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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.


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November 30, 2018

A Rambling Retail Tale

And learning why Amazon is not always the best online alternative

So the other day I needed to buy some finished wall cabinets.  Nothing fancy or expensive, just some nice looking serviceable ones that do the job and aren’t all messed up from water damage like the old ones that they were replacing.  Because, you see, this is a first floor apartment and the problem with first floor apartments is that there is a second floor apartment above it where there are people living who over the years have been known to spill large quantities of water on their floor which trickles down onto the kitchen cabinets below and warp them out of shape.

You can sort of kind of fix the old cabinets after a water event like that, let them dry out and clean them and paint the shelves and attach a few things and make them okay.  But after several of these events you just have to realize that nothing more can be done to make them okay and that the cabinets have just become an embarrassment and it is time to replace them. Besides, they were kind of ugly to start with. So you pry the old ones off the wall and go out to buy new ones.

That’s where the problems began.  All I wanted was to replace what was already there, three cabinets above the sink, light oak finish, all of them 12 inches deep, two taller cabinets flanking a shorter cabinet sitting directly above the kitchen sink, the three altogether the same length as the sink cabinet which is 60 inches, five feet.  Nothing unusual or hard to find, should cost with tax no more than $300.

Ugly Old Water Damaged One Piece Cabinets Sitting In My Backyard Waiting For Trash Day
Ugly Old Water Damaged One Piece Cabinets Sitting In My Backyard Waiting For Trash Day

So the first place I went to was the Home Depot on Central Avenue in Albany.  I’m not a big fan of corporate big box stores in general, but a long time ago the big building supply outlets drove out of business all the local lumber yards and hardware stores, well, most of them.  The local businesses that have survived tend to have limited and specialized stock.  I support them as much as I can, but there are too many things you just can’t get anywhere except at the big corporate mega stores, cabinets being one of them.

I mean, these days if you tried to boycott all of the big retail corporations and never patronize any of them anytime for anything you’re going to end up sitting in a vacant lot stark naked pounding rocks into the dirt. Only a slight exaggeration there.  There’s a few corporations I’ve always boycotted like Nestles, which has a history of killing babies for profit and is now merged with Monsanto, another corporate horror show.  Can’t think of any others that I strictly avoid, there’s probably others.

I’ve even relaxed my boycott of Walmart, what other department stores are left?  Not that I care for them, the coffee maker I bought from then last summer only lasted three months.  Plenty of reasons to hate General Electric, for example the way they laughingly screw over their retirees and I will never forget their multi-million dollar PR campaign to avoid cleaning up their PCBs in the Hudson River.  But they make the best refrigerators and stoves and besides, the corporation is on life support because of decades of mismanagement.  

Home Depot Off Central Avenue In Albany
Home Depot Off Central Avenue In Albany

So there I was walking into the Home Depot and looking at their paltry collection of wall cabinets on their shelves.  They didn’t have anything that I wanted on display.  Of course I went looking for someone to help me but I might as well have been looking for magical unicorns serving ice cream.  Anyway, if you find somebody in one of those places willing to help and the item is not in stock, their instructions are to tell the customer to go look in another part of the store, where an employee there will tell you to look in still another part of the store, and this will continue until you either forget what you are doing and buy something else or give up and go home.  Seriously, that’s what they do in these places.

After standing around grumbling I decided to leave and go look at the Lowes in Selkirk (outside the South End of Albany) thinking to myself, No problem, surely they will have what I want. Well they did, almost.  The main competitor to Home Depot had two of the three items that I required sitting on the shelf.  I stared really hard and said out loud some things a bit earthier than gosh darn but that third item did not suddenly appear. (Actually, sometimes that works.)

I walked around looking for a magical unicorn dispensing ice cream or more irrationally a store employee to help me but no luck with either, employees only show up and offer to help when you have everything you need.  Eventually a woman employee came by and she assured me someone would be along to help me shortly.  I gave it ten more minutes or so and I was out of there.

