A modest complaint

Being one of those who are notoriously inept at finding things around the home, I am perhaps the last who should be making the complaint that forms the substance of this column. My wife affects being driven to despair because the object that is plainly before my eyes seems to elude me. In fact, of course, the object is not where she thinks it is, or where she tells me it is, and so my groping helplessly about is not altogether inexplicable. Nevertheless I do confess to sometimes falling short in that practical wisdom that should permit a man to lay his hands on whatever it is he requires at the moment.

Having this deficiency, I should perhaps not be the one to complain about being confused in the supermarket. I believe, however, I am not alone in finding this modern form of marketing a trial. Hundreds of items are laid up on endless shelves, down aisles that appear to stretch to eternity. The signs that might guide one are nonexistent, are vaguely worded, or are indistinguishable amid the visual clutter. The natural instinct is to ask someone. But then the horrible truth dawns upon the shopper: there is no one to ask! Here and there under the glaring lights a small figure may be discerned crouching over boxes or reordering the shelves, but he only looks startled if a question is put to him and is quite incapable of providing the information one seeks.

A second impulse is to ask a fellow-shopper. Unfortunately she (or he) is most often in the same predicament as oneself. Or she (perhaps even he) is excessively timid, scuttling off crabwise behind a grocery-laden cart. And so I continue on my puzzled way, hoping against hope that somewhere I shall find at last the box of scouring pads I am searching for, or the jar of applesauce to go with my pork chop.

The difficulty I experience in the supermarket is part of a much larger problem, which might be entitled ''The Decline of Service in the American Economy.'' I know that fewer and fewer people are producing today's goods, while an increasing number of the population is engaged in something euphemistically referred to as ''service industries.'' Yet I ask, where in the name of reality is the service? It does not make its appearance in the visible form of men and women ready to help when the customer or the householder is in need. Rarely does it manifest itself in an attitude of kindly supportiveness. Good management, efficient management, seems increasingly to lay upon the entrepreneur the task of getting the customer to serve himself. A well-run enterprise is evidently one in which the salespeople disappear while the hapless public is left to get along on its own.

The time has not yet come when a purchaser is expected to step into an automobile showroom and simply drive away in the model of his choice. Along with the acquisition of a yacht, I dare say, goes a certain amount of ceremony, administered by a gentleman appropriately garbed for the sea. But in other areas the individual who looks for a bit of encouragement or advice gets short shrift, and sometimes it seems that the making of a purchase is a sort of indignity imposed upon the shopkeeper. There are emporiums, indeed, where I occasionally betake myself just to look around, but where I would be as hesitant to try to buy anything as I would be to make an offer in the house of a friend.

In days long past there used to be salespeople as insistent as bees, buzzing about one with urgent insistence. There used to be a slogan ''Service With a Smile.'' Today I would accept service with a frown, if that could be gotten; I would forgive the intrusions of the overeager or the downright pestiferous. Almost anything would be tolerated, and would indeed seem a blessing - if I could but find out where that package of cream cheese is!

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