Tales From the Computer Store



In my year-and-a-half working at a local computer shop, the problems weren't with the customers, they were with management. This particular store was owned and operated by a family with apparently dubious interests.

But first, an introduction. (names have been changed)

- I was the RMA guy who worked in the back room. "RMA" = Return Material Authorization. It was my job to call the vendor (or original manufacturer) and ship items back for replacements or store credit.

- "Zik Zak, Inc." was our prime customer. It was a large hardware company about 45 miles away with about 1,000 employees that would place an order for about a dozen systems every week. This company single-handedly kept us alive.

- "Jack" was the finance manager -- the younger brother in The Family. He also worked for Zik Zak as their technical advisor. (As for the the rest of the family: the older brother worked at a branch office on the other side of the state, and the dad was retired.)

- "Sam" was a year older than me, and we got along pretty well. He was a used car salesman at his old job and was therefore hired here as an on-site sales rep. (His strong salesmanship skills eventually landed us a bid for 225-computers for a school district!) He was eventually promoted to in-store manager after Jack decided to create a branch office in the next city, right next to Zik Zak headquarters. When Jack moved out, Sam was made "puppet manager". He couldn't order stuff, he couldn't tell us what to do, and he could no longer leave the building to do on-site sales. He was powerless and really had no say in anything.

It was a small store, and I was the entire RMA department. Not only did I do RMA, I was Shipping & Receiving.  Other than Sam and me, we had three technicians (who were doing on-site repairs half the time, and probably have their own stories.) The techs were traveling so much that Sam and I were often the only ones left in the store. Sometimes, Sam would 'sneak out' and do a sales call, leaving me alone to answer phones and run the front register -- on top of my daily job functions. My day went like this:

9:00am - show up, unlock the door, wait for UPS
9:10am - UPS arrives with incoming purchases
9:11am - enter purchase invoices into POS database, tag inventory with price stickers
10:00am - run around the place and allocate hardware with current computer builds. Also, see what hardware & software we are still missing
10:30am - generate Shortage List -- a list of all items we still need to purchase
11:30am - email Shortage List to Jack (who is always out of town)
12:00pm - (lunch)
1:00pm - FedEx arrives with more purchases
1:01pm - enter purchases into database, tag inventory, run around and allocate hardware with builds, see what we are still missing
2:00pm - add to running Shortage List
2:30pm - get broken hardware from technicians and RMA it
5:00pm - UPS arrives to pick up RMA shipments
6:00pm - go home.

My job wasn't all that difficult. I just had to keep moving.

Problems came up because we were a small operation trying to act like a big hot-shot company. Problems came up when (god forbid) someone entered the store and actually wanted to buy something. Aside from a couple CPU fans, the front of the store was mostly empty. We didn't keep anything in stock despite the fact that we had enough space to create a three-car showroom!

Very few people actually walked through the front door (fewer than a dozen per day), and of those, maybe two placed an order. When an order was placed, one of the techs would print it and hand it to me so I could add it to the shortage list. No, the orders didn't automatically show up on the list. We didn't have anything as fancy as "a database". The shortage list was an Excel sheet where I added items by hand. If an order was placed before 11:00am, there was a better chance of us ordering the parts that day. But even that was unlikely.


walk-in customer

A college student showed up and wanted to buy a bundle: motherboard, CPU, heat sink, and case fan. Simple enough, it came out to about $350, and since we naturally didn't have any of it in the store, we estimated a week for it to arrive. On the first day, all the items were placed on the shortage list. (Oh, and he paid in advance. Big mistake.)

A week later, the fellow showed up wanting to pick up his stuff. Since I worked in the back, I didn't know what was happening until Sam came running to my room.

<Sam> I'm looking for this dude's stuff.
<Me> Let's see.. It's still on the shortage list. It hasn't even been ordered.
<Sam> The guy ordered it a week ago!
<Me> Sorry man, Jack does all the orders.

We call Jack, and he stalls on us. After stuttering a couple times, he tells us that the stuff is on backorder with one of our vendors, Infotech.  Jack tells us not to worry, he's shopping around. At this point, there's nothing else we can do, so we forward that info to the customer.

