In Bob’s twenty-six years of grocery work, a bottle had always been just a bottle. When he became general manager of the Thrifty-Rite supermarket, however, the number of products in inventory finally overwhelmed him. It was now his responsibility to make sure everything in the store was sold and replaced and sold again. The crowded displays in every aisle made him claustrophobic. Boxes and bags and bins bulged off the shelves. He couldn’t picture the thousands of items in all thirty-eight aisles cramming their way down the sewers or fighting for space in the landfills. “Look at all this crap,” he muttered on his first morning in charge. “It’s a miracle people find what they want.”
Aisle five, the shampoo aisle, seemed worst of all. He measured it: over 250 feet of shelf space just for shampoos and conditioners, with another 150 feet for dyes, perms, gels, combs, and brushes. He found products for hair that was dry, normal, oily, fine, thinning, thick, limp, split, colored, tinted, permed, curled, or straightened. A few restored follicles or cured dandruff or were gentle to baby’s eyes. Roughly a third seemed edible, with labels that listed beer, apple, strawberry, peach, guava, mango, and honey not as artificial fragrances, but as actual ingredients. He even saw a cucumber rinse for extra-oily scalps. Was hair really that varied?
In his second week as manager, Bob holed up in his office next to the loading dock. He leafed through the sales records for the last year and found that only a handful of the shampoos sold in any quantity. The rest were gimmicky derivatives. By noon on Wednesday he had calculated that he could stock just twenty types of shampoo and lose less than 3.6% of his profit from hair-care sales. That small a loss could be recouped in increased efficiency. After lunch on Thursday he pulled aside Randy, the new hygiene manager. “Mark down everything on this list,” he told him, “until you get rid of it.”
During his first three months as manager, Bob whittled down the profusion of items sold by over a third. After hair-care products, he attacked aisle eighteen—frozen foods. Redundancy there wasted electricity as well as space. He counted five types of pepperoni pizza, six brands of peas, and eight kinds of chicken pasta entrees. He couldn’t just weed out items willy-nilly, though. Food was obviously a matter of personal taste. To test the frozen foods, he declared Employee Taste-Testing Month. During their breaks, workers sampled corn, or tater tots, or lite fettucini alfredo, and voted for the two they liked the best. Thrifty-Rite workers loved having free meals, even odd combinations like egg foo young, Belgian waffles, and limeade. Employee morale rose. So did cholesterol levels.
Orange juice was another problematical product. Six different brands of it occupied nearly 10% of the freezer shelf space. Three brands came from multi-national food conglomerates. The other three were local varieties: one organic, one generic, and one store brand. The cans of concentrate ranged in size from three to twelve ounces. In addition, refrigerated displays held 100% pure orange juice, not from concentrate, as well as 100% pure orange juice from concentrate, in paper and plastic containers ranging from one pint to one gallon. The shelf of fruit juices in the soda coolers carried some individually-sized containers of orange juice, as well. Last of all, in one corner of the produce department squatted a chrome-and-plastic machine that automatically squeezed juice from the mix of valencias and navels stored in its hopper. Bob let customers join in double-blind, random-sampling taste tests of all types of orange juice. When given the beverage without the packaging customers could not tell, with any statistical accuracy, the difference between fresh and frozen, from concentrate or not. Juice squeezed by machine faired only marginally better than premium juice from a carton.
At the end of Employee Taste-Testing Month, Bob compared the results with the annual sales records. By his calculations he could reduce the number of frozen items by 31%. He unplugged three of the freezer cases and sold the orange-juicing machine.
As the shelves became less crowded, the store felt roomier, more open. Customers became less cranky. No more arguments about using coupons erupted in the express lane. Price checks became less frequent and easier to resolve. As Bob removed whole displays of redundant products, little parking areas sprang up for shopping carts. People could leave their cart and go back for something they forgot without fear of blocking the aisle. Neighbors could stop and chat. One group of kids adopted the empty space in aisle twelve, the breakfast aisle, as an informal playground. Cereal boxes, they discovered, made great building blocks. Fairy castles and western saloons rose up from the black-and-white tiled floor. They played with the cereals that only kids would eat. They personally didn’t care if their Fruit Loops turned to pixie dust in the box.