Did Not See This Or A Helpful Employee
Did Not See This Or A Helpful Employee

Next on the agenda was to visit the Home Depot out on Washington Avenue Extension, the one that destroyed 25 acres of prime Pine Bush, or the one across the river.  But first, before burning time and gas, I thought I would try something crazy.  I went home, sat down in front of my computer, and looked for what I wanted online.

Bingo.  It took me less than two minutes to find exactly what I wanted.  And here’s the best part.  The items I wanted were currently in stock at the Home Depot on Central Avenue, the very same one that I had just been to an hour or so earlier, the store where the cabinets were definitely not on display and where human assistants were as common as unicorns.  And if I ordered right now I could pick them up today.

I followed the instructions on the screen, entered my credit card and hit send.  In a moment I was informed that the items would be available today.  I checked back about twenty minutes later and was informed that my order was ready to be picked up now.

Yeah, So Like Two Of Those And Another That Matches
Yeah, So Like Two Of Those And Another That Matches

Oh humanity, what have you become.  That sounds like a quote from some literature or something, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  The job of retail sales person has become so devalued in this age of big box stores that those who hold the job are no longer expected to actually sell.  In fact, I’m not exactly sure what they are supposed to do.  I’m beginning to suspect they are present in the store merely because customers expect to see human beings when they shop. 

In this brave new world of the 21st Century it is easier to deal with computers than human beings to get things done.  It is easier to deal with the idea of money rather actual real world representation so money (although some would argue that money has always been an unreal idea.) In simple everyday business transactions human beings have been pushed to the margins, it is easy to imagine that humans other than perhaps the customer may eventually be pushed out of the transactions altogether.

I thought about that fellow in an old cartoon I once saw who was standing at the back of a long line waiting to order a pizza.  But the line wasn’t moving because the guy taking orders kept answering the phone and ignoring the people waiting.  So the fellow whipped out his phone and called in his order to the front of the line.  That was me. 

The Small Item Pickup Corral At Home Depot The Next Day, Note The Lack Of Any Employees
The Small Item Pickup Corral At Home Depot The Next Day, Note The Lack Of Any Employees

Since it was late in the day I went the next morning to pick up my cabinets, which I had already selected and paid for remotely.  I found the pickup counter on one end of the store, an elaborate corral full of electronic equipment which also served as a home base for wandering employees, the ones who stocked shelves and moved things around etc.  I knew from past experience that it also sometimes served as an overflow checkout counter if the lines got too long and slow at the “contractor checkout” next to it. (That’s the one I always use.)

Of course there was only one young lady at the pickup counter and she was fussing interminably with some guy who was doing I don’t know what, picking up a bunch of small items and making extra purchases one by one all at the same time.  After a while she realized that she couldn’t mess with this guy all day and had to do something about the growing line of customers waiting their turns and blocking the nearby exit.  When she finally noticed me it became clear to me that she was bright and pleasant but totally inexperienced in running a counter like that all by herself.

I showed her my paperwork and she asked, “Is this a small item or a big item?”  I said something like, Um, they’re wall cabinets, not real big I guess.  She said, “The reason I ask is because this is the pickup counter for small items.  The pickup area for big items is down there, on the other end.”  She waved her hand vaguely into the vast receding depths of the store.

My Neighbor’s Xmas Lights Which Has Nothing To Do With Anything But Hey I Thought They Looked Pretty
My Neighbor’s Xmas Lights Which Has Nothing To Do With Anything But Hey I Thought They Looked Pretty

She said, “Let me check.”  She turned to an array of three computer like devices arranged like the control for an aircraft and punched expertly into all three of them, scanning the results across all of them, then focusing on the screen of the large middle one.  “Okay,” she said, “Your items are at the other counter.  Let me go get a cart for you.”

