Adventures In Everyday Consumerism

Jennifer’s letter is perfectly ordinary. It’s the tale of one day in the life of a consumer, a mother, trying to run some errands. Her ToDo list reads: Send letter at post office, return grandma gifts at Walmart, shots at Kaiser. Of course, it’s not as easy as that, because nobody knows how to do their jobs anymore and the dang sauce pitchers exploding off the shelves and whatnot.

Her excellent letter, inside.

Jennifer writes:

    “I’m not sure if what to call this story…I’m not sure if it’s an actual consumer story, but it does involve one government agency, an HMO, Walmart, and a killing spree- so it should be interesting if nothing else. It was originally just a cool moment of customer insurrection at the Post Office, but it gets better (or worse.) .

    Today was the last “errand day” before the first day of school, so we got up extra early to run through our list of chores. The first stop is the post office, which is so notoriously busy we showed up at opening time to avoid the rush. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when I got in there- three clerks and only two people ahead of me. The first was a mail carrier who was finished pretty quickly but apparently had some chatting to catch up on. The second came to pick up a letter which was apparently very, very heavy, because it took them fifteen minutes to ring up..

    By this time, there were about twenty people in line behind me, which was okay, because it was my turn. Alas, it was not to be. Two of the three clerks seemed very occupied with things out of sight, and the one I expected to call me up seemed to have forgotten how to make eye contact. After about five minutes of fiddling about, while customers behind me in line started sighing and twitching, she picked up a tray of rubber stamps and left the room. Almost immediately afterward, the other two followed, leaving the desk empty for a good ten minutes. Not once did any of them speak to, acknowledge, or even make eye contact with anyone in the line, which by now stretched out the door and was beginning to get grumbly. The postmaster poked his head out briefly and then ducked back out of sight. The clerks began to return, one by one, but still failed to notice the twenty-odd people milling about making snarky comments about the postal Service. I decided it was a now or never moment, and waved at one of the clerks who seemed to be walking off again. She looked sort of surprised that I was speaking to her, mumbled something about ‘being right back,’ and started off again. I made some sort of protest, and she waved me over- and still, no eye contact.

    One of the louder grumblers just sort of lost it and started demanding some attention. After his third, very audible, “excuse me,” one of the other clerks actually looked at him- and then walked away. My clerk grabs my box and rings me up- for what, I’m really n ot sure, because she never asked me how I wanted to send this box. Mr. Grumbly is now demanding she go fetch the postmaster, but she can’t do it, because she’s “helping a customer.” I t ake my box back and tell her no problem, go ahead and get him, I’ll wait, and I’d like to see him too. She waves Mr Grumbly to the Passport Office for “customer service,” but he’s not having it. So the boss lady comes charging out from the back and starts ordering the guy to “Calm down, sir, you’re causing a disturbance,” at which time all hell breaks loose as about twenty people announce their support of “sir” and his commotion. Mr Postmaster sticks his head out briefly and retreats, and boss lady tells us that the postmaster is not in today. Dumb looks all around.

    When left, customers were gathering outside , planning a group complainathon. (BTW- Fremont main PO at Dusterberry) A partial victory for the People, not a complete disaster.

    So this is where I planned this to end, but the saga continues- next stop, Walmart. The Fremont Walmart is a particularly dank, crowded, scary place to which I never willingly go, except that today I have to exchange grandma’s gift of dockers an d yellow t-shirts to my punk rock seventh grader. Follows the long line at customer service, which requires I surrender my Driver’s license number (?) I take my little plastic card, grab a cart, and head for the boy’s department- or at least I try, but my cart won’t let me- every few steps, it lurches hard to the right and nearly whacks a passer-by in the butt. I turn a corner and a display of ‘sauce pitchers’ explodes off the shelf all over me, and of course everyone is looking right at me as if I’d pulled a Uri Geller. I find my stuff and lurch to the checkout, where one of the biggest Walmarts in California has TWO checkers on the day before school. The wait is an hour, and I have no book and the only available reading is Angelina & Brad, Jon Benet, and forty-one quick n easy crockpot recipes. When I finally get to the front, I have half a dozen items which refuse to scan…and of course, every single cranky person in line is glaring at me, because I must have intentionally chosen the only package of Batman underwear in the store that won’t scan. A complete disaster, made even worse by the discovery (back home) that a pair of jeans is defective and needs to be returned.