A few people complained about the change. The loudest opponent was Old Man Harris. He wasn’t really that old, not even sixty, but his premature hair loss and down-turned mouth made him look much older. He walked to the store every day to buy a paper. Without the news, he’d have nothing to complain about. “What you’re doing is un-American,” he told Bob.
Bob tried not to get angry at the label. He could see how limiting an American shopper’s choices might be seen as unpatriotic.
“Let the marketplace decide what products stay,” Old Man Harris advised. “It’s competition that made this country great.”
Bob listened patiently to the complaint, but the thrill of reduction canceled any doubt about what he was doing. He worked his way through paper products, canned goods, beverages, and crackers, removing items from the inventory. The store shrunk to a manageable size. Walking from the bakery shelves to the meat department took half the time. Bob started to think that maybe, in the retailing business, less was more.
After liquidators hauled away the extra shelves and freezer units, he felt like celebrating. In the grocery business, that means throwing a sale. On the first morning of Thrifty-Rite’s Grand Re-Opening, Bob waved to Old Man Harris as he shuffled towards the magazine aisle to find his daily newspaper. This morning he was muttering something about Turkey. Surely he meant the country, Bob thought, and not the bird.
Around one o’clock Bob relieved Karen in the express lane. He looked up from the cash register and saw Old Man Harris without his customary newspaper. “Did you find the papers?” Bob asked. “We might have moved them on you.”
“Didn’t look. I’ve been in your new book section.” He jerked his thumb back towards aisle eight.
Bob leaned over the counter to look. He saw greeting cards and magazines and several feet of empty space. “We don’t carry books.”
“Don’t be silly. It’s like the New York Public Library back there.” It was a forest of book cases, he said, each one made of polished cherry wood. He browsed for a hour, through archeology and sociology and geology, before finding the history section. Once there he rested in a red-leather chair and read Toynbee and Churchill and Durant. A clerk even served him a cup of tea and a bagel. “Now I see why you dumped all that other junk,” he told Bob. “You’re no socialist—you’re an entrepreneur.”
“But Mr. Harris, we don’t carry books.”
“Nonsense,” he said, and left five dollars on the counter to pay for lunch. Bob shook his head and stuffed the money into a can for donations to aid kidney research.
The sale attracted so many shoppers that Bob had to work through the afternoon at the express lane. Around 2:30 he smiled and waved as his neighbor Ed entered the store. Normally, he would have stopped and chatted, but there was just too much to do. At each register the line of customers stretched six or seven people deep. Three hours later, Bob still worked the express lane. He’d been on his feet since six that morning. Even though the dinner shoppers were streaming in, he needed a break, just fifteen minutes alone with a sandwich from the deli department. As he stepped away from the register, Bob saw Ed emerge from the refrigerated aisle carrying a set of skis and trailing snow from the cuffs of his pants. “Back again?” he asked his neighbor. “What’s with the skis?”
“I was looking for a good bitter ale,” Ed explained, “and ended up hiking.” The trail climbed a steep valley side, he said, past grazing mountain goats and spiraling hawks. Bob imagined brochures he’d seen of Switzerland and Austria. Eventually Ed found an alpine village where he got a tour of shops full of truffles and music boxes. A young woman who resembled the St. Pauli girl helped him select new cross-country skis for his wife. “She said I could pay for these up here.”
Bob frowned silently while Ed told his story. Something was going on, but he didn’t know what. Old Man Harris he could ignore. He saw no evidence of books read or bagels consumed. But Ed’s skis were real, as real as the puddles of melting snow on the black-and-white linoleum. Bob suddenly felt the pressure of being general manager. Customers and employees now looked to him for answers. He remembered the prime rule of retailing: The Customer Is Always Right. If Ed says there’s an alpine village in the beer section, then there must be a village. No use in debating that, he thought, and felt grateful for the rule’s guidance. But he couldn’t take Ed’s money for the skis. “I can’t sell you those,” he explained. “If I did, my books wouldn’t balance.”
