE in the store who could find the item.

Not like the old days when an employee or possibly an Assistant Manager over grocery had control over a section of the store and new where stuff was.

Well, my wife and I did find the item by accident and they did not have the flavor we wanted on our first trip. On our next trip the item was out of stock. I want to attribute that to fewer employees and no one actually owning that problem. When I brought it up to an employee -  yep, a real human in the actual aisle of the store – he told me I SHOULD TALK TO THE MANAGER OR CUSTOMER SERVICE ABOUT IT.
I suggested he might be “my voice to management”. He kindly informed me “they don’t listen to us”. This type experience has happened at least three different times over the past 60 days.

So good for Walmart - they saved a buck on fewer employees – which apparently added to the frustration of both the shopper (ME) and an employee (based on his response to me).

Now guess what my emotion is that I tie to shopping at Walmart – DREAD. I can’t stand shopping there because everything they do makes the statement they do not care about my shopping experience or wants.

I have already modified my behavior so I now shop ANYWHERE ELSE within reason to buy ANYTHING Walmart sells just to avoid spending money with them. That’s my statement - that I can’t stand them.

Needless to say I am anxiously awaiting the opening of new food store just as close to my house as the model Walmart Super Center I shop today… congratulations Walmart on your lower labor expense.

To be fair here, I suspect that you could substitute a lot of names for "Walmart" in this email. And I wonder how many retail executives read this letter and say to themselves, "There but for the grace of God go I."

I continue to let lots of email responding to my piece about the importance of proper English usage, good grammar, and literate writing in business. Apparently, a lot of people have pet peeves in this area...

One MNB user wrote:

That reminds me of my now departed Father in-law.  If someone ever said in his presence they were mad about something, he’d interrupt with a grin and half a chuckle and say “dogs get mad, people get angry”, and then he’d just smile.  Back in the day, mad was used to refer to an animal suffering from rabies, which is still applicable I guess, but language does change over time, but he still loved pointing it out like you were some kind of idiot.  I sure do miss the wit and charm of that kind sweet old man!

From another reader:

AMEN!!  My personal pet peeve has been the "less" vs. "fewer" distinction. Thank you for mentioning this frequent gaffe. For a short time, I thought I'd gotten that corrected at the express lanes of my former employer but it's now hit or miss --- usually miss.

What difference does it make when the  sign is ignored anyway - by customers and the retailers.   [Where I shop you might get shot if you confronted a customer ignoring that restriction.]

Maybe they can't count.

Another MNB user disagreed:

I have enjoyed your blog immensely since I was first introduced to it several months ago, but I felt that the Wednesday Morning Eye-Opener failed to acknowledge the ever-changing nature of language.  To the extent that proper grammar is necessary to communicate clearly, it is, without question, essential, but all language is in a constant state of evolution.  IMHO, nit-picking over minor mistakes where the message is still blatantly clear (as in your less vs. fewer example) undermines a more basic value of language: that you need to know how to make yourself understood.  When poor grammar interferes with that ability, there is a problem, but these small "mistakes" may develop into the accepted form of language only to be remembered as an arcane footnote in the dictionary.

That being said, I whole-heatedly agree that we have gotten to the point where basic communication is being affected, so I am quite pleased that employers are requiring a better command of language.  It will serve as an important cultural force that will continue to develop language in the "right" direction.

Thank you for your work each day.  It has been a bright spot in my otherwise dull mornings.

I hesitate to disagree with someone who finds MNB to a bright spot, but I can't help but feel that small mistakes tolerated lead to basic standards being lowered.

Another MNB user wrote:

I am of the "younger" generation (graduated college in 2009).  I spent my childhood in four different public school districts (each rated very highly, and each in a different state), and attended a well-ranked public university.

I don't remember any significant time being dedicated to English grammar, in any of my schools.  There may have been a little, and I remember exercises around the proper placement of commas (which we needed to know to pass state exams), but it seemed as though reasonably decent grammar was something that we were just "expected" to pick up, just as native English speakers can often tell by how a sentence sounds whether it can be improved for better clarity and grammar.

In fact, I learned FAR more about English grammar in my Spanish classes, ironically enough.  Learning about the different tenses and moods in Spanish and the rules around when to use each gave me a much better understanding of English grammar.  When I speak with colleagues in their 20s, many of them say much the same thing: foreign language classes (now required in most high schools) taught them foreign language grammar, and in doing so, also taught them some of the finer points of English grammar, especially with regards to verb conjugation and when to use a given tense and mood.  My grammar still isn't perfect, and never will be, but I like to think that I'm passable, and I don't have the English department to thank for it.

Finally, I'd like to note that I am appalled at how few people use the subjunctive properly in English (again, something I never truly understood until taught how to use it properly in Spanish).  I drive by a sign on my daily commute that says, "Wish your office was on Elm St?". It takes a great deal of self-control to keep from calling the leasing agent up and replying, "No, I do not wish my office **were** on Elm St, but I do wish you were in English Grammar 101."

You make my point about standards, I think.

Just FYI...I used to be terribly guilty of saying "was" instead of "were." Not sure why, but for some reason I always made this mistake. When I started dating the woman who would later become Mrs. Content Guy, it made her nuts ... and so she said I had to pay her a quarter every time I used "was" instead of "were." Took me about a week and a couple of bucks to break the habit, if I recall correctly.

Someone complained about my use of language, which led another MNB user to write:

The next time someone complains about your use of the same word or phrase at the beginning of a clause or sentence, please send them here.
You were using an ancient rhetorical trope called "anaphora." I'm sure your professor of rhetoric will be pleased that you internalized it, but disappointed that you forgot the term.

I don't even remember having a professor of rhetoric....

Finally, thanks to all of you who wrote in about my Friday piece about jogging again, despite a couple of knee surgeries. I appreciate all your suggestions ... yes, my lower back seems to bother me more than my knees ... and I love the idea of always finishing with a beer, though I'm a morning runner, so this might not be the best way to go.
KC's View: