The Trials of a Department Store Critic

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The Trials of a Department Store Critic  (1909) 
by Gelett Burgess
Extracted from Collier's magazine, November 6, 1909, pp. 20–21. Accompanying illustrations by William A. Brown omitted.

If a girl at the counter has dirty finger-nails or too wide a pompadour to suit me, I stop and talk pleasantly, buy nine cents' worth of edging, and so get her number from the sales slip. She never knows anything about it till her superintendent gives her a scolding the next day. I have eyes like a hawk and a nose like a hound and ears like a small boy under the sofa when a young man's calling on Big Sister.

The Trials of a Department Store Critic

A Woman Whose Business it is to Make Trouble

As Told to

MY BUSINESS is to make trouble. Many people think, evidently, that that's their business, too; but they're only amateurs. I'm a professional trouble-maker, and am paid $50 a week by one of the most enterprising firms in the United States for it. The salary seems large until you realize that in my fight I'm alone against about two thousand people. Also, I have to know everything, or I'm supposed to, and that's not so easy, either.

Some people would call me a spy, and some a "spotter." My proper title is "critic" of a big department store. I am the Eyes of the Firm, and the Ears, too, for that matter.

Oh, you've, seen me, often enough, for I'm on the job every day from nine till four. But I'm more invisible than a store detective and considerably more omnipresent. I look just like a common, ordinary shopper. I buy things, and talk, and sit in the waiting-room, hunt bargains, look in the mirrors and ride in the elevators. That is, I did ride in the elevators till I was afraid to—but of that later. I might be Anybody's Sister looking for seventeen-cent ruching to match that piece Aunt Josie bought at Stevens Brothers, for all you know. But the main part of my business is to escape recognition by clerks and managers, porters, call boys, and stock girls as long as possible. So far, I'm safe, but there's no knowing how long I'll preserve my incognito. Sometimes I look like a country customer, and sometimes, really, I'm quite smart. I have blue veils and green, and I wear my hair a different way every day. I have an idea that Upson, in the lace department, has an idea who I am, and Heaven knows I've criticized him enough for him to suspect me; but if anybody suspects, nobody's quite sure. I walked up the east aisle the other day. and the aisle man whistled "ssssssst!" through his teeth to warn the girls that I was coming. Two of them stopped chewing gum instantly, and before I passed he had stooped to pick up a slip of paper from the floor. So perhaps he, too, had a shrewd surmise. But all the same, it's a fact that "if I'm discovered, I'm lost," as the melodramas have it.

When I was appointed to my position, the head of the firm gave me these simple instructions: "Go down and raise Cain," he said, "and don't let anything get by you!" Well, I do my best. I began by sending in five typewritten pages of criticism every day, and now, ordinarily, I turn in at least nine. The ordinary customer always has a few complaints, but not even the most fault-finding could discover as many things wrong as I find on one day's trip. I believe I'm the most discontented woman in Chicago. I have to be, or lose my job.

Eyes Like a Hawk

YOU have no idea how many things are wrong in a big business until you are paid to look for them. There were the clocks, for one thing, when I first began. The girls wore too many rats in their hair, there was grease on the elevator doors, expensive hats were dumped one on another, the ventilation was bad, the boxes on the shelves showed from the street through the show windows, and about a thousand other things. Then Spindelheim sold tea-pots just like our eighteen-cent ones for fourteen cents, and for a concern like Smith & Co. to be undersold is fatal. There's really nothing that so enrages Mr. Smith. Also Rubinstein's window dresser has beaten ours, too, at times. Down it goes in my little report. Wouldn't any woman love my job?

Yes, it's fun to be paid for being a misanthrope, but it's hard work, too. At nine o'clock I begin my promenade through the store, downstairs, upstairs, basement, attic, and annex. If a girl at the counter has dirty finger-nails or too wide a pompadour to suit me, I stop and talk pleasantly, buy nine cents' worth of edging, and so get her number from the sales slip. She never knows anything about it till her superintendent gives her a scolding the next day. I have eyes like a hawk and a nose like a hound and ears like a small boy under the sofa when a young man's calling on Big Sister. In ten minutes I have spotted the dust in the corner of the aisle, a girl who wears brass bracelets, a porter who is not attending to his duty, a badly arranged counter, an error in spelling on a placard, two store detectives loafing on their job, and a hideous combination of colors in the front window. Up I go to the ladies' room and make a note of these things, surreptitiously. I don't dare go there too often, though, for fear I'll be identified; so sometimes I run back to my office, two blocks away. So it goes till about four o'clock, hither and thither, nigh and yon, looking for trouble. It doesn't do a clerk any good to be uncivil to me, I can tell you, or to make me wait too long for my change: but I try to be fair, and if I find a particularly willing and considerate sales-person, down that name goes in my report, too. You might suppose that there'd be good graft in that—but, of course, I keep my position only so long as the head of the firm has absolute confidence in my integrity. The funny part of it is that the more I complain the better he likes it. I'm like the opposition party in Congress. I'm never satisfied. When I am, I'll have to look for another position.

