Sunday, October 21, 2012

Grocery Store Artifact: Probable Causes

This is a follow up to the post Before donating at the register.

Went in to work last week to see the signs threatening employees that don't ask for donations were all removed. They were removed by a directive from the corporate level. The store manager informed everyone that they are no longer allowed to post signs offering free items for not begging for donations or run raffles. Their are a few likely reasons I can speculate about for this but I doubt it is because the company is taking pity on the cashiers. In last month's big training session the district manager spent 30 minutes impressing upon everyone to get as much in donations as possible because it is a good thing to do and you can make a difference. The 'or else' was inferred but unspoken though we were told a charming story of how the least-donation earning employee in the district in danger of being terminated turned her prospects around and is now a shining example of a 'can do' attitude.

Here are some of the reasons I can think of why the signs were disposed of:

Compliance: One scenario is that the law prohibits it or the union has finally responded to what must be a huge flood of grievances from workers. People have been terminated, censured and demoted because they are not bringing in enough in customer donations. A manager would be pretty stupid to put that cause as a reason for termination so they dissemble or fabricate other reasons. An investigation would reveal a disturbing trend and restore the job but unfortunately even with a union at their side many young employees give up knowing they can get a job for same pay with less work somewhere else.

Cost: Since most stores that give away free items have no way to account for them being disbursed (this is a trail many managers would be uncomfortable being tracked and accounted for). The amount of shrink, or rather product loss, on whatever is being given to the customer (2 liter soda, reusable shopping bag, etc) must be prohibitive company-wide. For example, a large retail chain used to give away boxes and books of matches for free. That is, until a few years ago someone saw the annual losses in matches sales and how much the store was giving away and put a halt to it. Likewise someone may have noticed how much the company was losing in bags and soda and made the connections to the timing of donation drives.

Complaints: At least once per hour I receive a complaint from a customer about us asking for donations. Some display a good nature, some resigned. A few are hostile. At more than 4000 customers a day per store imagine the complaints nationwide not just at the store level but those getting phoned in and via internet messaging to the corporate level. This is least likely reason some of the pressure is off the cashiers. Unlike other complaints about service, cleanliness and diversity of products so important is the goal of fund-raising that a company will commiserate with a complaint but they would never, ever stop their attempts to collect for a cause.

Public Perception: Increasingly, particularly due to the fraud and public relations disasters of the last several years charities are under ever more scrutiny as to what they do with their collected funds. Calls for clarity and transparency particularly during rough economic times of charities are increasingly frequent. Charity drives that pledge 'up to' 2 million in donations, yet regularly collect 7-9 million during the drive are being asked to account for where the surplus is going. Some companies are forthcoming with where the money goes and unsurprisingly some are very resistant to the idea of letting the people who gave them money become aware of where it all went. Is most of it going to cure a disease or to buy a sitting board member a Porsche or paying for fact-finding junkets to vacation resorts? Some companies that support causes, the most popular of which is for breast cancer awareness, use a marketing tactic known as 'pinkwashing'.  This is when a company has minimal involvement or is not actually participating in the cause but for marketing purposes gives the impression through imagery and color scheme that it does. I am also wary of any charity that states they are promoting 'awareness' and 'education' and not directly making the promotion of medical science and a cure their primary mission. Depending on the charity  the terms 'awareness' and 'education' could mean nothing more than pink ribbons on things to buy and may not be in their purview or mission to promote such basic preventive services as mammograms or a healthy diet.

Conflict of interest: This is the most likely cause for removing the signage on the registers and relieving the pressure on the cashiers. Among other things how much a store collects in donations has a direct bearing on a store manager's evaluation. Lesser known is that most companies also attach a financial incentive to performance. Bonuses for top-performing managers can be very lucrative. No single aspect of managing a store can ensure a large bonus and they are evaluated on a whole but politics coupled with success in desired 'sexy' areas lead to positive evaluations and then a bigger bonus.

Some time ago in the company I worked for the financial incentive for the cashier that collected the most for a donation drive was removed. It was eliminated because of the discovery that company-wide many would add a donation to the customer's bill without their knowledge. It would have been a good idea to stop the manager incentive at the same time but the corporate mind-set is that unless threatened the workers will not ask and the managers won't put in the effort unless they make it worth their while.


Managers are notorious for gaming the system to their advantage. Nothing wrong with that. It is expected they do the job the best of your ability by being smarter, faster and more competent than your peers. But there is a line you don't cross. They often collect donations prior to the official start date and continue to collect after the drive is completed. Funds from one drive may be diverted to the cause more favored by their direct superiors. Found money or errors in the store's favor, which is supposed to be applied to the total sales for the day will be instead added to the donation total (such funds are recorded separately and returned if someone claims the money or requests a refund, we just don't let it sit loose in a drawer). They hold raffles and do other stunts designed to create an unfair advantage over other stores.

Since the signs were removed and word came down that raffles and other donation attempts are no longer allowed then it is highly probable that enough managers made noise about their disadvantages compared to other managers. They may have felt they were marginalized or punished for following the rules. With the added aspect of employees grievances the issue may have been brought to someone's attention. It is probably that in the interest of ethics, keeping the peace and fairness put a stop to the practice which made life a bit easier for the cashiers. For now.

Truth is, requesting donations over and over sometimes in the same order bears good and positive results. Undoubtedly there will be a marked drop in donations merely due to many of the cashiers no longer feeling they have to request one from each and every customer. If that happens I speculate that the pressure on the workers will return multiplied many times over but be presented in terms that are not so public and will have to do more with an employees' general attitude and overall job performance.

Update: According to memos the new Breast Cancer partner (one that is more focused on an actual cure, not 'awareness') allied with the store did not want employees forced to ask for donations under threat of penalties so the practice was halted. It was not reintroduced in the ensuing donation drives since. 

2 comments:

  1. I don't understand this- you mean that if you work behind a cash register you are expected to make public service announcements as well? What has that to do with what you are employed to do? And I'd hate to shop at a place where I'm asked each time I'm spending money to spend more on charity!

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  2. Yes, lots more expected to do besides ring stuff up.

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