Store hours don't always match shoppers' wishes

Comment

January 25, 1998|By Mike Burns

BANKER'S HOURS. That deprecating term for a short workday and an easy job now seems so antiquated. Not long ago, it was on the mark, defining for the working stiffs the very limited hours the local institution was open to serve the public.

Today, with the profusion of automated teller machines and credit cards, home-computer banking and electronic direct deposits and payments, the bank is nearly always open.

And despite the cornucopia of these services, the physical buildings we call banks have also abandoned banker's hours. They are open more hours than before, so more customers who need the face-to-face service can get it.

Now before an irate reader responds with a petition of complaints against today's consumer banking, let's acknowledge that bank customers can still wait in line forever, with one teller window open and four other tellers busy counting money or chatting on the phone. Banks may charge higher fees for their array of services, and require higher minimum balances. And a brisk turnover of staff can erode the familiarity between customer and banker.

The point is that banking services have changed so much that the old cliche is no longer valid.

In fact, the complaint is better directed toward shopkeepers who are open only when their potential customers are at work, discouraging their patronage.

Any number of merchants hold to a 10-a.m.-to-6-p.m. daily schedule. That's too late an opening for working folk, too early a closing for people in a hurry to get home for supper. The shops may be open part of Saturday, but that's a time when so much else must be done.

Shopping centers and malls often require stores to be open during certain hours, but not necessarily convenient hours for a particular shop's customers.

Uncharitable feelings

"Mall hours," grumbled a man I encountered one morning at the locked door of a photo shop. It was part-curse, part-personal regret for not checking the hours in advance. He had come out of his way and was feeling none too charitable about the store's schedule. I experienced similar frustration at the nearby (closed) bookstore.

Nearly all the stores in that substantial complex were closed, except food shops catering to the breakfast crowd in nearby offices. They would not open until 10 a.m., regardless of their businesses and the schedules of their clientele.

This is happening despite the rollback of most "blue laws" that attempted to regulate hours of commerce, preserve days of rest for the small-store operators without losing customers to the big guys who could afford to hire more help and stay open longer.

Small-business operators work a lot of hours, and are in increasing competition with the megastores simply to hold their own. We shouldn't begrudge them an hour. Or a Sunday closing.

But the convenience of round-the-clock shopping in the supermarkets and the large stores has accustomed us to a different kind of treatment, different expectations than in earlier times.

To a large extent, it is the possibility of personal contact with these shopkeepers, with their understanding and service, that keeps their customers coming back. Today's harried consumer, however, wants it all -- operating hours, price and familiar staff. Too often, the convenience of hours dictates where shoppers go.

It's not just the smaller merchants whose hours run contrary to some customer expectations. You can see the rows of cars parked in the shopping center lots, awaiting the midmorning opening of large department stores and national chain merchandisers. Open an hour earlier, and they would probably catch even more business.

Rat race and home shopping

If shoppers can't wait for the stores to open, they might make their purchases later -- but quite possibly from another merchant closer to their immediate location. It's the condition of an impatient society, and one with the auto mobility to cover great distances in the suburban rat race. Too much to do, too little time, too great a distance to travel in the daily journey. (Too much time, too little to do, and the customer's probably buying from the TV shopping shows at home.)

A hardware store owner I know was adamant for years in refusing to open Sundays, even for a few hours. But the giant chains did, and his loyal customers found that, well, their loyalty stretched only so far when they finally had a free afternoon and needed some tools or materials.

So he reluctantly tried Sunday hours, soon hiring a trusted helper to handle the extra hours. The increased business, even from people who might have dropped in the store the day before, was steady. And the part-time helper became full time at that growing neighborhood store.

Banker's hours or mall hours, or even normal hours -- call them what you will. But stores and services are under greater pressure to stay open when the customer wants to buy, instead of saying bye-bye.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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