    Next up is good old Kaiser, where my five year old is going for his fourth immunization shot this week. Not that he needs any, but they have mysteriously ‘lost’ all of his immunization records from two separate branches. He’s back again because four times they have told me he has what he needs to start Kindergarten but each time I present the new record, the school sends me back, where Kaiser gives him another ‘replacement’ shot and sends us back. (the one flower in this heap of cow pie is Monica, the tireless employee who hunts down records, calls doctors for me, and gives me secret back-door phone numbers, we LOVE Monica!.) Two days before school starts, they called to tell us the records are gone, and the appointment they deemed unnecessary is now necessary- and unavailable. I am directed to call a special number to beg for an emergency appointment, because my son cannot go to school without these shots, and if he is not in school by day two, he will be sent to an ‘overflow school’ a mile away. I make the call on my cell while running errands, and use up ALL of my minutes while on hold for three hours, after which I give up, leave an ‘urgent message’ which is of course never returned. The next day I call the pediatric unit to beg interference and they tell me there has never been any appointment necessary for injections. Skip a few more annoyances, and we’re getting the last shot. I stop by the pharmacy to pick up my older son’s medications “while I’m here,” where they want to charge me a hundred bucks because they are not generics. Skip three hours of me trying to explain exception codes (and even producing my checkbook to show three months of sixty-dollar payments) to Kaiser pharmacists , and I’m out of luck because the one person who has any idea what’s going on is gone for the day. I cough up the hundred bucks, but I can’t have the medicine until I sign a form, where I am asked to print my name and Driver’s license number. the clipboard containing about a half-dozen other people’s numbers is left on the counter for about twenty minutes. I complain to the pharmacist, who tells me the info is ‘confidential,’ and I point out that can hardly be the case if I have access to six stranger’s vital statistics. He shoots me a worried look and takes off, and at the end of all my haggling over co-pays, he tells me that his manager agrees and as of today they have a new policy. So Kaiser, seventy-eight, People, one. I think.

    In between Walmart and Kaiser, we witnessed the tail-end of an “accident” on the road near our house; we later discovered our neighbor a block over went batshit and spent the afternoon running people over. Not really relevant but I guess it put things in perspective.”


Edit Your Comment

  1. cudthecrud says:


  2. Holy crap!

  3. EarhornJones says:

    I say!

  4. The “neighbor” had the right idea, I think.

  5. laurenl842 says:

    That story makes me really glad that I’m too lazy to run errands.

  6. Magister says:

    HOLY CRAP, does she not have a ENTER key?

  7. Ben Popken says:

    Formatting difficulty is our fault, not hers. Should be fixed shortly.

  8. Yaotl says:

    I can relate to the post office story, but what is Kaiser?

  9. kerry says:

    I believe she’s referring to Kaiser Permanente, an HMO.

  10. thwarted says:

    Her post office sounds exactly like our post office in Brooklyn. Why must all post offices suck?

  11. MattyMatt says:

    What a tale of woe. Does Jennifer have a blog? I would read it every day if she did.

  12. exkon says:

    Poor Jennifer, that’s quite a day. Seem like it was the perfect example of Murphy’s Law that day…

  13. kerry says:

    thwarted – It also sounds like the post office in the Chicago neighborhood I recently moved into (Uptown). It does not, however, sound anything like the post office in the neighborhood I moved out of (Rogers Park). My old post office was smallish, and usually had 3-4 workers at registers at a time, always helpful, always friendly. Once my mail carrier repeatedly neglected to deliver a package over the course of a week, and after a few episodes of his superior placing my package in his bag and it still not reaching my house she had someone drive over after hours and hand-deliver it to me. Now I call that service. Not all post offices suck, just some of them.

