"Might've been the losing side, still not convinced it was the wrong one"-Capt. Mal Reynolds. To learn more about me and the blog, read here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What The TSA Could Learn From My Time With Blockbuster

My first job was video store clerk. Seen the movie "Clerks"? That was me. The tagline, "Just because they serve you doesn't mean they like you" is truer than you ever want to know. Anyhow, my first job as a video store clerk was for my mom at the store she managed, Picture Show Video in Pearland,TX. Then I moved onto another store and then to Blockbuster. You might ask why I kept taking video store clerking jobs in the 90's with the good economy and I'll tell you it was because I LOVED it. It was awesome. My favorite part, outside the movies themselves, was the customers.

See, whereas most of my co-workers hated customers, I loved them. I would learn their likes and dislikes and about their families. I'd learn if they had small kids or were single. I'd learn all about them. When they would come in I could recommend movies to them really well. I took pride in my customer service. In fact I was so good at this that when I moved from one video store to the next in that small town I actually took customers with me, even without mentioning it to the customers. I would show up working and over the next week or so customers would be a the new place opening accounts because I was there. I'm not kidding.

Eventually though Blockbuster came to Pearland and it became harder and harder for other stores to exist. No matter how loyal my customers were it seemed the allure of Blockbuster was too much. It was a horrible thing in retrospect. People allowed their love of shiny new things to get in the way of supporting locally owned businesses but that's a post for another time.

Anyhow, so I worked for Blockbuster for about a year and I have to say it was the second worst job I ever had. Why? Blockbuster continuously called for removing yourself away from the customer. When I was in my first meeting with the District Manager he told us "Customers are cattle. Get them in, get them something rented and get them out!". No customer service here! No siree! This would eventually bite Blockbuster in it's collective ass because once Netflix came along, it had nothing to discern itself in the marketplace from Netflix. After all, if human interaction was not a priority and it was just to get movies into customers' hands in exchange for money, then Netflix did it better and more efficiently. It also cost Blockbuster money in the short term.

A note first, in case you haven't been in a Blockbuster in a long time. Employees are told never to leave the counter except to put movies back on the shelf or go to the bathroom. They are told to always say "Welcome To Blockbuster!" the moment a customer comes in but that's about the most interaction with a customer Blockbuster wanted it's employees to have until we were taking your money Also, I don't know if you remember but all Blockbusters were/are designed the same. They have the checkout by the door and clear across the store at the very back is the New Release wall.

A few months after joining Blockbuster word came that Blockbuster stores in the Houston area were being hit by shoplifters. These two particular shoplifters had a particular MO. We know there were two, because one drove the getaway car but no one ever saw them. The other one people saw because he was pretty suspicious to begin with. They did it like so.

Driver stays in car while Bagman goes in to the Blockbuster with a duffel bag(thus his name, Bagman. I'm clever!). Bagman walks in, gets his robotic "Welcome to Blockbuster!" and goes straight to the New Release wall. He hangs there for a moment to be sure no one is looking and then he starts throwing putting movies in his bag and when it's full he runs out the door.

When this started happening one of the very first questions was "What does Bagman look like?" and NO ONE knew. No one could give a description. True story. When the District Manager(DM) visited the store I worked at in the days following this bit of news I asked him why no one knew what this guy looked like, though I could guess. And the DM looked at me strangely like I had just suggested we all play naked ping-pong in the parking lot. He didn't have an answer. I immediately did.

"I can tell you how to stop them and it won't cost you anything." I said, probably more smugly than I should.

"How's that?" the DM, at least 5 years younger than I asked snarkly.

"Well, has anyone talked to him? It's simple. Let clerks walk the floor. Talk to people. Customers. The only reason the thieves are getting away with this is because no one talks to them."

"No. That's too dangerous. He could have a gun!" said DM, alarmed someone might interfere with the delicate balance of keeping customer and clerk separated I suppose.

"He doesn't have a gun."

"You don't know that."

"Yes I do." I said, "If you have a gun and there is only you and two clerks in the store, are you going to grab movies or money? You go for the cash register if you have a gun. These guys are counting on the lack of customer interaction that's encouraged here to do half their job for them. Get out there walk the floor and they move on. They're looking for easy prey." Of course they followed my advice immediately and the crooks were apprehended two days later. Except they didn't and it took another two weeks to catch the Bagman by accident.

The argument against what I'm suggesting here is normally that our airport system is so much bigger than say, the Israelis, that it makes this impossible but we need jobs in this country and frankly it takes no special talent to talk to people. Ask them their name and what job they have. Ask them if they're going to visit family for the holidays. It takes all of a few seconds. All you have to do is hire and train the people to do it.

The TSA currently gets lots of flack for pat-downs and porno-scanners but the truth is that not only is it an invasion of privacy it's not working. It doesn't protect against most terrorist plots and is costing BILLIONS of dollars. Why not put a few thousand people to work asking questions? An example scenario:

You're in line at the airport. A friendly TSA agent comes up and says "Hi, I've just gotta ask a few routine questions, ok? May I see your driver's license or I.D. card?" While you're handing it to him he asks "Where are you going today?" and you answer as he looks at the card and back at you. "What kind of work do you do?" and as you answer he looks at you and at the passengers in line around you two. He hands your card back after taking notes "Have a great flight" and moves on to the person behind you and starts the process over.

Now, you're not a terrorist or anything and thus the TSA agent sees nothing suspicious about you. You move on. The next person doesn't either but the person 4 people down from you has started shifting on his feet and acting a tad more nervous than he should be. The TSA agent notices and then also when he gets to him notices the agitated guy has some problems making eye contact and such. He's then politely asked to step into this other area where he is questioned further and possibly even frisked.

Now in that scenario 3 people only got held up for a total of maybe 30 seconds each and moved on and a very real potential threat was caught. Easy, right? Well maybe not a silver bullet but it's got to be better than what we're doing now. Now we're allowing the Bagmen to get all the movies they want because we won't engage.

And let's be honest if the guy has a bomb on him already he's much more likely to blow himself up there in line anyway. It does the same thing and is easier. If you have a gun you go for the cash register, remember?

Email me mnorton1972@gmail.com
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Have a Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it. There will be a musical post and maybe a comment or two tomorrow.


  1. Loved this. A little human contact can go a long way.

    I actually took the TSA test four years ago but didn't accept the position because these people work "split shifts" - something I didn't think I could commit to with my lack of reliable transportation. I regretted it at the time but now I'm happy with my decision. Enjoy your holiday.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting! I hope you have a good job now! You have a great holiday too.