<Customer> Why didn't you tell me this last week?

At this point, Sam had only been "manager" for a couple weeks, and apparently wasn't sure what to do. He had the customer wait while he ran back to my room again:

<Sam> Dude, I gotta think of something.
<Me> What do you mean?
<Sam> Since I can't give him his order, I can't just tell him to go home. Uh.. What does a UPS tracking number look like?
<Me> (I picked a random invoice off my desk) Like this, it's that string that starts with "1Z" and so on. What are you thinking?

His used car salesman instincts were kicking in. What I saw next was an amazing feat of managerial creativity that --ah, to hell with trying to sugar-coat it: Sam made a fake tracking number and gave it to the customer! Out of sheer curiosity, I followed him to the front of the store.

<Sam> Here you go, sir. I just got off the phone with the vendor and they've already got a tracking number for your order, unfortunately they don't ship until the end of the day.
<Customer> ... uh, o.k. // (He rolled his eyes at us.)
<Sam> Since they're in California, they don't ship until 5:00pm their time, which is 7:00pm here. Then you can track it and you'll be able to know when we receive your stuff.
<Customer> Well, it's better than nothing I guess.

The customer walked out confused, but Sam stood there with a mischievous grin. He bought himself an extra day. He immediately had me call around to see if we could find those items at another vendor. ASI had only one of them, Supercom didn't have any of it, and Tech Data was already past their shipping time. This coincides with what Jack told us.

The customer came back the next day:

<Customer> That tracking number you gave me doesn't work.
<Sam> I said it wouldn't work until after they shipped it.
<Customer> No, I was trying it all night, and even checked it this morning. UPS told me it wasn't even in the system.
<Sam> I'm sorry about that. Some of our vendors don't enter the tracking numbers into the system as they ship. They do this to us too.

(The customer grew tired of our little shenanigans.)

<Customer> I'm sure they do. Look. I placed this order over a week ago. You should have known it was on backorder. You didn't tell me until I walked in, sure you give me a tracking number, but that doesn't tell me anything about when this stuff will really show up. I'm tired of waiting. I want to take my business elsewhere. I would like my money back.
<Sam> I'm sorry sir, we have a "no refund" policy. And I can assure you, we're doing our best--
<Customer> NO REFUNDS?!? This is your BEST?? I didn't get my order, therefore you shouldn't keep my money!! WHAT THE HELL??

..This was going to get worse if we didn't do something -- fast.

To add to the story, we were starting to question Jack's ability to place orders on time. Since we had to deal with the in-store customers personally, we were fully aware that Jack didn't care about anyone except Zik Zak.

Sam took it upon himself to call the original vendor, Infotech right in front of the customer. We found that yes, in fact they had all this stuff in stock! He placed the order C.O.D. (so Jack wouldn't know about it until after the fact), had it shipped overnight, and charged the customer our actual cost (with free shipping).

The customer showed up the next day, angrily picked up his order and was never seen again. We pissed him off something fierce. And yes, Jack was even more pissed. He cornered us told us to never order anything without his permission. In our attempt to please a customer, we apparently screwed up his precious financial records.

Sam also learned that he couldn't use his "used car salesman tactics" unless he was actually selling used cars.


How to return things that aren't broken (part 1)

In my area in the back room, there was a hastily-put-together shelf attached to the wall, and the techs would fill it with all the broken stuff that needed to be replaced.  The job would have been really easy to do if we kept track of individual serial numbers.  Due to the nature of our point-of-sale system, we had a vague idea where specific items came from, at best.

It was after 3:00pm, so I was knee-deep in RMAing stuff.  I had the usual: a half-dozen Creative Labs sound cards, a couple Western Digital hard drives, but Jack surprised me with something.  Not only was it surprising that Jack was in the building, but he had the first USB network adapter I had ever seen.  He brought it back from Zik Zak saying it was busted.  This was odd because I don't remember receiving one into inventory.  It must have been delivered to a branch office.  Nevertheless, it was my job to get it fixed.