At four o'clock I go back to my little office and dictate my report from my notes to a stenographer, and, when it's typewritten, I send it in to the head of the firm.

Doses of Disapproval

HERE'S what it's like, abbreviated to the very kernels of my complaints. For every paragraph here, I have sent in a page or so, enlarging upon the facts, and pointing my morals. I take specimen kicks from my files merely to show my nerve:

Since the buyer of the shirt-waists has been clever enough to mix in some new $3.75 and $4.18 net and silk waists with the old ones, business at this counter has been noticeably increasing to-day. No matter what the attraction is, or how great the bargain, however, it does not pay to keep the same thing at the same counter more than three days in succession. . . .

I have never come across any one dirtier than a young man in Department 32. . . . Hair like a football player, face, neck, and hands simply black. Collar and tie not fit to be worn by a day laborer. His number is 2165. See that there is a radical change in his appearance immediately, or discharge him. . . .

Of course you may call those sixty cent "wash" goods silks, but go to any haberdasher's and note the difference between their silk shirtings and ours. Comparison is ridiculous and women laugh at the way we praise ours up! . . .

That handsome young pianist we had in our sheet-music department is drawing larger crowds at Garrick & Plastron's than he ever did here. Why? Because they advertise him well, give him a good central location where people can find the music. He attracts them, all right. Better get him, or some one as good, back again, and play him up for a feature. . . .

We undoubtedly have the finest and largest line of arts and crafts jewelry in the city. . . .

It you're making a specialty of "ivory" dentririce, why not have a girl with nice teeth to sell it?

The head of the firm reads it, and then his secretary reads my lamentations. If my criticisms are approved, as they almost invariably are, the secretary cuts it all up with shears, and sends it round, piecemeal, to the heads of the different departments, each one receiving his own criticism. You can imagine with what delight he looks forward to his daily dose of dislike and disapproval! Those heads must feel like small boys coming home to mother.

It's up to them to answer my criticisms, though, and defend themselves or plead guilty, as they see fit. Often they deny point blank things that I know to be facts. Often they seem grateful for suggestions, and—once in a blue moon—they prove that I am mistaken. There was one funny case—

I had been waging war on gum-chewing for over a month, and (he store girls didn't dare move their jaws. One day I put this little item into my report:

It's too bad that, after all we've done to prevent the chewing of gum, the head of a department should himself set the example. But yesterday I passed Mr. Spoopendyke, and beside him was standing a stout, red-haired man of about fifty chewing gum with all his might.

Of course the head, and the secretary, and every one else knew that I meant Sam Lane, head of the Notions Department. Next day, therefore, Sam Lane had to answer the charge, which he did in this wise:

I was not chewing gum. I was chewing a cough lozenger for my throat. I annex a sample of same.

And there it was, stuck to the sheet he had written his answer on!

At other times I have to bring in evidence in rebuttal to prove my point. For instance, I once criticized the fifty-four-cent petticoats we were selling, and said that Spindelheim sold better ones for forty-nine cents. This was denied, the manager of the department asserting that our make was superior. I bought one of ours, roughly finished inside, and one of Spindelheim's, in which all the inside seams were nicely overcast, and sent in both exhibits to the manager. Our petticoats were marked down to forty-five cents next day.

Well, you needn't think I get everything I want changed. You'd be surprised to know how hard it is to reform a department store. Some little things you'd never expect them to notice will be immediately remedied, while much more important needs will keep me hammering away for months. There are the aisle counters which I loathe. It's an old-fashioned way of doing bargain business; it interferes with traffic, it spoils the neat appearance of the shop. But I can't get Smith & Co. to change. Then my little crusade with the elevator boys kept me busy for a long time. Why, I even saw an elevator boy spit down the shaft (we have open cages), and he wasn't fired! The doors were greasy. If one passenger wanted to stop at the second floor, the boy would let that single one out and then start up without looking to see if more wanted to exit: and then have to come back down when he was half-way up to the third! It was hard, too, to get their names or numbers, as they kept their badges under their coats. So I had to have the elevator cars numbered in plain sight. The result was I made so many complaints that now half the time I'm afraid to go up in the cars for fear the boys will spot me as the "spotter." I walk painfully upstairs.

