Although the purpose of this column is not to give free advertising to businesses (the purpose of this column is to offend people), I would like to shamelessly endorse a particular business that I enjoy: Food-4-Less.
You already think I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I actually shop at Food-4-Less exclusively, and I love the place. Now, it’s not because of its product quality or store odor, because Food-4-Less actually falls short in these areas. What I like about Food-4-Less is that they don’t even PRETEND to have customer service. They don’t even pretend to LIKE you. And I find that refreshing. Because let’s face it, all businesses exist for one purpose: to make money. No business actually cares about you — they don’t even KNOW you! You’re a stranger. Do YOU like strangers? Of course not. They’re strange; that’s why we call them strangers. Why would a business be any different?
The thing is, in order to make money, businesses have to pull a few tricks to make you think they like you, because they’re afraid if you don’t feel loved, you won’t spend money there, that somehow your need for their product will evaporate unless you feel warm and fuzzy when you walk through the door. (“Well, I thought I was hungry, but then that cashier was rude to me, so I guess I’m not after all.”) And so we get all these supermarkets with commercials going on about how “It’s YOUR store!” and how they want to be your neighborhood grocer, and they want you to be their friend, and they want your kids to come over and play with their kids. But when it comes down to you actually NEEDING something, they’re completely worthless, and their disdain for you comes through loud and clear.
Food-4-Less makes it clear that they don’t care whether you live or die, let alone whether you shop at their store, LET ALONE whether you’re satisfied with your visit. And I honestly find such a blatant disregard for the customers’ feelings refreshing. Hey, if you’re going to have disdain for someone, at least show it openly, rather than pretending with all kinds of “special sales” and syrupy commercials. (If I hear “What’s on your list today? You’ll find it at Fred Meyer” one more time, I will put “crowbar” on my list, find it at Fred Meyer, and then go find Fred Meyer and beat him with it.)
At Food-4-Less, the policy on customers is: “You’re in our way.” There are forklifts and tractors driving around the store all the time, carrying huge boxes that could easily crush a human being to death. And they just want you to move over. There’s no “Excuse me, Sir,” or “Pardon us, Ma’am.” It’s just BEEP BEEP! Stand aside or be smashed by 10,000 boxes of Trix.
Also, at Food-4-Less there is only one checker. I don’t mean just one checker working at a time; I mean they only have one checker on the payroll, period. Her name is Loretta, and she works Tuesdays. If you shop there, you’d better hope it’s during a time that she’s working, because when she’s off, they have the stock boys acting as checkers, and these guys, honestly, couldn’t check out a library book, let alone your groceries.
Also, if you can’t find something at Food-4-Less, don’t bother asking someone who works there. They don’t know, and what’s more, they don’t care. Even if they did know, I suspect they wouldn’t tell you. But they don’t know anyway. They couldn’t find their own rear ends if they were on fire.
You may think I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I really like this attitude, because it’s OUT IN THE OPEN. When I walk through those Food-4-Less doors and get a whiff of that warehouse/produce/meat smell, I know what I’m in for. I know I’m on my own, and as a grown-up, I’m capable of surviving on my own. The problem with other stores is, they PRETEND to care about you, thus lulling you into thinking you can rely on them when you need them, only to discover, when the time comes, that they’re just as indifferent as the Food-4-Less people.
Food-4-Less is nearly unrivaled in its honesty, though there are some examples in other industries. For example, video stores. Scene One Video has a terrible selection, but the movies they do have — primarily the “Porky’s” series and the complete works of John Candy — are cheap. There’s a guy working there whose greased hair sticks up in the air four feet, and he looks like he just walked in from 1956. He’s weird, he’s creepy, and he frightens me — but the movies are cheap. And there’s no pretending.
