Now What Do We Do?

Editor's Note: Part 4 and final chapter of my undercover work at a big box retailer. Read on and enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at

(NOTE: In my final report to the Regional VP of this big box company, much of what you have read in the previous three installments was contained in that report almost verbatim. This section, as well as the recommendations section, have been edited to protect the identity of the company.)

1. I neither saw nor heard any current vision beyond preserving profit while providing an excellent customer experience to its members, which, coincidentally, was the same vision that the founder drafted in the 1980's. As a result, the vision has become more akin to an annual operating plan rather than a long-term view to the future.

2. The graphical timeline for the company (since its inception to the present) demonstrates significant strides in member and profit growth, notoriety, and accolades from many different segments of the American business world, but these mainly occurred during the founder's lifetime. From his passing to the present - nearly 30 years - there are very few notable achievements or breakthroughs in their approach to retailing and customer service.

3. Also, all graphic and printed materials show photos of the founder as well as numerous quotes from him on what he was attempting to build for the future of the then fledgling chain in the 1980's. Almost 30 years later, the photos now look very dated (some are in black and white), and the motivational expressions are hackneyed and have been surpassed by more current and colloquial statements in today's business world.

4. Personnel policies, hiring practices, and orientation systems are out-of-date and will discourage highly qualified and potentially long-term employees from applying or staying long-term. The culture for its staff, as well as store management, feels both very parental and strictly hierarchal.

During the eight hours of classroom lecture style orientation, much of what I observed was focused on all of the negative behaviors and practices that employees should avoid during their shifts. These included thinly veiled warnings cautioning us against talking to union representatives (they are non-union), as well as how to watch for fellow employees attempting to steal from the company. There was only approximately 15 minutes out of eight hours spent on the subject of delivering excellent customer service.

A full hour was spent on what to do in an active shooter situation, including a very graphic 15-minute video showing us what that could look like, including the aftermath of a real situation. Led by the chief asset protection manager, this section of the orientation left me feeling like "big brother" would be watching my every move through a vast surveillance camera network within the stores, as well as him roaming the aisles and watching people.

5. Observing my fellow workers in both stores, I couldn't help but think that this retail chain had created a self-perpetuating universe of people that they hoped would stay and help to preserve the culture they inculcated every day. Now, within local store management, there were some exceptionally bright and highly educated people in pharmacy, optics, marketing, and other specialty areas, but I was left wondering why they stayed at this company when they could easily move to a better and higher paying work environment elsewhere? I overheard a wry observation from one of those managers that is revealing; "We have created a modern day version of a concentration camp where the inmates are also the guards."

1. The company's impetus toward the future is primarily being driven by looking into the rear-view mirror at what worked well 30-40 years ago. A new and compelling vision is necessary for the company to stay relevant and possibly, even in business, considering the changing face of retailing coupled with a new generation that promises to make its shopping and purchasing decisions very differently than its forbearers.

2. If the culture and business model that I observed in two stores is uniformly applied around to all of its locations, then a major review of almost all six of its critical success factors will be necessary with the possible exception of supply chain management where it is close to being best in class in the "Big Middle of Retailing" arena.

3. A larger sampling of my work in its stores will be necessary to compile more data as well as to draw better conclusions to take into account regional differences across the USA.

Well, my report was well received by the person that had engaged me to do the work, but, armed with the geographically limited information I supplied, he is pondering what his next move will be to consider a change of course in the company's future. My final recommendation? I cautioned him against taking this report to the company CEO in its present form as it could be an instant career decision that might not have a positive outcome for him. Since the company is largely data-driven, more and wider sampling will be required to move the culture away from its previous celebrity CEO's foundation of doing business. We'll see.

Next Week: A look at a successful and happy company.