In Praise of Business

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All week I’ve been receiving emails from the companies I do business with, telling me what they are doing to keep customers safe during the coronavirus scare. My airline companies have waived cancellation and change fees to help me navigate my changing travel plans. When Royal Caribbean was forced to cancel a cruise I was set to take next week, they not only waived the cancellation fee, they offered me a 125% credit if I would reschedule my trip and sail with them sometime before December 2021. Numerous online teaching resources have offered links to their study guides for harried parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling — and they aren’t charging a fee for the service. Distilleries began making hand sanitizer from their castoff alcohol. Meanwhile, my local grocery store has had all hands on deck for the past two weeks, continually restocking the shelves and checking customers through the lines as quickly as possible without a break. And still they offer to help me to my car. With a smile.

As the crisis has deepened, restaurants have stepped in to help. Chick-fil-A has delivered mountains of hot meals to hospital workers — for free. Whataburger, headquartered in Texas, has delivered food to exhausted employees at H-E-B grocery stores — for free. And Jimmy John's sandwich shops have vowed to provide meals for at-risk kids during the school closures — for free. Amazon has stepped up its delivery service, hiring over 100,000 new employees so that valued customers can receive needed goods — including food — at our own homes. Not for free, but at their normal prices.

No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free.

There is nothing like American business. This is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about “the invisible hand” of the marketplace. No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free. In fact, government told private labs to stand down when they were ready to develop and distribute test kits. Yet there they are, anticipating needs, increasing their orders, doubling their staffs, and limiting the sales of certain items (hand sanitizers, toilet paper) through an appeal to good will rather than strict rationing. I shudder to think how all of this will change if our mayors decide to get in on the act and commandeer the stores.

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over. The educational companies such as National Scholastic who give their resources for free today are likely to have new customers tomorrow. And the CEO of Albertsons will go to bed with a satisfied smile, knowing that because he doubled and redoubled the efforts of his employees, you and I will have enough nonperishables to last through a quarantine — and even enough toilet paper. (Although that seemed doubtful two weeks ago, Georgia Pacific has ramped up its factories to keep up with demand.)

Meanwhile, I am concerned about the performers and amateur athletes and musicians and artists and event organizers whose livelihoods are already a bit tenuous. Competition for a gig is always so stiff, and one’s shelf life, especially for athletes, is so brief. Can they survive a season of cancellations? Will performing arts theaters bounce back, or do they face bankruptcy from the forced closings?

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over.

I’m even more concerned about the barbers, restaurant workers, amusement park attendants, and other modest earners who are out of work right now — will they be able to pay the rent and other bills?

Over the weekend I saw businesses adjusting to the new social distancing. Retailers were scrubbing their surfaces and spraying their keypads after every customer, and greeters were slowing anxious shoppers as they entered the store. My favorite restaurant took out half its tables in order to keep diners at least six feet away from one another, and they were encouraging take-out rather than dine-in. Movie theaters were selling only 50 tickets per screening so patrons could have at least two seats between them.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust. Universal, for example, has decided to release its new films each week on streaming platforms so they can be viewed at home (great for us, though not so great for the cineplex). Dine-in restaurants are creating pickup lines (great for us, though not so great for the wait staff). Others will innovate as well.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust

As you go forward through these difficult times, consider not requesting a refund for the tickets you’ve purchased to shows, games, and other events that have been canceled. Help the theaters and venues stay alive by accepting a credit for a future event, or letting them keep the money altogether. Leave a tip in the pickup line and ask that it be donated to the wait staff who have been laid off. Offer to help your neighbors who suddenly have children at home during the day with no babysitter and a job they need to keep. Thank the retail workers for being at their jobs during these extra-hectic days.

Be calm. Be patient. Wash your hands. And don’t take the last roll of toilet paper.




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Comments

Bruce Ramsey

A timely post. I have thanked several of the people in retail stores, and they obviously appreciate it. By their reaction, I think they must have taken a lot of abuse from pushy customers who didn't get as many dozens of rolls of toilet paper as they imagined they were entitled to. And the people in the retail stores are out among the public, exposed to a much greater risk than those of us with the luxury of a self-quarantine. Their risk is not quite at the level of the "first responders," but it is up there, and they get few thanks. Good for you, Jo Ann, for writing this.

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