Coping With Changes Nobody Asked For

It's Saturday morning in the suburbs, and one of the busiest places in town is the BayBank automated teller machine. But for those of us waiting in line for money on this sunny February day, a hint of sadness hangs in the air.

We've just received a letter from the bank telling us that in May this branch, conveniently located near the town square, will close forever. Thanks to a merger, we must move to BankBoston, two blocks away. Already new lettering on the door tells the story: "BayBank, a BankBoston Company."

Nor are we alone. A similar mega-merger between New England's Fleet and Shawmut banks is changing banking habits for countless other customers as well.

Anyone who likes change will love being on the East Coast these days. Anyone who doesn't, won't. It's a season when corporations are pulling rugs out from under customers' feet in a variety of ways, testing their flexibility.

Several weeks ago, Continental Cablevision customers received a letter heralding a new channel lineup and "cable standardization." Translation: The cable numbers you know by heart no longer exist. Everything has been renumbered.

Then came the announcement that next year most Boston suburbs will switch from area code 617 to 781. Another local area code, 508, will split in half, adding 978. More than a million people will be affected.

For customers of UNUM Life Insurance Company of America, another surprise came when the firm sold its tax-deferred annuity business to Lincoln National Life Insurance Company. And for Pepperidge Farm loyalists, an era ended in December when the firm stopped producing cracked wheat bread. Alas, tuna sandwiches may never taste the same again.

As the comforting familiarity of old landmarks and products disappears, C for change can produce another big C: confusion. We become, at least temporarily, displaced persons, involuntarily cast adrift from everyday moorings and routines.

Time was when change - call it Old Change - typified progress. Every autumn, for example, Detroit automakers created excitement as they rolled out the latest models, sometimes hiding new cars under giant cloths in showrooms until the official unveiling date. Similar anticipation surrounded spring and fall fashion shows, as women waited to see the latest changes in hemlines, waistlines, and shoulders.

Now new cars arrive with a minimum of fanfare and only incremental design changes. And now that fashion is no longer a matter of One Look, sartorial change has become something of a nonevent for many women.

Today, New Change sometimes seems more a matter of disruption than progress, more the result of corporate cost-cutting than expansion. Unlike Old Change, which was often a matter of individual choice - to buy (or not to buy) a new car with fins or a new dress with padded shoulders - New Change is a matter of group necessity, inescapable for those who live in a particular region or patronize a certain business.

That necessity is enough to force a beleaguered customer to repeat what could be called the ABCs of change: Adapting Beats Complaining. It's a reminder to hang loose, stay flexible, and avoid becoming too much a creature of habit. In the field of banking alone, one analyst has predicted that "this merger process" will continue into the next century.

So, even though we'll miss the landmark bank on the town square, in time we'll all adjust to the new location. We'll gradually memorize the new TV cable numbers, and we'll get used to dialing 781 instead of 617. Color us progressive, and give us an A for Adaptation.

Still, all these changes would be easier to take if we could just get one familiar friend back as a measure of some stability. How about it, Pepperidge Farm? Couldn't you reverse your decision and bring back cracked wheat bread, giving us one more chance to make it succeed?

Pretty please?

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