Another thing: wouldn't you think that the boys sent out with C. O. D. parcels would know that the buyer wouldn't have $3.67 in the exact change? Wouldn't you think that the messenger might carry $1.33 with him and not have to go to the nearest drug-store or return to the store for the change? Why will no department store never make this easier? I've recommended it till I'm black in the face, and that's all the good it does.

In the same way I've hammered at the ventilation of our store. Nowadays, when there's such a fad for hygiene, when even handkerchiefs come in antiseptic packages, you'd think that a big firm would see to it that a place crowded with people all day would have an ample supply of fresh air. They advertise all sorts of sanitary devices and preparations, and yet the atmosphere their customers and employees have to breathe is abominable sometimes.

I've objected time and again to the way they handle suits, and I scarcely pass through the department but I see expensive gowns dumped one on top of another or hanging on the hooks with the wires actually stuck through costly laces! But if there's an inconsequent pot of flowers in a well-designed show-window reported one morning, it's gone by noon. If there are finger-marks on a showcase they suddenly disappear. If a few straggling customers on the "three-and-a-half" floor can catch sight of the porters' pails and mops through a window on the stairs, a green baize curtain is put up as soon as it can possibly be made! And so it goes.

Truth Picturesquely Shaded

THE fact is, Smith & Co., with all their reputation, are old-fashioned and slow. And yet if that's so, why do they pay me to criticize their shop? I suppose it's for the Wholesome Effect, the way the New England mother used to spank her boy on Saturday night on general principles, to keep him in a chastened and subdued spirit. But some day I'm going to criticize for a concern that I can make strictly modern, sanitary, hygienic, original, cheerful, and up-to-snuff!

Of course, while I always tell the truth about the store, there are picturesque ways of telling it that are sometimes necessary. When I want to rub it in good and hard, this is the way I do it:

A customer waited for eleven minutes, yesterday, in the upholstery department, examining goods, draperies, fringes, etc., and nobody paid any attention to her. A clerk was standing, with his back to her, not twenty feet away, doing nothing all the time but pick his teeth. She went upstairs, and was so indignant that while she was in the elevator she complained of her ill-treatment in a very angry tone to all the customers with her. Query: Does this sort of thing do our store any good?

Now, of course, I was the customer. I did wait and watch that clerk and examine the goods, and he didn't pay any attention to me. And I did complain of his treatment (in the elevator, too!), although I confess I didn't talk aloud. I just talked about it, mentally, to myself. But it might easily have happened as I wrote, had it been any one else.

Naturally, every one in the store is crazy to find out just who the critic is, and all sorts of rumors are afloat. They suspect every one they've seen before. Now, you can't walk through a store several times a day for two years without the clerks recognizing you at last, and, although they never can be positive, they come pretty near it. The managers of departments are still more keen to know who it is that's lambasting them and knocking them every day. They try all sorts of ways of surprising a confession out of me. Often I am accompanied by a friend, and she comes in equally for suspicion. The managers will say: "Of course I know you are a critic, but I'm not so sure of Miss Ellis." I am here supposed to say "yes," acknowledging the soft impeachment; but I don't, of course. The only persons I'm absolutely sure don't know who I am are the store detectives. Nobody expects them to know anything—only to stand about in groups of three or four and talk. If they've ever suspected me, it's only of being a shop-lifter. I usually report them for shirking every week.

Real Benefit to the Victims

PERHAPS you think I'm ashamed of reporting these men and girls, or am sorry for them. I'm not. Why should I be? I believe that I'm doing them a good deal more good than harm. My idea of a shop-girl is a good deal like my idea of any other woman, or lady, for that matter. She should wear her hair tidily, have clean hands and nails, and wear a costume that is appropriate to what she's doing. Peekaboo waists and cheap jewelry are not consistent with their duties. I don't mind wedding rings, but I allow only one pin at the neck.

In order to get a girl's name, I usually have to make a purchase, unless I can catch sight of the number on her book without buying. Often I have hard work getting it then, for some other girl may step forward and volunteer to wait on me. Whatever money I spend is refunded—in time (it took me three months to get nine cents I spent for a mustard pot)—but I don't need to buy many things. Indeed, I buy more things outside the store than in—that is, of things I don't want for myself. Whenever I see anything at another store that I think we don't have, or is cheaper than our price, I buy it and send it in with a report. I get suggestions for trimming windows, for arrangements of counters: in short, I watch our rivals closely all the time. For this, of course, I have to know our stock and our prices pretty well; but, by keeping my eyes open and being in the store every day, very little that's of importance manages to escape me. Then, too, I listen to conversations. I'm awfully jealous if I hear a woman give a criticism that I hadn't thought of. But it soon becomes mine, you may be sure! And there are few that can beat me at finding fault! I'd make an ideal wife for any nice man. But perhaps I'd make even a better mother-in-law.