Since I couldn't send it back to a vendor, I had to send it back to the manufacturer -- 3Com.

<Me> Hello, I've got one of your USB network adapters that's busted, and I need a replacement.
<3Com> Okay sir, what error code did you get with the diagnostic software?
<Me> Uhh.. The technician didn't give me one. // (this is gonna be a quick phone call.)
<3Com> I'm sorry, but without an error code, I cannot accept it for an RMA.  Besides, we've only had these in production for three weeks.  This is the first defective one we've heard about.
<Me> Okay, I'll call you back.

I told Jack what they said, and his favorite phrase for things like that was:

<Jack> "Well, that's unacceptable."
<Jack> Um, uh.. just tell them it can't connect to a Novell tree.

That diagnosis came straight out of thin air. I went back on the phone:

<Me> Yeah, it's me again, they said it couldn't connect to a Novell tree.
<3Com> Like I said, we cannot accept this without an error code. Do you have the means to troubleshoot it for us?
<Me> I'm the RMA guy, not a technician. I have a computer in front of me, but--

Jack overheard my conversation and decided to intervene.  He had me transfer the call to his office, and he disappeared for a while. A few minutes later, he came back with a post-it note containing the 3Com shipping address and an RMA number. That's all I needed, so I balled the thing up in some pink bubble wrap we had sitting around, and sent it on its merry way!

Two weeks later, I get the box back. When I open it, there's a ball of pink bubble wrap with a 3Com network adapter inside -- they didn't even open it!

The next time I saw Jack, I gave it to him, told him "it's fixed!", and never saw it again! :)


How to return things that aren't broken (part 2)

Here's another item I had never seen before: The AMI MegaRAID SCSI adapter, and it was sitting on my desk with a post-it with Jack's handwriting on it: "get store credit from Synnex".  In other words, we needed to get our money back.  Like the 3Com USB network adapter, I never received it at this store either, but I did have contact info for Synnex:

<Me> Hello, I have an AMI MegaRAID card, and I need to return it for store credit.
<Synnex> That's fine, serial number please.
<Me> Serial number - blahblah.
<Synnex> Great! Here's your RMA number!
<Me> Awesome! I'll send it out today!

That's Synnex! No BS, they get right to the point!

About three weeks later, I encountered another AMI MegaRAID SCSI card on my desk. It had another post-it with a very similar message as before. (Yes, we were very proud of the efficient post-it communication system we developed over the years!)  Time to call Synnex again:

<Me> Hello, I have another AMI MegaRAID card, and I need store credit again.
<Synnex> Yeah, I remember you. Serial number please.
<Me> The serial number is blahblahblah.
<Synnex> Here's your RMA number!
<Me> Thank you very much!

Pretty smooth.  That is until a couple weeks later, I encountered yet a *third* AMI MegaRAID SCSI card on my desk -- post-it note and everything!  Something was up, but I wasn't about to question it.

 <Me> Hello, Synnex? I have an AMI MegaRAID card to send in for store credit.

there was a pause...

<Synnex> *sigh* Off the record, can I ask you a question?
<Me> Sure.
<Synnex> Uh, just what the hell are you guys trying to pull?
<Me> ...
<Synnex> Well, you guys have returned all six AMI MegaRAID cards you've bought from us, and this would make the seventh.

(Six?? I've done two.. Well, thank god such efficient communication lines are kept open between all our branch offices or we'd never get anything done!)

<Me> Well, they gave me--
<Synnex> The problem is you're out of serial numbers. You couldn't have bought this one from us.

(Ruh-roh! What was I gonna do?)

<Me> Okay, I'll spread the word.
<Synnex> Yeah, you do that.

Hrm.  What to do, what to do.  I know, I'll call Jack!

<Me> Synnex won't accept that AMI RAID card you left for me.
<Jack> WHAT??
<Me> Yeah, they looked up the serial number and said we didn't buy it from them. Is there any other place we've been buying these from?
<Jack> No, that's unacceptable. Tell them they have to take it.
<Me> alright.

