For over ten years I’ve enjoyed giving my custom to a large, family-run hardware store in my neighborhood.
It’s a rambling and rather cluttered store, where someone has to lead you through a maze of shelves before pointing you to the product you need (nuts, bolts, screws, washers, etc.) for the final selection of the right type or size of fastener or drill bit that you are looking for.

I liked everything about this store, from the personal interaction with the elderly couple who run it, to the smell of cardboard, lubricant and rubber wafting in the air.

Then, less than a year ago, a big-box home-improvement chain store opened up not two hundred meters away from the friendly hardware folks. Something on the scale of a Lowe’s or Home Depot in the US or a Leroy Merlin in Europe and elsewhere. This has been an only-too-common occurrence in the past two or three decades. The old mom-and-pop stores are driven out of business by the big-box behemoths.

The size of the new place is staggering, with oodles of space, high ceilings and long aisles with countless arrays of shelves. There’s even a bar with a seats and tables for those who want to grab coffee and a croissant (the store opens at 07:00), buy their supplies and start on their project before 09:00.

Predictably, the inventory is mind-blowing, the parking lot extra-large and prices reasonable.

It was a given that I would soon take my business there and, indeed, I’ve been a happy customer—until today.

This morning I bought a special repair putty by Loctite. It comes in three separate baggies each containing 5 grams of product. You mold it by hand into the required shape and it will promptly harden.

When I got home, I removed the three baggies from their wrapper and realized that the contents of two of them was rock-hard and virtually unusable.

So, two hours later I was back in the store, waiting in line before the returns counter.

When my turn came, the young customer-service woman made no less than seven phone calls to find out which department was in charge of these items. I did explain to her that this product was hanging from a Point of Purchase (POP) display situated before the checkout, but apparently it didn’t help.

She eventually issued a refund and pointed me to the Paint Dept. to get a replacement product if I still wanted one. From her expression, I got the feeling she was happy to get rid of me and the Paint Dept. was just a means to that end. The HVAC Dept. would have also done just fine to get me out of her sight.

Just over 10 years ago, I was in a similar situation at a Lowe’s in the southeastern US, but the outcome was the very opposite. The employee helping me was about my age—an older guy, that is—and knew his way around the system. He took care of my issue and made sure I was on my way without delay and satisfied with the solution he’d found.

But for all I know, things may be have changed across the pond, too, in this second decade of the third millennium.

Anyway, the “paint guy” was not at his workplace, but I found him stocking shelves from an aerial work platform. When he descended electrically to my level, he hastened to show he didn’t want any part of this and claimed that items like my repair putty were scattered around the store in strategic locations to be bought on impulse but did not fall under any particular department. Not his own, at any rate.

I gave him my best “why should I care?” look and told him I just wanted a replacement item that was entirely usable and I could not care less about the way his employers ran their business.

All he could suggest, however, was that I personally inspect the POP displays by the checkouts and squeeze every single packet until I found one that was still usable.

“Thank you very much for nothing”, I said and went out in a foul mood headed, of course, to the old hardware store.

Incidentally, one of the banks where I hold an account operates much the same way. They employ a bunch of minimum-wage young people who are terrified of escalating a customer-service issue to a supervisory level.

They will waste time trying to deflect your enquiry in the hope that you eventually give up. They sound bored and demotivated—almost catatonic— but they have nowhere to go in terms of career options.

The bank has chosen to open its service center in a depressed area where jobs are scarce and wages are low, but so is the average quality of applicants in that catchment area.

Better candidates normally balk when they’re offered a job that requires moving there, so the standard of service is and will remain lousy.

But if you ask the bean counters who supported running the customer service from there, I’ll bet they still think it was a genius idea.