Don’t Ask Alice – Why Good Help is Hard to Find

Supermarket aisle


If there is one job that is worse than dealing with the public, it’s supervising people who deal with the public. My case in point is Alice.

Every large department store has an Alice working for it, including the one in which I began my retailing career fresh out of college.

Alice was always meticulously dressed in expensive clothes and looked as if she reported to work straight from the beauty parlor. This contrasted sharply with her gravelly voice and blunt personality.

Alice always said exactly what she thought and was the only person I ever knew who spoke to the store manager exactly as she spoke to the custodian.

She was both the best and the worst sales clerk in the store.

Best because she possessed a remarkable ability to sell. Worst because she possessed an equally remarkable ability to insult customers who attempted to return anything she sold them.

My first encounter with Alice was when I was made manager of the housewares and small-appliances department after a relatively short period as a management trainee.

I was quite proud of being assigned a department so soon after training until Alice, who had worked in that department since three days before dirt, told me that all trainees were almost immediately made manager of housewares and small appliances.

As she explained, the rear corner location made the blunders by new trainees less noticeable.

I quickly learned to overlook Alice’s outspokenness, however, once I realized the extent of her selling skills. She never missed a chance to trade a customer up or sell additional merchandise.

If someone came in to buy a fan, she would have them looking at portable air conditioners. If they were looking for a hand can opener, she would show them an electric model with a knife sharpener and ice crusher attachment.

My only real complaint was that she insisted on referring all returns and customer complaints to me. This was because previous managers had long ago stopped allowing Alice to handle returns, for reasons I should have explored more thoroughly.

Nevertheless, I was determined that Alice just needed a little guidance from me. And, to my pleasant surprise, she actually handled the first couple of returns fairly well.

Encouraged by this, I began to direct more returns to Alice and was thus lulled into a false sense of security. What I was really dealing with was a pressure cooker that simply hadn’t built up enough steam yet to blow.

The explosion came at the worst possible moment.

I was having lunch in the employee break room one afternoon, secure in the knowledge that under my guidance Alice had developed to where she could handle any situation.

I was, in fact, even bragging about this to the store manager, who happened to be sitting next to me. Then the doors to the lunch room flew open and in marched Alice, waving her hand with a wild look in her eye.

She headed straight for my table.

“Do I have to take a return on a used toilet seat?” she bluntly asked. I knew it would be bad but this far exceeded my wildest expectation.

“What?” I stuttered.

“There’s a big, fat man out here who bought a decorator toilet seat over a year ago,” her voice was steadily becoming louder, “and it’s developed a crack and now he wants to return it. He says he doesn’t feel he’s gotten enough wear from it and he actually brought it with him in a brown paper sack.”

Somewhat regaining my composure, I stupidly tried to salvage the situation. “Well, Alice, it is cracked and you do know our return policy.”

“You bet I do,” she muttered as she turned around and walked back onto the sales floor.

Realizing what this might mean, both the store manager and I went out to monitor the situation, arriving in the department just as Alice was completing the paper work.

“And here’s your credit, sir. Thank you for pointing out this defect in our toilet seats. I’ve spoken with the buyer, who assures me we’ll be placing warning labels on them in the future, cautioning people who weigh over 300 pounds against buying this particular model. In the meantime, we’ll soon be receiving our new line of cast-iron decorator seats. If you’ll just leave me your phone number we can arrange to have you come in for a fitting. Now, just let me get a pencil.”

The worst part was that he was taking her seriously and we had to stand back and just watch while he gave her his phone number, thanked her and walked out, apparently happy.

So, my theory on people development was valid after all. Alice is still working there, I’m not, and the customer, I suppose, is still waiting to get a phone call.

Scroll to Top