When I first took the position I was rather timid. How did I know but that there was a good reason for the things I thought were wrong? I was an amateur against professionals. I was afraid that I'd only show my ignorance and mainly criticized the cleanliness and order of the store. But the manager laughed at my scruples. It was my business to find any fault that any customer might, and so now I go right ahead and blab away at all things and sundry. The fact that almost all my criticisms were O.K.'d encouraged me.

One thing I'd like to recommend is that deserving clerks be patted on the back occasionally. Managers don't seem to know how much more efficiency their employees can give under approval. Why, I have proved that myself, for if I see the owner in the store any day I'm so inspired that I can find twice the fault that I can ordinarily!

But one day he nearly spoiled my game. Wouldn't you think that the proprietor would know enough not to make me conspicuous. He actually took off his hat to me in one of the main aisles, with all the employees rubbering. I simply stared in his face and cut him dead. Next day I sent him an apology and an explanation, and he had to acknowledge that he had done wrong.

The heads of departments take their criticisms in different ways. With some the air is blue around them for fifteen minutes after they've been given their daily medicine. Some only shrug their shoulders and say: "Pshaw! Let her talk! She's paid for it and has to do it." Some seem really to be glad of the ideas I give them.

I was standing by the glassware counters one day when my report came down to the manager. There was a flurry all over the department. "Albert," he called, "will you just look at that!" Another was called, and another. "See here, here's another criticism for putting the glass goods so near the edge of the tables. Didn't we change that last week, I'd like to know? What's she blabbing again for?" Then a little boy, a new boy, spoke up: "I guess she means about that vase that woman brushed off the table and broke day before yesterday!" he volunteered. In point of fact, I hadn't known anything but my criticism was proved sound, "out the mouths of babes and sucklings."

Commercial Psychology

I HAD roasted one department almost every day for a week, when one morning I approached it and passed the manager, a wizened, inefficient old man who had previously complained that it look all his time to answer my complaints and he had no time left to do his duty! I happened to catch sight of him in a mirror ahead of me. He was watching me so pathetically that I had to take pity on him, and walk through his space without looking at anything. I was so sorry for him. But, sooner or later, he'll have to go: he's out of place in a down-to-date department store. Another man, an aisle man, whom I have caught repeatedly flirting with his prettiest sales-girls, evidently has his suspicions. Whenever I draw near nowadays he slips round a corner and is always writing desperately in a little book. You'd perhaps think that they try to placate me if they suspect that I'm the store critic, but no! If I try to get discounts or special attention in purchasing they try to take it out of me, and usually turn me over to an assistant.

There's one part of a modern department store that's pretty hard to criticize, and that's the advertising department. Usually the head is a high-priced expert and knows his business thoroughly. It's a modern science; they have plenty of money to spend, because they can show results. And Smith & Co. think that they invented the art of advertising. All the same, sometimes I catch them napping, for I read the notices in the papers every day and make a point of following them up. Sometimes it's only an inappropriate picture, occasionally a typographical error, but most important of all are my denials of stated fads. One day there appeared a lavish announcement of a sale of white belts, "an extraordinarily complete assortment, the finest in the city!" I hiked immediately to the counter and examined the stock. Only two kinds of white belts, and those were nothing extra. I turned up my nose, went over to Garrick & Plastron's, selected half a dozen samples, and sent them in with my report and a clipping from the fulsome advertisement. Such exaggerations are undignified, misleading, and do no good to a first-class concern.

My experience has taught me something of the commercial psychology of criticism. In order to effect a change, it is almost imperative that I should appeal to the purse-strings of the firm. They object to spending any more money than is necessary, naturally: but if I can prove in my report that any reform tends to encourage trade and increase revenue thereby, I have made an important point. It does no good to make a purely altruistic appeal, whether founded on sanitary, moral, or social lines. The firm is willing to wash out the telephone mouthpieces with carbolic acid every day, but to provide antiseptic paper caps costs money, and is quite a different proposition. In this case one can't prove a financial advantage.

But one day I was walking down Fifth Street, where the delivery wagons are loaded in long lines. I was stylishly dressed, and I supposed I carried myself well. I always try to, at least. Perhaps it was a new hat. I don't know. At any rate, one or two of the delivery men noticed me and began to try to attract my attention. Others took it up, and some even spoke to me, commented on my looks and so on. It was not exactly insulting, but ill-mannered, and I was furious.