At Blockbuster, as soon as you walk in the door, an employee will say, “Hello!” Even if he is all the way across the store, he will shout it at you like you’re old chums, because it’s company policy that every customer be greeted — screamed at, if necessary — in order to make you think they appreciate your business. (Perhaps if you think they love you, you won’t complain about the cost of new releases, or the fact that movies that have been on video for two years are still on the “New Releases” rack.) And while you’re looking for your movie, someone will always come by and ask if they can help you find something. Well guess what, Skippy: They’re in alphabetical order. I’m familiar with our alphabet; I think I can manage. Why don’t you go put all the copies of “The English Patient” (video release date: Summer 1997) back on the “New Releases” shelf, where they belong?
Or clothing stores. There’s no need to even discuss ZCMI (which stands for “Zion’s Cooperative Rip-Off Over-Priced Store That You Should Shop at because You’re a Mormon and We Have ‘Zion’ in Our Name”). But in the area of suits, the two ends of the customer hatred spectrum are Mr. Mac and Deseret Industries. At Mr. Mac, much like at Blockbuster, you will be harassed and accosted within seconds of walking into the store. You will be convinced that your salesperson loves you and is just tickled to death that you’re going on a mission, and he will help you find the most conservative, missionary-appropriate, expensive suits they have. Then he will send you on your way, all cheerful and happy and glad to have done his part in building up the Kingdom by clothing the missionaries.
Or you can go to D.I. There, of course, no one cares if you shop there, or if you buy anything, or if you just steal stuff. Whether you buy your suit at D.I. or Mr. Mac, either way, the suit is going to fall apart in three days. The difference is that at least at D.I. you only paid $6 for it, and no one pretended to like you when they actually didn’t.
My point? Businesses should be honest. They want our money, and it’s silly to pretend that anything else, like customer satisfaction, is higher on their priority list, because we all know the truth. And we don’t like being lied to. That’s why I shop at Food-4-Less exclusively: because they have what I need, and there’s no stupid mind games going on between us. They hate me and I hate them — but when it’s over, they’ve got my money, I’ve got my Ben & Jerry’s, and everyone’s happy. All without lying.
And, if I’m lucky, all without my being crushed by a palette of Wheat Thins.
This was meant to be the first column of the new fall semester, to run on Aug. 31. However, due to the complications which I will share with you below, it was postponed, rewritten, scrutinized and analyzed and eventually published three weeks later. In the meantime, it underwent more revisions than anything I'd ever published.
My original version read like a stand-up routine -- sort of a ranting and raving about businesses and how they all hate you. And that was my point: businesses hate you.
Well, the esteemed Dr. Laurie Wilson, chair of the BYU Communications Department and at that time an unfailing supporter and criticizer of "Snide Remarks," was bound and determined to make me a worthwhile columnist, despite the odds being stacked so highly against her. To that end, she wanted significance in the columns -- not just funny for the sake of being funny, but funny with some kind of point behind it. This column, she said, did not have that. It was just a ranting, a stand-up routine.
I had always maintained that the purpose of "Snide Remarks" was JUST to be funny, and if there was some social significance now and then, so be it. But my main objective was humor. She saw it differently: be funny, but be important, too -- all the time.
I further maintained, in my lengthy discussions with her, that this column DID have a point: that all businesses hate you. She said that wasn't enough of a point, and that my REAL point (I always love it when people tell me what my point is) was that in a capitalist society, businesses have to pretend to love their customers in order to get their money. I had not been aware that this was my point, but I could certainly see it. So I made revisions, adding better introductory material and putting in a better conclusion. The changes, as requested/demanded by Dr. Wilson, really did make the column better, though I admit it grudgingly.
Then there were the legal issues. Even though I was complimenting Food-4-Less -- I really did shop there exclusively, and I really did like the store's no-frills honesty -- I said quite a few things about it that might be taken as insults, not back-handed compliments. I hit Mr. Mac kind of hard, too.
