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Retail staffers in midst of finest hour

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The hundreds of thousands of employees who make the retail marketplace function, those staffers who are frequently overlooked, routinely unnoticed by their superiors, and all-too-frequently underpaid, undervalued and underappreciated, have emerged as the heroes and heroines of the coronavirus ­pandemic.

They have routinely accomplished the impossible, working exhaustingly long hours with little rest and less recognition to attempt to satisfy and placate a customer base that has long since run out of patience and ­understanding.

They have tried, often unsuccessfully, to explain store closures, a lack of merchandise on store shelves, and an inability to fill requests for merchandise simply because there is no merchandise. For their part, understandably disgruntled customers have done their best to accept that which is not easy to accept. They have grudgingly accepted the closing of stores, the absence of merchandise, the tacit refusal of staffers to make matters right. If customers are not accustomed to this kind of treatment — for the simple reason that they’ve never been exposed to it before — employees have not been trained in the art of saying no or, to put it another way, to not saying yes. Their training, often as not, has revolved around the basic premise that the customer is always right. That concept remains in place today. But for frustrated staffers, it has become a concept with no teeth: How do you explain to a hungry consumer that there is no food because … there is no food.

Only slightly less heroic than the frontline retail staffers have been their supervisors and superiors. Many of these middle- and top-level managers have spent more time in their stores during the past two months than they customarily spend in those stores in a year. They come, often as not, to seek out a particular employee whose actions and activities have caught their attention and called for some words of praise, however empty those words often sound when contrasted to the deeds that warranted them.

The point here is not to call out one particular manager or senior executive for special attention or special praise. Too much has been done by too many senior staffers to diminish their efforts by homing in on one individual or one act of kindness. Still, there is one executive whose words and deeds deserve special recognition. That executive is Doug McMillon, chief executive officer of Wal­mart. Through a career characterized by superior achievement and record-setting performance, McMillon has invariably set a standard for compassion, for putting himself in the other person’s shoes. But at no time has he done so more impressively and more effectively than in the way he has conducted himself since the beginning of March.

During that period, he has traveled extensively. All those who follow retailing are aware of his recent trip to Washington, D.C., where, along with other retailing leaders, he joined President Trump in a call for unity, a plea that, working together, Americans can overcome this most challenging of ordeals.

Perhaps less well known and documented have been his numerous trips to individual Wal­mart stores, often hundreds of miles from the retailer’s Bentonville, Ark., headquarters, to thank one individual employee for work performed, courtesies extended, or simply being there when being there was more than could be asked. Those trips have been frequently accompanied by a few well-chosen words of praise, words that were meant as nothing more than a warm endorsement, a simple thanks for doing the job they are paid to do.

But the most striking aspect of McMillon’s performance is that it is typical — not only of Walmart but of the entire retailing community. So much has gone awry in our country during this most perilous of times that it is often easy to take for granted what has gone well. At the top of that list has been the performance of the retail community, a community too many of us too often take for granted. And at the very top has been the job done at store and warehouse level by a group of people who all of us routinely take for granted, the people who answer our questions, fill our requests, solve our problems or, failing to do so every time, assure their customers, our fellow citizens, that everything will come out all right in the end, that the sun will rise tomorrow, that we’ll meet again on the other side of this horrendous episode in the life of our country and our world.

So, hats off to the people who staff America’s retail stores and those who support them by making those stores as productive as they can be. Hats off to the people who work at retail.


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