Drug Stores, Fast Food Joints, and the Brave New Business Model

Brian M Downing

There used to be a Peoples Drug Store a few blocks from where I grew up in Maryland.  My witty father used to say that the store sounded like it was in downtown Moscow.  He said the same thing about State Farm Insurance – surely an offshoot of Stalin’s collectivization program.  Enough on dad’s humor.  This is about the old business model, the new one, and an important part of how we got in the economic mess we’re in.

I used to remember the name of the manager of the Peoples at Colesville and University.  He’d been there so long he was part of the shopping center, like Michael the jeweler or Larry the five & ten moghul, and his name was engraved, next to a pestle and mortar, on a plate in the front window.  But the file containing his name has been deleted from my brain drive.  He was an older man, sixty or so, and he conveyed expertise and commanded respect.  Twenty-five years or more as a pharmacist taking care of the people in the neighborhood did that.  

Many of his employees had worked there a long time, too.  He’d seen to that.  Full-time work, benefits, and good management will get you loyal employees, continuity, and happy customers.  Of course, there were some part-timers.  High school kids saved dough for college or for a Holley 780 for their car.  But there were more full-timers than part-timers at Peoples.

Something happened over the years.  Years are like that.  Things just seem to happen over them.

Managers of drug stores don’t usually have backgrounds in pharmacology anymore.  They’re a lot younger than that guy at Peoples, too.  They supervise shelf-stocking, handle truckloads of grief from customers, and hire and fire the part-timers who come and go like GIs at a replacement depot.  Many stock shelves themselves now and then.  A lot are part-timers.  

The staff get a buck or two above minimum wage.  Their benefits are meager, and their dissatisfaction with the workplace manifest.  Most push on in a few months, if they can.  Others have too many bills to worry about self-actualization stuff.  Maslow lived in a different time.  Part-time work, paltry benefits, and impersonal management get you disloyal employees, discontinuity in personnel, and dissatisfied customers.  The process has been going on in large swaths of the economy for several decades now.  Just about everything: department stores, law firms, HMOs, banks, restaurants, hotels, airlines, brokerage houses. . . .  

It didn’t just come about on its own.  Darwin didn’t observe the process among the various species out on the Galapagos.  It isn’t in the Constitution or the Bible.  It comes from a higher authority, the one that guides the coarse yet manicured hands in the glass towers today, the one that says grab with both fists.  The reigning business model – pioneered by McDonald’s in the sixties – calls for reducing managerial skill, hiring as many part-timers as possible, cutting prole pay and bennies as much as you legally can, and insisting that everyone smile.  That brings in more to upper management.  And as for the proles . . . well, market forces will take care of them.  They always do, don’t they?

No, they don’t.  Middle management and workers have been degraded such that the economy doesn’t have the domestic demand to hold itself up.  The economy has been on life support through repeated refinances and credit cards, but the plug was pulled on those options last year.  It isn’t clear if policy makers even recognize this yet.

So that’s it.  We have a new business model and an economy run like a giant fast-food joint, and we’ve recently learned that it’s been run by clowns and burglars.  Man, we deserve a break today.  I wonder if that Peoples at Colesville and University still has a lunch counter. 

~ ©2009 Brian M. Downing