My Retail Fantasy: Infinite Inventory

women grocery shopping in...
women grocery shopping in...

There's a high-anxiety situation that occurs every day all over America, including the grocery store where I work. It happens when a shopper is looking for a particular product and finds only empty space on the shelf where the item is supposed to be.

What comes next is familiar to everyone who's ever worked in retail sales. The customer seeks out the nearest clerk (that would be me), explains the problem, and then says, "Can you check and see if there's any more in back?" It's a question spoken with a tone of hope and expectation.

For me, the request triggers two immediate responses. My real world reaction is to embark on a quick search of the receiving area where we keep additional stock. If the product in question is a common one like peanut butter, tomato sauce, or chicken broth, there's a good chance it'll be on hand. The odds of a happy outcome are more problematic for less-sought-after items like ornamental toothpicks or pomegranate molasses.

Searches that end unsuccessfully are disappointing but not surprising, and the reasons for failure aren't complicated. Storage space is limited and the variety of merchandise we carry is enormous. What I've come to appreciate from my experience in the retail universe is that having to say "We're out right now" doesn't happen much more often. During the past fifty years this country has built an incredible commerce infrastructure that keeps most store shelves abundantly stocked from coast to coast. It's not a perfect system but the vast majority of shoppers find what they want, day after day.

Unfortunately, none of this "glass mostly full" concept helps dispel the unhappiness customers feel when a desired product isn't available. I wish I could do more to alleviate the disappointment, and that's when my fantasy response is activated. A wonderful mental scene unfolds, a perfect imaginary store where no visitor ever leaves feeling annoyed or frustrated. Hollywood, are you listening? This could be a terrific movie, coupled with with a children's book spinoff, or perhaps a multi-media attraction at Disneyland Resort. The title will be 'Everything's In The Back.'

Think of Alice in Wonderland combined with Charley and The Chocolate Factory, plus a dash of The Matrix thrown in to make it a teeny bit edgy. The plot isn't fully developed yet but I can picture myself, wearing a long overcoat and puffy scarf, seated in a funky old jalopy mounted on special tracks that run up, down, and all around a gigantic warehouse where massive display racks extend for miles in every direction. The customers, thrilled and delighted, will hang on for dear life as we careen through this overstocked utopia.

No request will ever go unfulfilled because, as the title promises, everything is there, all the time. Superfruit kombucha? Easy-peasy, it's right around the corner from Blueberry Blitz yogurt for kids in the squeeze packet. Intense loyalty to specific brands or unusual flavors will never cause any complications. Red Hawaiian sea salt is as simple to locate as seaweed snacks, maple water, or carob coated gummy bears.

It's a beautiful dream that, sadly, is not coming true anytime soon. For now, my waking hours on the job are devoted to making sure all patrons get the quickest possible assistance for whatever items they may be seeking. Even if my search comes up empty I always like to say, "Never, ever hesitate to ask. We're happy to look."

And to all studio executives who may be reading this, rest assured I don't expect you to cast me in the lead role if you decide "Everything's In The Back" would be a summer blockbuster. But I do think my character would be perfect for Johnny Depp.