I took Vivian, who’s six, to Supercuts on St. Marks Place today to get her bangs trimmed, and the cashier was having technical difficulties. We had around a 15 minute wait, and every time a client came in, she spent what seemed like seven minutes explaining apologetically that while they could pay by credit card, because her computer was down, she’d have to “dial it in, old school,” and that it might take quite a while.
She meant, of course, that she’d have to punch in the 10-digit telephone number of the credit card company into the phone, verbally give the operator her merchant number and the amount of the sale, and then get an authorization code. After that, she’d have to pick up a pen and hand write it in on a credit card slip–pressing extra hard to make sure the all copies of the credit card slip showed the number. That’s it! She warned all comers that it might take quite some time, “running it through, like back in the ’80s,” and that it might be better if they went out to an ATM and got cash. It took her far longer to explain the process than it would have taken to simply complete the transaction.
I know this because I am antique enough to have worked in retail before there were computers, or at least before they were in wide use. In high school and some of college, I worked at The Athlete’s Foot, a sneaker franchise that at the time had several locations in Manhattan. My store was on 62nd and Broadway, next to what is now Lincoln Square Cinemas, and it employed a dozen or so of my high school classmates at minimum wage ($3.35/hr) plus a killer employee discount: sneakers at cost. I sold David Lee Roth Nike running shoes. He pronates.
In any event, every time a customer paid by credit card, we’d zip it through the hand-held imprinter (ca-chunk!), call it in, bag up the sneakers and after giving him or her the receipt, we’d tear up the carbon paper, because there had been a rash of bad guys going through the trash, stealing carbons and charging away on people’s credit cards.
Nowadays, what with identity theft and all, credit card fraud committed by stealing carbons from the trash and calling in orders to the Tweeds catalog seems positively quaint. But I have to say, having to dial in a credit card was hardly a hardship. We weren’t trading in livestock or sending smoke signals to the credit card company for charge authorization. It wasn’t even a rotary phone! We made a phone call, everyone waited patiently the minute or two it took to transact the sale, and the customer walked out with his shell top Adidas with the funky fresh fat laces, her Reebok Freestyles to wear with scrunched down socks, or his original red and black Air Jordans. I mean, sure, it was a long time ago, but really, from a customer experience point of view, buying stuff is not that terribly different.
I know I should have kept my mouth shut, but when has that happened? As Vivian was being given her layered Grace Slick ’80s rocker do (that’s what she wanted), and the cashier launched into her fifth apologetic explanation about the credit card issue (to a guy with self-consciously hip ’70s nerd glasses, peg leg jeans and a Starsky and Hutch cop mustache) I said, “You know, I worked in retail in the ’80s. It doesn’t actually take that long to run a credit card.”
What did I really think I was going to accomplish with that comment? Did I think they were going to admire my relative longevity and sales wisdom gained through years of experience? Were they going to ask me with awe and disbelief and respect how we ever managed to conduct business under such primitive circumstances? I guess a part of me wanted to assert to all present that the ’80s just weren’t THAT long ago, and that, by implied extension, I wasn’t that old. No one was saying I was, mind you–it’s just that her repeated caveats about the ordeal of calling in a credit card made me feel that way. That, and the fact that my daughter is doing the retro ’80s hair thing. Did I mention that she’s only six? She and her sister “heart” the Bangles.
There was a beat or two when no one said anything. I managed to control myself from babbling on into the conversational void. Then both haircutters said they were (ha ha!) born in the ’80s (they didn’t seem that young, and you know what? They weren’t) so, well, you know, they’ve never really had to do it. I just nodded, paid with cash, and Vivian and I left to get lunch at Veselka, the Ukranian coffee shop I’ve been eating since the ’80s.
Of course, they didn’t take credit cards back then, not that I had any.
Photo from Merchantcircle.com