Whenever I travel to places like the USA or England, I’m often struck by how things that are done in Jamaica are also replicated in these so-called ‘developed’ economies.

I’m staying with some economist friends, and spent the afternoon with another retired economist friend. As we walked around some stores in a mall, I couldn’t help but notice something that often strikes me: most of the people working in those places barely know what they are doing. You doubt me? Let me give some instances.

I was in JC Penney, and the store assistant was a lovely older woman from central America. My friend is Spanish, so we got into a nice bilingual conversation. It also turned out that the lady knew some Russian, as do I, and we added that to the mix. But, she did not operate well the computerized cash register. She needed to key in my personal details to sign me up for a credit card. I was surprised when she said “You come and do it, I have trouble with keyboards.” So, there I was, on the other side of the counter, typing in my information. Would I get a discount for that, I wondered. We got it completed, while another customer came along, and looked a little puzzled. All done, I was good to go and got my extra 20 percent discount. Happy.

We then went to look for other items in the store, found them quickly and then moved onto Macy’s.

I was checking some shoes. No assistant was working in that area. Another pair of assistants nearby called for a colleague to come to help me; she had been ‘talking to a compatriot friend’ it seemed. Sounds familiar? Anyway, we went to the counter and she asked me what I needed. I’d checked out Sketcher walking shoes online and see what I wanted and that this store was supposed to have it in stock. I mentioned the brand; she asked me to repeat; I did. She then went to her register/computer, and pulled up images of women’s shoes. Now, I do not look as handsome as Idris Alba, but I also do not look like Rihanna. Did she not notice that I was a man, or was she just thinking that any old shoes would do? I pointed out her problem. She moved to find the section with images of mens’ shoes. We scoured the styles and found what I wanted. No joy, not in stock at this store. So much for the online check and integrated inventories.

My friend and I discussed this, while we were in the car headed to Costco. We decided that what was happening was that wages were too low. Employers wanted staff to do certain functions that were not that complex, but required some intelligence and some personal interaction. But, they did not want to pay much for this, especially for activities where the flow of sales was not really that high. They wanted glorified ‘stall minders’. So, they get a bunch of literate but not very competent people, who are happy to take the lower wages and do a modicum of what is needed for it. They sell, if they can, and go home.

Costco works differently, not least at the ‘business end’, the cash register. Our cashier was proud of the fact that she could ring up charges and pass her line of customers through quickly. The wholesale nature of its selling means that volumes are higher and sales larger than at places like department stores, and people are there shopping for ‘bargains’. They want to snag their wares and get out fast. The store layouts are broadly the same and only a few staff are there to help with queries: most are stocking and restocking shelves, taking sales, and dealing with membership queries and merchandise returns. None of that is supposed to take long and turn people off from coming back. It works. It went in looking for a pack of razors, and came out with a pair of shoes, a bag of trail mix, two pairs of jeans and a shirt. All needed, and all available at great prices. My friend got excited because he lives in Maryland, where you cannot buy liquor in grocery stores, and Costco have a huge selection–a dozen bottles for ‘everyday drinking’, he told me.

Then, there is the US entrepreneurship. There was a snow storm last night. A man rings my friend’s doorbell @ 6am. I don’t answer but look to see who it is. I see a guy in a hoodie and a heavy jacket; he’s Caucasian; he stands there. He goes away. Minutes later, he’s back, and rings again. This time my friend goes to the door and I hear discussions about “How much? Too Much. I’ll pay $xxx. It’ll take 4 hours. OK.” The man was offering to clear snow.


Have shovel, will clear snow

Talk about supply and demand.

But, Jamaica is not much different, and yet we are a struggling barely functioning economy. We’ve our men with weed whackers, looking for grass to cut. We have our sales ‘assistants’, happily engaging is side conversations, not knowing the merchandise, and paying little attention to customers. We have our barely functioning sales staff, who seem to be unable to manage the not-too-difficult new technology. We have Mega Mart and PriceSmart, who are clones of Costco, and operate with similar style.

What else is going on? Why have we lagged and the US flourished?