“Don’t be modest. You ditched that other stuff to sell sporting goods. You’re gunning for Wal-Mart, right?”
“No, no, no,” Bob protested, “I’m trying to carry less stuff, to open up the store.”
Ed felt bad about taking the skis. He tried to make up for it by buying three roasting chickens and a bag of lemons.
The next day, Sunday, was Bob’s scheduled day off. He knew that his employees could handle the sale on their own, but after the adventures of the previous day he didn’t want to risk losing a customer. He borrowed a stool from the espresso stand and sat by the automatic doors, tallying each entering and exiting customer with a grease pencil mark on the back of a brown paper bag. The store remained busy for a Sunday morning. Bob barely had time to sip his latte’ between marks.
Just before noon Ms. Sloan, a divorcee’, stopped in with her daughter Suzie on the way home from a soccer game. Bob saw them enter the shampoo aisle. Probably looking for more hair coloring, he thought. It wasn’t polite to notice, but her roots were starting to show. Then again, that’s what he liked about Thrifty-Rite. He knew his customers. He couldn’t imagine working at a store where he didn’t know the people shopping there. It would be like living in a place where he didn’t speak the language.
At closing time on Sunday, Bob’s tally showed two more comings than goings. He locked the doors and searched the building. Maybe someone got shut in the storage freezers by accident. Maybe a pair of thugs squatted behind some palettes on the loading dock, waiting to rob the store after hours. The sale brought in a lot of cash; a smart criminal might have noticed that. Or maybe, just maybe, someone else went off like Ed and Old Man Harris. If an alpine village hid in the beer section and a book store stood next to the magazines, then what waited in the meat department or the produce aisle? Bob spent an hour searching but found no one. Maybe he’d miscounted.
On Tuesday morning Bob tallied the uniformed police officer as she entered the store. He introduced himself as the manager and asked how he could help. “We have report of a missing person,” she explained. Bob wondered to himself if Ed didn’t go back for the Bavarian beauty who sold him the skis. The officer told him that a father had reported his daughter and ex-wife missing when they failed to return after weekend visitations. “They live in the area,” she said, handing Bob a photograph. “Maybe you saw them here recently?”
“That’s the Sloans. I saw them about 2 o’clock on Sunday, heading towards aisle five. I didn’t see them leave the store, but I assume they did.”
The officer nodded. “What are you counting there?” she asked.
“Seeing how many customers we get,” Bob smiled. “It’s a random-sample sort of thing.”
“Then why count both coming and going?”
He didn’t want to tell her about Ed or Old Man Harris, or what he feared had happened to the Sloans. “Just a way to double check. Everyone who comes in has to leave, right?”
The officer thanked him for his help and asked him to call if he saw the Sloans again.
The Sloans reappeared the next day around 6 p.m. while the Pepsi distributor restocked aisle nine. Ms. Sloan’s hair was perfectly cut and dyed. Her skin glowed, not just her cheeks but her firm arms and waxed legs.
“You look good today, Ms. Sloan.”
“I feel great. I owe it all to that spa down past the shampoo. The receptionist insisted that I had a reservation and took me in.” They gave her mineral baths, she said, and mud-pack massages. Their combination of diet and exercise left her slimmer, peppier, and more satisfied. In cooking class she learned to make healthy Hungarian dishes like skinless chicken paprikash with low-fat latjo. “I must apologize, Mr. Burns,” she said, “for ever doubting your plans for the store. I’m telling all my friends.”
Bob didn’t know how to react. The spa wasn’t part of the store in his opinion. He remembered, though, that The Customer Is Always Right. He smiled at Ms. Sloan. “I’m glad you enjoy shopping here.”
Suzie Sloan, still dirty from a soccer game, stood next to her mom and groaned. “It was soccer camp Mom, not a fat farm.” She told Bob scrimmaging against the Brazilian national team and petting their monkey mascot.
Like Old Man Harris and Ed Kendziorski, Ms. Sloan insisted on paying for the goods and services rendered.