  14. adamondi says:

    “Her post office sounds exactly like our post office in Brooklyn. Why must all post offices suck?”

    All Post Offices suck because it is nigh impossible to get fired from the Post Office without actually shooting coworkers in the face. The postal workers’ union has the USPS by the short and curlies and the various regulations that govern its operation leave the postmasters pretty powerless to get their employees in line.

    Personally, I count myself lucky if I get a post office employee who is even competent. Doubly so if that employee is competent and pleasant.

  15. The USPS has a sort of split personality, I think. Once you put your stuff in the mailstream, they’re remarkably efficient and cheap, but when you need to talk to a person, they straight-up suck.

    Virtually all healthcare organizations, however, are horrid through and through, with rare and valuable exceptions. The attitude is “yeah, you need our products (or services), so we can be as crappy as we want about giving it to you.” (This applies to the corporate end of things, not the actual care providers.)

    More on the dude who ran over people.

    (Also: it’s “Fremont,” not “Freemont.”)

  16. Triteon says:

    As a fairly big supporter of the USPS I agree with several of the comments, especially the split-personality posts. I hate going to the counter, but my carrier is the best. Send me a letter with my name spelled right and the ZIP correct and I’ll get it.
    Their delivery speed has increased primarily due to the use of FedEx and UPS planes rather than commercial airlines for cross-country shipments.

  17. thwarted says:

    I can sort of see the split-personality thing. Some of our carriers are great, but one guy liked to throw our mail on the front steps every day (didn’t even bother opening the mailbox). Thankfully, he’s gone.

    Our p.o., though, sucks unconditionally–always understaffed, always rude, always takes at least half an hour to get through the line. Once a cashier 1) yelled at me for not having a Priority Mail label on the box (although no Priority Mail labels were out), and then 2) yelled at me for not having a pen to fill the label out with! “It’s not my fault you didn’t bring a pen!”

    I know it’s probably no fun to work at the post office, but jeeeez.

  18. I had the same thing happen. At the PO in the Golden Triangle here in Denver, there were 4 clerks, but they took their sweet ass time calling people up. People revolted. Well, grumbled at least.

    Yet my Capitol Hill PO gave me the number for their local distro center so I could pick up a package that kept getting missed. They let me ‘on premises’, which is a big no-no I guess. But the lady who ran the place was extremely cool about it.

  19. HankScorpio says:

    That is the worst PO story I have ever heard. I guess there are some good things about living in smalltown midwest.

  20. North of 49 says:

    If that wasn’t a post about the states, I would have said it was Canada Post, Walmart Canada and dealing with “Fair Pharmacare” here in BC. I could pretty much tell you the same story, except, of course, that I drop my cart and have walked away more than once at Walmart.

  21. Zernhelt says:

    Just a suggestion, since I was little, my mom has always kept a copy of my and my brothers’ immunization records at home to give when something I or my brothers do requires the record. It helps to safe us from this sort fo thing happening, because offices like to do things slowly (and who can blame them, they’re people too).

  22. Demingite says:

    I have found Post Office branches to vary wildly. The one I use most often is a joy to use; and it’s rare for me to have to wait even 5 minutes. The good news, perhaps, is that there are a lot of Post Office branches. There may be more options than you realize, including sub-stations within non-Post Office buildings.

    One thing that bugs the tar out of me, though, is when the clerks do work at their desk (literally facing out to customers in line), not able to serve the customers in line, but they don’t communicate that to the customers in line. The perception that results is that the clerk is ignoring customers. The ideal solution to that problem would be for the clerks to do their “desk work” out of view of customers. If that is not possible, there should be a large, very visible, and unambiguous sign to the effect that “This clerk is doing necessary work, and unfortunately is not available to take customers in line at the present time.” A little communication can go a long way — it can even prevent a riot.