They're not gonna take it, and we all know it. Oh well, I call them back -- but this time I was going to be clever:

<Me> Yo, Synnex, it's me.
<Synnex> Oh, don't tell me..
<Me> No, you need to talk to Jack, his phone number is--
<Synnex> I know, he's been talking to me all morning.. // (Uh oh!)
<Synnex> ..and I told him the same thing I told you. NO.

I don't remember what we finally did with that thing.  I think we sold it on eBay.  That doesn't matter though.  Whether it was a customer or a vendor, we were getting good at pissing people off, and I was in the middle of it all.


$25,000 after 3pm

It was about 4:30pm on a normal day, nothing big was going on. The pizza bagel I got from a shop across the street was acting up, and it felt like my innards were playing rugby. Other than that, the day was pretty uneventful. That is, until I got a call from Jack.

<Jack> You're left-handed, aren't you?
<Me> Yeah, why?
<Jack> Well.. uhh. Get the Bank2 checkbook out, and tell me what the next number is.
<Me> check 4287.
<Jack> Okay, look in the front pouch for a check that I already used.
<Me> Yeah, I got a random one here.
<Jack> Okay, take that used check and practice my signature.
<Me> uhh.. okay.
<Jack> Well, I'm real busy here and can't come in. // (what else is new?) // So I'm gonna need you to sign that check with my name, write it out for $25,000 and deliver it to the bank across the street (Bank1).
<Me> oh. alright then.

For those of you who have never received a phone call like that, let me tell you, it's pretty weird.

On a scrap sheet of paper, I practiced his name for about five minutes, then filled out the check.  I was about to leave when the phone rang again. It was Jack.

<Jack> got the check ready?
<Me> Yeah, I was about to leave.
<Jack> I'm gonna need you to ask them to put it on today's books. Make sure they do that.
<Me> Well, it's after three o'clock.
<Jack> It doesn't matter. TELL them to put it on today's books. It's important.

With beautifully forged check in hand, it was a sunny day out on main street. There were a couple birds singing in the trees, there was some light traffic in the street. Nothing to worry about -- except this check did not really have my boss's signature on it, it was after three, and I'm out here with full intent to commit fraud! Joy!

I got to the bank, it was a big place but fairly empty. There was one teller, and she was helping some guy wrap up a transaction. I spent my time in line chuckling to myself at the beautifully ornate lettering stamped into the brass sign next to the teller window that said "All transactions made after 3:00pm will be posted on the next business day". A second later, it was my turn:

<Me> Hello, I'm from the computer place across the street and my boss sent me over here to deposit it and *make sure* it goes on today's books.
<Without even looking at the check, she shrugged and gave this most pitiful look> I'm sorry sir. I can deposit it, but I can't put it on today's books.
<Me> Is there anyone else I can talk to?
<She shook her head and looked like she was doing her best imitation of Meg Ryan about to cry> No. That's just the way the bank works. I'm really sorry.
<Me> It's no problem, really. I'll just run back over there and tell them what happened.
<She didn't give up> I'm really really sorry!
<Me> No, it's really no problem. Thanks though!

(I dunno, she was a little *too* nice.)

I went back and called Jack.

<Me> It's after three, they won't take it.
<Jack> Did you yell at them?
<Me> hrmph. uh, no.
<Jack> go back and yell at them.
<Me> what?
<Jack> go! back! and! yell! at! them! We gotta get this in there TODAY.
<Me> *silence* (thinking: Well, Mr. fancy-pants Finance Manager, I wouldn't have to do this if you didn't screw up the damn books in the first place!! HA HA!!)
<Jack> Well, go talk to someone else.
<Me> There was only one teller.
<Jack> Walk through the drive-thru.
<Me> alright.

It was nearing 5:00pm, and the bank was everything but closed. I walked up to the drive thru, and my indigestion started coming back.

<Me> yeah, I need this put on today's books.
<drive-thru> weren't you just here?

I looked up, and it was THE SAME WOMAN AS BEFORE. Except now she had a different attitude.

<drive-thru> Sir, we cannot put it on today's books. The bank does not operate that way.
<Me> fine. alright. fine.