“I can’t take your money,” Bob said. “It’s not my spa.”
“I tried paying there,” she said, “but they said to pay you.”
“Well, it’s their spa and their business. I just know that my books won’t balance if I take your money.”
Customers continued disappearing. They vanished for a few minutes or several days. Some people rounded the endcap of the soup and sauce aisle and found themselves canoeing the Niger River, watching the Tour de France, or hiking the volcanoes of Greenland. Others at the same spot simply moved on to canned beans and vegetables. Bob stopped tallying customers as they came and went. Those who disappeared eventually returned. Aside from the Sloans, he heard no reports about a missing spouse or child.
Those who returned insisted on paying for the cruise they took, or the beach cabin they rented, or the hat they wore to prevent sunburn. They seemed hurt that Bob wouldn’t take their money. He explained that he had no way of accounting for reselling what he himself hadn’t purchased. That’s how the American economy worked. Besides, how would he know the asking price of a scarf in New Delhi, or the tab for three martinis in Algiers? But his customers continued to insist on paying for something. In the end, he created a Donations category on the store’s income sheet and used it to record whatever money people wanted to give. He included that category in his sales tax calculations so the state auditors wouldn’t think that he was laundering money or embezzling. At Christmas he divided the extra earnings between Traveler’s Aid and the local food bank.
On nights that he had to close the store, Bob walked the vacant aisles and wondered why his customers got to go places and he didn’t. After all, it was his store. He spent more time here than anyone else. His trips need not be exotic or extravagant, either. Any change would be exciting. He fantasized about running the Whitehorse General Store during the Yukon gold rush, or owning a small green grocery in Tulsa during the Dust Bowl. For a moment, he would be struggling alongside the miners and farmers. Just once he’d like to round the corner vacated by the orange-juicing machine and find a Caribbean farmer’s market standing where the root crops usually sat. He imagined a dusty road that separated rows of market stalls and lead to a lapis harbor dotted with ivory dories. Sunny humidity would loosen his joints and send cooling trickles of sweat down his back as he took off his sandals, rolled up his cuffs, and waded through the diamond water.
Bob became obsessed with catching an aisle in the middle of transformation. He crouched by the crackers and then quickly peeked into the baking aisle. Running, hopping, whistling, chanting—he tried anything he could think of to make the store change. For a while he thought that walking backwards would do the trick. After a few evenings he could recognize the end of each aisle by the backward order of products on the shelves. When that didn’t work, he became convinced that the simple act of looking over his shoulder would work. He stood by the pet food cans and kept looking back and back until he was dizzy.
Finally, one night at closing, Bob held a seance. He gathered up all the candles in the store: garish votive stubs with strong spice scents, dinner-table tapers in tasteful pastel colors, even the bland white utility ones that looked like mannequin fingers. He counted out the aisles using the birthday candles shaped like numerals from a kindergarten workbook. With the lights and the smoke alarms turned off, the store was dark and quiet except for the hum of the remaining freezer cases. He proceeded down the aisles igniting every wick with a flick of his disposable lighter. In the glow of small flames, the wine section resembled a blood bank, packages of meat looked ghoulish, and figurines on the labels of Mexican foods danced in the flickering light as if they’d returned to the tribal campfire.
But nothing happened. Every aisle remained unchanged. He turned on the lights, took a fire extinguisher from the wall, and blew down every candle.
After a while, Bob no longer envied his customers the places they saw and adventures they had. He settled for hearing their stories. In his office he hung a map of the world and used pushpins to mark places that his customers had seen. On his lunch breaks he’d stare at the map. If there was a country or region without a pushpin, he’d take a few moments and imagine what life was like there. Within in the next week or two, a customer would vanish and then return from the place that Bob had imagined. These were his favorite disappearances. Over fried chicken and potato salad from the deli, he’d ask them about their travels and compared what they saw to what he had imagined. He liked their stories best when he’d been totally wrong about a place. That way their tales held him completely. He loved, too, how they looked when they talked, refreshingly intense, alive to the possibilities that waited inside his store.