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One day at Wal-Mart

Book-smart gets defeated by store-smart.

The world-renowned tech writer stepped down from his Dodge caravan onto the immense parking lot. He stared up at the giant blue letters over the entrance to the superstore.

“Wal-Mart,” he thought to himself. “The technology-driven business model of the 1990s. World-class inventory management, unsurpassed EDI, distribution logistics superior to any other retail store, and a price-point advantage over poor Kmart of 11 cents on the dollar!”

He smiled to himself about all that he knew.

As he approached the entrance, the doors opened automatically for him, as if to signal the scope of his knowledge.

“Morning, sir,” said a matronly woman in her seventies, wearing the mandatory blue smock, rolling a shopping cart toward him.

“Thanks,” he demurred, “but no thanks.” He glanced about the impressive warehouse-retail space, appreciating the achievement of bar-coding and the billions it had saved consumers. Finally he located the jewelry counter and walked toward it.

“Of course,” he thought, “the model is seriously flawed. The company has enormous infrastructure costs, it has expanded as much as it is likely to expand, and competing channels like the Internet are already drawing down its customer base.

“One day,” he thought, a cruel smile playing on his chiseled features, “all this will be gone.”

He took a left at toys and stopped to scratch his head. If housewares was here, where was electronics?

He saw a sign several football fields away and walked toward it, as toward a distant light. Finally he arrived in the clocks, wallets, and sunglasses section.

“Isn’t it interesting,” he observed to himself, “that a company so skilled at optimizing its personnel would still man the watch counter with a human being?” He shook his head knowingly. “Old habits die hard!”

He stood in front of the wristwatch display. “Good, they still have the $4.93 wristwatches,” he thought. “Isn’t it amazing? They can crowd all those electronics into such a small package, make it work as reliably as a $10,000 Rolex, rubber-band it to a plastic jewelbox, hawk it for under five bucks and still make a profit.”

As was his wont, he paused to ponder Moore’s Law, which envisioned the number of transistors doubling each year (miniaturization being the key) with price remaining constant. A prescription for techno-revolution!

“Imagine how tiny wristwatches will be a decade from now,” he thought. “Drop one, you’ll never be able to find it.”

The woman working at the jewelry counter looked up at him. “Can I help you, sir?”

“Yes,” the award-winning writer said. “I’m interested in a new wristwatch, but I’m not sure what style. I was never able to open the last one I bought here.” He fished the platinum-banded watch from his pocket, still in its original package.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“I believe the clasp is damaged,” the writer said. “I was unable to open it.”

She took it from him and examined it. “Looks OK to me,” she said.

“No, you see, it’s stuck,” he said, pulling at the clasp.

She flipped the clasp open with her thumb and looked up at him.

“I was afraid if I did that it would break,” said the writer.

“No problem,” she said, handing him the watch.

“Wait,” the writer who was published in over 30 countries said. “Would you show me how it works?”

“Sure. See, this little guy fits over this tiny bar. Once it’s in place, you press down like this, and it snaps right into place.”

The writer smiled broadly, then tried doing it himself. “It’s not working,” he said, the pitch of his voice rising anxiously.

“Not like that,” she said patiently. “Here, over this bar. Do you see the bar?”

He looked at her and blinked four times, as if she had insinuated that he was some sort of idiot. “Yes, I see the bar,” he said in slightly sing-song fashion.

“Great,” she said. “Then you’re all set.”

“Yes, thank you. Thank you very much.” The writer turned to go, then returned to the counter.

“Something else I can help you with?” the woman asked him.

“Well,” he said, pulling four other watches from his jacket pocket, each with a broken clasp or a missing pin. “As a matter of fact….”

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