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Costco, Corona and Chaos

Costco Lantana, Florida

It goes without saying that people are staying home much more during the virus (DV) than before the virus (BV) – acronyms which, when combined, form BVD, which was a type of popular men’s underwear that my dad wore decades ago (and is still made by Fruit of the Loom).

Where am I going with this slightly deranged observation? Costco. For books, not for BVDs, or even DVDs. Every time I visit the store in my neighborhood south of West Palm Beach – probably two to three times a week – I pass by the books section to check for browsers. If any are there, I politely offer them the cards for my books, including Blood on Their Hands, which came out in May. Most are quite friendly, except, of course, for the occasional grouch.

Advertisement for BVD  underwear, 1907

Like the elderly couple the other day, who showed much interest in both Blood and Murder in Palm Beach. They were the only two there, but that was two more than I usually find DV. I thought the coronavirus would increase the volume of book buyers at the store, but the opposite is true. And the books available at Costco are not exactly recondite selections, but rather, commercial reads by such popular authors as Patterson, Baldacci and Grisham. Furthermore, they’re cheaper than the prices charged at bookstores and Amazon (which adds the shipping cost).

I guess people would rather curl up on the couch with their heads facing the TV than buried in a book. Maybe the aggravation of wearing those infernal, but quite necessary, masks all day leaves them too zapped to concentrate. I confess I don’t have the answer.

A few years ago, I asked management if I could set up a table in the book section and hawk my books, turning a portion of the profits over to Costco. I pointed out that food samplings set up in the store apparently boost sales of the products people taste. A little spiel about my books likely would attract curious shoppers and generate sales.

James Patterson

Nope. That was too far outside the box, which is, of course, what Costco is – a very big box. I figured management envisioned the accounting rigmarole required as not worth the bother. Still, it seemed to me that such a feature would give the store a local appeal, a sense of community spirit conveying a warmth that would counter the cold, impersonal feel of a corporate chain operation.

I was told that my publisher could submit the book for consideration, but would have to buy back any books not sold. This was not a deterrent for the big publishers of mass sellers, but could bankrupt a smaller publisher due to the volume of Costco orders.

David Baldacci

So I abandoned that idea. It appears I will have to abandon another idea, which has become a fixation with me. It concerns the revelation that a crisis brings about in leadership. Nationally, President Trump has shown all too convincingly his abysmal inability to deal with the crisis that is COVID-19. On a smaller scale, Costco has demonstrated that it, too, is struggling.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Costco store in Lantana, Florida, near my home, has closed the self-checkout stations to – well, self-checkouts. Employees scan customers’ credit or debit cards, and the items they’re purchasing. But at least two of the six stations are closed and have no scanning staff every time I visit. Being single, I never buy more than a few items, but have to wait in a haphazard line for people with overflowing carts to be checked out, while I could quickly do so myself at one of the closed stations.

John Grisham

I asked a staffer the reason for this, and she said they didn’t want the items placed on the metal table attached to the station, to avoid contamination. “That’s BS,” I replied, and she agreed, saying, “We have to do it.”

Thus began a weeks-long series of exchanges between me and management. I phoned the corporate office near Seattle, and a woman who answered said that was not a company policy, and she was able to quickly check out herself at her local store. She put me in contact with the Southeast regional office in Atlanta, which put me in touch with the Lantana store manager.

I argued that the store was following outdated science. In May, if not earlier, officials decided the possibility of contamination from inanimate surfaces was minimal, according to articles in the New York Times and Washington Post, and in The Lancet, a prestigious medical journal. The most likely chance of becoming infected was from people not wearing masks and from being physically close to each other for more than brief periods of time. By closing the

But nothing changed, so I called the regional office again, and spoke with the same woman, whose first name is Yong. She had received the articles from the store manager, but argued with me about their validity. So I called the Washington headquarters again, and was told to call the regional office once more. I did, and Yong told me I was right and the managers were meeting to discuss the issue. On my next visit to Costco, the system would be different, she assured me.

Walter Jelinek

Except that it wasn’t on that Friday, three days later. By then it was past closing time for the Atlanta office, and I called and left a heated message. On Monday, the regional vice president, Guy Delmonte, called and discussed the issue with me. He said concern over surface contamination played no role in having personnel check customers out. The reason for the procedure was to expedite the process. So if that were true, why were some stations closed? He said they weren’t. I told him at least two were closed on my every visit, two to three times a week. He said that shouldn’t be, and he would talk to the store manager.

Four days later, I visited again. This time, even more stations were closed. I called Delmonte, and he said the closings were because they didn’t want cash used at those stations. My reply: So put a Cards Only sign up instead of the Sorry, Closed sign.

I am at a loss to understand Costco’s rationale for pursuing this policy, but decided it was useless to press it further, and will send a letter to Costco CEO Walter Jelinek and the seven board members, if I can reach them.

The moral of this story: Crisis wreaks chaos, testing the fitness of government and business leaders alike for coping with it. The pandemic is six months old. Wouldn’t you think they’d have their acts together by now?

#DavidBaldacci #CostcoCEOWalterJelinek #Amazon #FruitoftheLoom #TheLancet #JohnGrisham #MurderinPalmBeach #JamesPatterson #bloodontheirhands #LantanaCostco #BVDs

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