    The situation in Fremont, Calif. was clearly out of control, and certainly deserves attention from high ups at the Post Office — beyond the local postmaster.

    There are better and worse ways of managing resources when you have a long line of customers, and finite numbers of postal personnel. In some post offices, during busy periods, there is a clerk who says “Does anyone need stamps only?” This can be enormously helpful. They can also do things like double or triple up situations where they go to look for packages — that is, look for more than one package in a single trip.

    The automated weighing/postage machines can be very helpful, too. Ditto for package lockers.

    Cross-training employees so that people from “the back” can come to “the front” during high demand periods (as happens in well-managed retail stores) might be a good idea as well.

    Management just needs to put some thought, or more thought, into it. I don’t think the situation in Fremont had or has to be.

    And I suspect it helps immensely if and when customers do speak up. Some (but not all) communities have postal customer advisory councils.

    Bear in mind, also, that the Post Office has come verrryyy far in terms of customer responsiveness over the last 20-30 years….but they still have some work to do in at least some communities.

  23. The best thing to ever happen to the Post Office is the contract units. We have one in a local gas station – the employees actually move at a normal speed! It is amazing how much faster the lines move!

  24. TPA says:

    People still go to the post office anymore? Between FedEx, Online BillPay through my bank, e-mail, and FAX, I’ve yet to stop by a post office in years. For the occasional birthday card, I’ll grab stamps at the grocery store or card shop.

    The mules at the post office take about 1-2 days to deliver 1st class mail across town, 5-7 days to get mail to a city located ~2 hrs away from here. FedEx happily accepts my packages as late as 6pm at the local Kinkos branch down the street and for the price of FedEx ground, it’ll arrive at the aforementioned city by 10am the next day, and I’ll get a full tracking report to boot.

    adamondi is correct — the lack of accountability is the leading reason bad service still exists today. I do quite a few business dinners, which usually means “suffering” through exceptional service at fine restaurants. These guys get it right 99% of the time; the 1% they’re off, the situation is addressed swiftly. A good restaurant is consistently good, from the food to the personnel.

    [getting on soapbox]
    When will companies learn that customer service is your best asset? I have a certain set of restaurants I frequent, not because the food is the absolute best, but they’re consistent and the service is outstanding. Likewise, when it came time to replace my car, I went with the same make, not because the car was outstanding, but the service from the dealer was. In both of these cases, there are better products available, BUT, I’m going to go where I’m treated (and respected) best, even if it means paying a little more or having a slightly “less great” product. I have more of a European upbringing, so screaming “lowest price!!” makes me wonder where they cut corners rather than flocking to it like flies on faeces. I’m not sure other Americans would be willing to pay a little extra for good service, but it might be a way for a company to distinguish itself from the competition.

    Additional rant: who the hell came up with these voice recognition systems for the phone trees? Bring back the touchtone systems! First, these systems almost never work properly. They have difficulty recognizing speech with any sort of background noise, many of them don’t even recognize speech well with a quiet connection, and often the programmers came up with such a limited command set that even 1,000 talking monkeys wouldn’t find the right word combination if given 100 years to do it. Also, these systems do NOT make the customer experience feel more personal, even if you have your damn voice system try to fake it. “Hi, I’m Amy, your automated personal assistant” doesn’t do it for me. It takes 2-3x as long to make one of these systems work, that is, if you even can. I placed 10 calls to Verizon today to dispute my entire bill being billed twice this month. Each time I struggled to get a real human being, and when the system finally promised me it was “transferring you to someone who can help you,” it’d transfer me to a busy signal. It became comical after awhile. To add insult to injury, Verizon’s billing office is only open weekdays 8am-6pm, totally inconvienent for those of us who work 12-36 hr shifts. I get paid to work, not tie up my extension at work for 30+ minutes on hold praying that a real human might answer some day. Don’t even get my started on DSL tech support….
    [climbs off soapbox]

  25. conformco says:

    I think I might have found the one decent Post Office in the NY Metro area… but I’m not gonna tell you where it is because you fuckers will ruin it. Quick story, last year I stopped by the PO to pick up mail from my box. By the time I get there I realize it’s a government holiday but to my suprise the door to the lobby actually opens, so I head over to my PO Box to get the mail. Inside I find a pickup slip for a parcel that’s too big. I figure no big deal, I’ll come back the next day when they’re open, then all of a sudden I hear a “Come around to the window I’ll get your package for you” coming from behind the wall of mail boxes. I walk around, the guy scans my package and hands it over. On a government holiday, when they weren’t even open. Sweet service. Passport line is usually pretty short too.

  26. Roadgeek says:

    I live in Austin TX. I have also observed that units vary wildly in quality and service levels. The unit on Burleson Road is a joke, and my wife and I joke that all the malcontents and burnouts are dumped into this unit. Conversely, the unit on South Congress is a joy to go into…always with plenty of clerks and the line moves very well.

  27. kittikin says:

    Rumor has it the USPS is the single largest employer of individuals who are on some form of government disability. You do the math.

  28. kimdog says:

    This story is why I am in love with the self service postal stations (of course, just last week I was behind someone mailing about 25 packages on the only self-serve machine, so even that can suck).

    Although I also have discovered a secret post office in NYC where there is hardly ever a line. I’m not telling either.

  29. Morton Fox says:

    Sounds like a really, really, really bad day.

  30. etinterrapax says:

    I know a secret post office in Boston where there is never a line for at least four months of the year, and because I don’t live near there any more, I’ll go ahead and spill it: it’s in the basement of the George Sherman Union on Commonwealth at Boston University (Green line B, BU Central stop). The GSU is open to the public. You have to use the Comm entrance to get to the basement door. I technically lived in the next zip code over, for the Harvard Ave. office, but if I had heavy packages, I could take the train to the BU office. Plus, for a location as inaccessible as it is–for there is not a single second of the business day that Harvard Ave at Commonwealth is not bumper-to-bumper and double- or triple-parked–it always had six zillion people in it. I quaked at the thought of having to pick up a package there. I hate living in the sticks, but I do like the fact that our mail arrives at 9 every morning and our packages are dropped off on the doorstep. I haven’t been in the post office since we’ve lived here.

    Oh, and when I have to send packages now? UPS. For about $1/lb for ground service, and same-day at-home pickup if scheduled in the morning, it can’t be beat. I know there are horror stories, but I’ve never had a bad experience with them. I used them to ship all my junk to and from school for two years, and everything arrived in good shape and within three days. USPS took two weeks to provide the same service.

  31. Tankueray says:

    That was great. I’m reminded of a road sign when driving through Comanche, TX (or it could be Hamilton). It’s the green sign with the arrow that reads “US Post Office No Line” -> I always find it amusing when I’m driving through there to go to Austin… My local post office rocks, but it’s also the size of my living room and there are like three employees. I’ve found that my best timesaver is the print online labels and just go drop it off at the PO without having to see a person.

  32. Anonymous says:

    The post office in my town-6 miles away-can be a royal pain with slow service and scarse parking. Two miles in the opposite direction, in a TINY town of about a dozen buildings, most of them taverns, is a fully equiped tiny post office!!! It’s only open weekdays noon to 4:30 and 8 to 10 on Saturday, but it’s an absolute pleasure to visit. The lady who runs it is also an online auction site buyer/seller and sympathetic to the needs of folks with lots of outgoing packages. This post office caters to a lot of rural folks and farmers and seems to be the best kept secret in the county.

  33. Consumer007 says:

    This echoes an experience I had years ago in the lovely Houston PO…I wanted a passport, and there was a line 90 people long that didn’t move for 3 hours. Then they closed the booth! Outraged I walked up and asked what gives…they said we were all at the wrong location, and then slammed the window shut…amazing they couldn’t have told everyone that 3 hours earlier or put out a sign…fingers up the nose.