And so this column became the first "Snide Remarks" ever to be submitted to a BYU communications law professor for his opinion. His opinion? A high risk of lawsuits from Food-4-Less and Mr. Mac. With Food-4-Less, the problem wasn't so much what I said, but just the fact that I said SO MANY things about them. Had I just made one or two of the slams, it would have been OK. But going on for so long about it made everything add up. To fix that, I kissed up to them some more -- made it even more abundantly clear that I really LIKED the store, precisely BECAUSE of all the reasons I listed.
Believe it or not, making changes due to legal concerns didn't bother me. I kind of liked it, in fact, because I know the law in this area and I know what I can get away with. "Fair comment and criticism" is OK. Talking about how Blockbuster charges too much for new releases and has an odd definition of what constitutes a "new release" -- that's fair comment and criticism, protected by the First Amendment. I'm entitled to have that opinion of Blockbuster, and even better, I'm entitled to state that opinion publicly.
Also protected are parody and satire. Saying that Food-4-Less has only one checker is so absurd and exaggerated that it would not be taken, by any reasonable person, to be true. (Granted, there is a good number of unreasonable people who read "Snide Remarks," and who then write angry letters about it, but that is beside the point.) So I am not defaming or libelling Food-4-Less in saying that. In fact, all I'm doing is taking a "fair comment and criticism"-type statement -- Food-4-Less never has enough checkers working -- and exaggerating it in order to make it funny. Most parody and satire is just that -- a regular ol' opinion, exaggerated for the sake of humor.
What is NOT protected are statements that would defame a business, statements that go beyond fair comment and criticism or exaggerated humor. I originally said that employees at other stores were "just as incompetent as the ones at Food-4-Less." Declaring that all employees are incompetent is quite a charge to make, and it was potentially dangerous, largely because it's an exaggeration (not ALL employees are incompetent, obviously), but not a funny one. (As it happens, "incompetent" wasn't really my point anyway -- "apathetic" was more like it, and that's not as mean a thing to say about someone.)
Also, my statement about Mr. Mac's suits being "poorly made" had to go. Furthermore, I originally said that whether you buy your suit at Mr. Mac or D.I., it will fall apart in six months anyway. Six months seemed too real -- not exaggerated enough to be funny, and a little beyond fair comment and criticism (since technically, it may not be true in every case) (although every missionary I ever asked about it didn't care much for Mr. Mac suits). So we changed it to three days, putting it back in the "exaggerated for the sake of humor" category, and took out the phrase "poorly made."
It was eventually concluded that the column, as you see it here, was reasonably lawsuit-proof. That didn't mean businesses wouldn't call to complain, but at least we wouldn't get sued.
And we didn't get sued. We did get some phone calls, though -- from Mr. Mac. The store wound up pulling its advertising from The Daily Universe, which made me feel kind of bad. Nonetheless, no one at the paper blamed me for it, and when the advertising department discussed the matter with Mr. Mac (the store, not the person), they explained that a newspaper can't decide what kind of editorials to run based on who the advertisers are.
The other negative reaction to this was that BYU President Merrill J. Bateman did not think we should make fun of ZCMI the way I did. His reason? Because ZCMI was founded (though it is no longer owned) by the LDS Church, and The Daily Universe is the newspaper at BYU, which is an LDS Church-owned school. Surely you can see the connection there. Never mind that all I said about ZCMI was that it's too expensive, and I said far worse things about some other businesses. No, the main issue here is not to make fun of stores that were at one point owned by the church. I was alarmed at how many people Bateman was able to win over to his side with his ridiculous argument. It guess that's the benefit of being a very high-ranking BYU official: People are less inclined to disagree with you.
One more change that Dr. Wilson requested: When I'm talking about Fred Meyer, I originally said I was going to get a crowbar, "find Fred Meyer, and beat him in the head with it." Dr. Wilson had me remove the phrase "in the head." She thought it was too graphic, since we actually were talking about a real live person here (we assumed). So now I just planned to beat him with a crowbar, though I did not formally indicate which specific parts of his body I intended to strike. I later found out he's already dead anyway, which was something of a disappointment.