To my amazement she abandoned her post with the waiting customers and clumped out  of the building exit to grab a rolly cart.  I scampered after her intending to be a total gentleman or something with the idea of pulling the cart for her but no, she had things well in hand and dragged the cart inside past her abandoned station with the other waiting customers and soon disappeared out of sight down the long aisle.

I stood there looking and feeling awkward while the other customers looked confused and after some time she reappeared coming down the aisle, this time pulling a smaller cart with my three cabinets piled neatly and my name slapped across the top in big letters. It seems that cart was all set since yesterday and waiting for me. She handed me the cart and my paperwork, told me nothing more needed to be done, and I thanked her profusely which she seemed to appreciate.

The New Wall Cabinets Installed
The New Wall Cabinets Installed

The big online ordering enterprise that everyone seems to have become accustomed to is Amazon, it has been overwhelming a lot of other somewhat smaller corporate enterprises.  Most people in my neighborhood use it, on trash day you can look in recycling bins and sure enough you can see those Amazon boxes with that smirk logo.  Amazon has created a new standard, you can buy anything you want and never leave your home, it comes right to you.

But is Amazon the best standard, or has it become the standard to beat?  There seems to be a widespread public perception that it is the best, but this story of the cabinets and some others I’ve heard have made me start to think otherwise.  What I’m seeing is that other corporations, such as Home Depot, have been scrambling to meet and to beat the challenge of convenient online ordering presented by Amazon.

Recently The Wife decided that Verizon’s painfully slow internet was unacceptable anymore and switched to Spectrum, which is much faster and cheaper.  But one problem, the wifi signal did not carry across to the back end of the house.  Thus we needed to purchase a booster, a box that catches the signal from the FM wifi transmitter and amplifies it for a farther area.

Wifi Booster Box Sitting On A Table Covered With All Kinds Of Crap
Wifi Booster Box Sitting On A Table Covered With All Kinds Of Crap

After a bit she found this lovely little device for $60, very similar to the one installed in our summer vacation cabin up north at Lake Sacandaga. (Yes, it is rough toughing it in the wilderness, but long gone are the days when I would sit in the parking lot of the Northville Public Library checking my email.) But here’s the thing, to get the booster box from Amazon would have taken 7 to 10 business days, or she could pay extra and get it in 3 days.  Instead, she bought it online from Best Buy and they delivered it overnight for no extra charge.

Overnight versus 7 to 10 days.  And it works great.  Consider that, this is a competitive marketplace at work, but who has heard of this apparently growing phenomenon?  I’m not a big fan of online shopping, I like to see the actual item I’m buying before I buy.  That is unless I know exactly what I want, like with the cabinets.

But the lesson I’ve learned this last week is that if I am going to buy something online to not automatically rely on Amazon, to look around for better alternatives before using them.  I think this must be because of their business model, I’ve heard that Amazon is mostly a secondary distributer that hands out a large majority of the orders it receives to secondary contractors. This inevitably results in delayed delivery, plus uncertainty as to the exact delivery time. 

Branches That Busted Off My Poor Dying Maple Tree During A Windstorm And Hung Suspended On The New Cable Strung Earlier That Day By The Comcast Installation Guy
Branches That Busted Off My Poor Dying Maple Tree During A Windstorm And Hung Suspended On The New Cable Strung Earlier That Day By The Comcast Installation Guy

If a locally based outfit has the item you want then that outfit can deliver much faster.  It’s not exactly supporting a local business, these are all large corporations. But dealing with them directly is cutting out a useless middleman, one that can be easily circumvented by an extra thirty seconds of online searching by the customer.  Or perhaps not even that. 

As for the cabinets, well, the first two went up on the wall fine but I was having trouble with the third because, it turned out, it was not put together exactly right and was a bit crooked, thus it didn’t line up properly with the others.  I had several options, including taking it back to the store and complaining bitterly and demanding another cabinet.  But it was easier to just do a small modification and it doesn’t look too bad.  Good enough for a town this size anyway.  


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