My indigestion was in no mood to argue.

I went back to work, waited until a couple minutes after 5:00pm, and then called Jack,

<Me> Sorry, man. They were closed when I got there.
<Jack> *sigh* [CLICK]

I told everyone in the store what happened, and got the biggest group-laugh I had ever heard! Then panic set in. "We might not have a store to come back to tomorrow!" "We'll be out of a job!"

To this day, no one knows what happened behind the scenes, but the store was still there the next day! We kept on working and added that to our mental list of "the things that make this place work".


ATI All in Wonder Rage 128 Pro 32MB

On some fluke event, I showed up on a Saturday. I didn't work Saturdays, but Sam was working alone, so I stopped by to hang out. (Well, since he was a puppet manager with no real duties to speak of, he leeched off the store's high-speed internet to play Everquest.)

We were chatting it up for about 20 minutes, and then a lady in her mid-30s showed up. She could have been a high-school teacher.

She claimed to be working on a video project and wanted to get a fancy card -- the ATI All in Wonder Rage 128 Pro 32MB. In order to prevent what happened last time, I checked with one of our vendors before she placed the order. I found that Ingram Micro had 560 of them in their Dallas warehouse, and could get one of them to us in two business days -- place the order Monday, get it Wednesday, she was fine with that. She paid for it, thanked us, and said she'd be back in a few days.

I was still enrolled in school at the time, so I only worked Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I only had three days of the week to watch these events unfold.

On Monday, I did the usual -- added the item to the shortage list (and put the vendor's part number in parenthesis right next to it, in an attempt to expedite the process).

On Tuesday, I went to class, and imagined that video card bouncing around in the back of a UPS truck.

On Wednesday, I received the usual UPS shipment. I probably had 15 or so boxes to slice open, and a roomful of packing peanuts to dig through -- I was anxiously looking for that card. We had floppy drives, CDROM drives, hard drives, net cards, sound cards, crappy video cards, but no "ATI All in Wonder Rage 128 Pro 32MB". Oh, damn.

I called Jack and asked him why it wasn't here.

<His response> Ingram was out of stock.
<Me> WHAT? How the-- It can't be out of stock! I checked with them, and they said they had 560 of them in Dallas!
<Jack> Well, you probably gave me the wrong vendor number. What was it again?
<Me> (I double-checked with their website) "628906", the same one that's on the shortage list.
<Jack> Oh.. ok. When does the customer need--
<Me> TOMORROW. I'll call her now.
<Jack> *click*

I called the lady and gave her the bad news. Surprisingly, she wasn't all that disappointed! She actually needed the card on Thursday because her project was due Friday morning. This was a relief -- the card would show up Thursday, I wouldn't be here to receive it, so I wouldn't have to worry about it ever again. Great.

On Thursday, I went to class, and imagined the woman getting the video card and happily getting her project done.

On Friday, I again had a morning full of UPS boxes. I lazily went through them knowing there weren't any high-priority items here-- uh, wait a minute. I saw a box. It said "ATI All in Wonder Rage 128 Pro 32MB". Curious. I grabbed it, took it to Sam (who was kickin-back with his feet up on the table, relaxing, playing some Everquest), and asked:

<Me> Hey man, what's this? Did we order two of them?
<He barely glanced over trying not to miss any of his game> Nope.
<Me> So..
<Sam> (without even looking at me, he mumbled) Yep. She was pretty pissed yesterday. She ain't coming back either.
<Me> *sigh* Well, crap. I guess I'll just RMA it and get our money back.
<Sam> Yep.
<Me> ... Yep.
<Sam> Yep ..uh-oh, I'm getting shot at.



Two months later, I quit. I was tired of making everybody mad. I created a three-page letter of resignation that told The Family exactly what kind of store they were running.

Unrelated to my resignation, they lost the Zik Zak account the very next month, and profits went to hell. Within a couple more months, Sam quit and took all the techs with him. The store closed the very next day.

This was one of the victims of the dot com crash.

(I'm sure I've got more stories. I'll add them as I think of them.)