August 02, 2006

Balducci's Tea Party

My Uncle "Skip" is 82 years old and lives nearby. We meet regularly for breakfast. It occurs to me that I have been learning a lot from Skip during our breakfast sessions. Yesterday I learned about the pricing at Balducci's.

Uncle Skip says he was in Balducci's recently, the one near A.U. (that's American University to the non-locals). He has been going there for a long time, since it was the Sutton Glutton (that's Sutton Gourmet to the non-locals). It is located smack in the middle of the Land Where the Lobbyists and Defense Contractors Live. So he is used to the high prices that any business occupying this store charges. But he was not prepared for $2.99 per bag tea. That's no typo: it is $2.99 per teabag. If you buy a pack of 10, there isn't even a price break: it's $29.90.

I ask Skip if this was some special tea with gold dust or something in it. He says no. He says that he asked the nearest sales person whether the price was wrong. The sales person came back and said he checked the computer and the price was correct. Skip worked his way up the Balducci's chain. He kept asking each higher level employee, "Does this price make sense to you? It looks stupid." Each time, he received the same response.

Finally, with a small group of curious customers standing around, the final link in the chain, the store manager, made an executive decision: he gave Skip five teabags and told him, nicely I'm sure, to get lost. This didn't make Skip any happier. Now, on top of the stupidity of the tea price, Skip felt guilty about not being asked to pay anything. He says he has enough money to buy tea in Balducci's; he just does not want to pay a "stupid" price for it. To test his principle, I ask him whether, if the marked price was only $.02 per teabag, an obvious mistake in the other direction, he would keep quiet and pay the price, or tell the cashier that the price is mistakenly low. He says that he would say something, because, again, he just doesn't want to pay a stupid price.

Skip says the problem is computers. Having spent many years in business, he says that, nowadays, no one working in middle management at companies or retail stores, below the top level, can think for themselves. They merely consult their computers and worship whatever result the computers yield, no matter how stupid.

Skip may be onto something here.


At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Aileen said...

Gotta love that Uncle Skip!!! :)

His comments rang true to me. In business, one of the obstacles I have faced is hiring managers that exhibit good judgment. I have found that people have been relying more and more on being told what to do, they are looking for "black and white" answers, and often don't take action when something seems off or "stupid" (like that tea bag price)! In my experience, this usually comes from people that prefer to avoid accountability. If they just blindly follow rules- then they aren't accountable when things go wrong (or so they think).

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Thanks Aileen. The logical extension of this is the cash register at McDonald's, on which the workers simply press on the picture or word associated with the order items, and they don't have to think about the amount involved at all. I wonder whether the kids and middle managers in China and India are learning the same thing.


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