"It's a pity," I wrote next day. "that our customers can't walk down Fifth Street without being insulted by men wearing the Smith & Co. uniform. It hardly tends toward inspiring ladies with a wish to enter the store and make purchases, so much as it does toward inducing them to comment upon the discipline of the establishment." The day after that I thought I would try it again: but when I walked down Fifth Street, all the drivers and clerks were too busy to notice me. My criticism had worked like a charm. If I had said merely that the men annoyed ladies passing that way it would not have made the same appeal to the proprietor. It was the fact that "customers" were annoyed that counted.

Music Conducive to Purchasing

IT WAS the same way with my criticism of the daily concerts held in the music hall. This is what I wrote:

Why should customers, hot and tired with a day's shopping, be treated to long and gloomy pieces of music? They are in no mood for funeral dirges that make them weep! There they sit, with their babes and their parcels, bored to death and made unnecessarily sad by so-called classical works, when they might be refreshed, amused, cheered, and comforted so that they would rise, rested and happy, to go downstairs and continue their shopping!

It was pretty conceited of me to criticize the program of so well-known a musician as the leader of the orchestra, but, by adopting a strictly utilitarian point of view and pointing out the practical effects of his selections, I scored so hard that he had to change his concerts radically.

So I walk up and down and back and forth like Satan in the Book of Job, seeking whom I may devour, or, like Diogenes with his lantern, looking for an honest man. And not only in the store but everywhere I see the magic initials "S. & Co." One day, in the suburbs, I saw a driver of one of our delivery wagons whipping his tired horses up a hill. Down it went in my report. If my packages don't come properly wrapped, somebody suffers for it. You know the way they do sometimes—wrap a thimble in excelsior, pasteboard box, red ribbon, tissue paper, and insert in a crate: and then send a whole collection of breakable things loose and rattling—well, I've changed all that!

Decoys and Discoveries

I'VE left old purses on the counter to see if they'd be sent up to the Lost and Found Department. I've even left a box of candy, after counting the pieces, to see if the girls abstracted any. I've dropped into the sound-proof phonograph booths and surprised call-boys grinding off popular tunes by the mile when they were supposed to be on the eighth floor. It's all in the day's work for little Lizzie Bla-ha, the Champion Fault Finder of the World.

Occasionally I take trips to New York for new ideas, and then I outwork the most inveterate shopper or bargain hunter. I almost eat up the stores in my anxiety to find something new. It may be only a new neck-piece, or a way of running elevators, or it may be an innovation in system, a new method of arranging stock and selling it. This is my hardest work of all.

My eyes get positively tired with watching things. Any one who has walked all day up and down the aisles of a department store knows the jaded feeling that comes, the blur to the eyes, and the buzzing in the ears. In other shops I'm often taken for a shoplifter. Often I explain my actions by saying I'm a reporter, getting new ideas for the Woman's Page of some daily paper. But you can't quite obliterate a woman's shopping instinct—it's the feminine form of the hunting instinct in men, I fancy, and it goes with the love of dress and adornment. I keep up with the styles and ahead of them. I know what Is and Is to Be. I am an authority on everything that concerns woman's physical well-being, and that's some satisfaction.

I don't need to read detective stories for relaxation, for I see them played out before my eyes. I don't need modern realistic novels, for I have Life itself always in front of me, and I have "problems" enough of my own. But often, when the roar and bustle has died out of my ears, and my eyes are rested from the confusion of myriads of fussy, selfish, passers-by, I settle myself in my kimono and don't care whether Spindelheim has better ones or not. I pull down my hair and forget that shop-girls should not wear rats bigger than a life-preserver. I take a box of candy and forget that Washington's Birthday is coming, and it would be a good idea to have boxes adorned with hatchets and cherry trees. I even forget to find fault with anything!

I don't want to make trouble for any one. So I take down "The Princess and the Goblins" like a little girl, and I wander with George Macdonald into the Land of Fairy. The troubles of the Princess were all so delightfully beautiful and mysterious. She never knew what a bargain was in all her life! If the manager of Department G should drop in, he'd find me, for once in his life, absolutely contented and satisfied!

IN POINT of fact, he did drop in the other night, for he's discovered my guilty secret. And I've discovered his—for he proposed to me. I told him that when I could find nothing to criticize in his department I'd marry him. Well, I've given him about four pages of solid roasting ever since. All the same, he is improving. I may have to give up my job after all.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.