The rich get richer, the poor get the picture

It’s nothing new, hearing that the interests of business collide with improving the lives of the poorest people in our society, so I don’t know why I was surprised by the latest example of this.

Australia’s Fair Work Commission ruled this week that workers earning the minimum wage will get a wage increase of 2.6%, or an average of $15.80 per week.

Hurrah! you might think, I’m sure that people earning the minimum wage could do with an extra $15.80. It’s a pretty small amount, probably about enough to buy a loaf of bread, a carton of milk, a packet of coffee, and an apple. Or, accumulated over a month, to pay a monthly phone bill.

But of course, some business groups protested that those earning the lowest wages should receive an increase of $15.80. Loud amongst the objectors were the National Retail Association (NRA), and the Chamber of Commerce.

When I heard the NRA’s comments, for a moment I was confused – did the NRA lack the foresight to realise that an increase in wages means more spending money for potential customers?

Then the lightbulb went on over my head – I realised that all they were concerned about is the money they have to spend, ie, on paying the poor sods on their payroll $15.80 more per week. From their response, I gather that the NRA freely admits that the retail industry is one of the lowest paid industries to work in.

Surely the NRA has heard the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money”?

It would appear that Myer, for one, doesn’t understand that concept. For many years now that store appears to have a policy of understaffing to save money – not realising that they lose sales as a result.

Over the past few years, some of my thwarted attempts to purchase items at Myer include: an attempt to buy two Bonds t-shirts in the city store. There was no-one staffing the Bonds counter so I went to the counter nearby. The staff member there couldn’t process the t-shirts (because of a promotional deal), so sent me to another counter. The staff member there was unable to help, and sent me to a third register. I didn’t bother to try the third register.

On another occasion, also in the city store, I tried to buy some shoes. I stood in the women’s shoe department with a shoe in my hand, clearly waiting to be assisted, for probably about 25 minutes. (Affordable shoes that I like, and that are comfortable on my wide, flat feet, are hard to come by – thus the prolonged attempt.) The department was very busy, so my eyes were trained on the sales assistant as she hurried back and forth, but she was determined not to make eye contact with me or anyone else waiting to be served. I couldn’t blame her, after all, she could only serve one person at a time. I finally gave up and left, and as it happened, I found a similar pair of shoes elsewhere soon afterwards.

I’ve had the same experience at the suburban Highpoint store. Once I stood at the counter in the homewares department with pillows in my hand, waiting to be served. There was no-one at the counter nor at any counter within sight. Another customer arrived and waited. A third person joined the queue. At this point, based on past experience, I realised the absurdity of standing and waiting to buy pillows at Myer when there are a million other places to buy pillows. I enjoy a bit of absurdity as much as the next person, but I don’t like wasting huge chunks of time at Myer just because something is on sale, so I put my pillows down and left. I went straight to a homewares store and bought pillows. They may not have been on sale, but on the other hand, the service was quick and efficient.

Then just last week, funnily enough, I attempted to buy a Bonds t-shirt at Myer once again. This time, there was a staff member in the department, but she was on the phone. By the time there were two of us waiting, the sales assistant had the courtesy to put a hand over the receiver, and let us know that she would be “a while” because she was taking a customer order. By now, I have enough experience to know that if an attempt to buy something at Myer starts out this way, it should be aborted before any more time is wasted, so I just put the Bonds t-shirt back and left.

(Yes, that’s right, clearly I do continue to go there intermittently. It’s sheer laziness, because I know there is so much under one roof in a department store. I shop at small, independent stores whenever I can but it depends what I’m after – a cooking pot, for example, which I was seeking last week, suggests a department store.)

An afternoon of shopping leaves me feeling sorry for those who work in retail – probably because I did, many years ago when I was studying. It is a demeaning job working for a large corporate company like Myer. When I worked there, we were instructed to approach customers and engage them with “open” questions so that they could not say “no”.

As a customer, I feel both annoyed by, and yet slightly sorry for, sales assistants who approach me with a big fake smile and say “Hi, how are you?” “Anything I can help you with today” or “Shopping today are we?” Yes, the latter question was moronic, but at the same time, I almost felt embarrassed for the girl who asked it, because I know she is forced to make conversation with customers, and I’m sure the look on my face gave her an answer of sorts.

In general, and unless I specifically seek assistance, I prefer to be left alone when I’m shopping, until I have found something I want. Then, when I am displaying all the signals of a homosapien who wishes to make a purchase (common signals include: straightening up and looking around for a sales assistant, meeting the eye of a sales assistant,  standing at the cash register holding an item), I like to have someone politely and efficiently process the transaction. Waiting is ok, when I can see someone else is ahead of me, but not ok when I can see there are 18 people wanting service and only 1 staff member on, or no staff member to be seen in a 2km radius.

So I resent executives whose decisions are based on reporting profits to their shareholders. They decide to cut staffing in order to save money, and then, when their profits don’t improve, instead of increasing staff to service customers, they focus on the wages they are paying – which are apparently amongst the lowest wages across all industries in this country.

I realise now why I was momentarily confused at the report that the NRA were unhappy about the wage increase ruling. It was because I recalled that, only a month ago,  the Chief Executive for Myer stores, Bernie Brookes, was concerned about consumers having less money to spend. His concern for consumers spending power was raised in relation to the proposal that Australians should be taxed to pay for a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). So in that scenario, it was the spending power of potential customers that concerned Brookes, because, as he was quoted as saying, that was money they “would have spent with us”.

Newsflash for the NRA: your employees are also customers. There’s a pretty good chance that most of the $15.80 increase to low paid workers will be spent with one of your members.

So I’m pleased to hear of the increase in the minimum wage, because it goes to lowly paid people whose employers treat them with contempt. In the retail sector, at least, they are often overworked, because their employers understaff to save money. They are forced to make conversation with strangers, to comply with misguided management policy about how to increase sales.  Then, when their minimum wage is increased by $15.80 per week, the NRA calls that a “source of pressure on already stretched business budgets” and the Chamber of Commerce says that employers will be forced to cut jobs and reduce hours as a result.

Well, good luck trying to make sales targets at Myer if that happens.

 

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3 Comments

  1. I approve of this rant. Also, I can relate to your wide, flat feet problem. 😉

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    • A rant doesn’t feel completely satisfactory until someone has approved it. Thanks! Boo to bloody wide flat feet.

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      Reply
  2. This was so true!

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