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The In-Person Experience (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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During the economic meltdown that came to be known as the Great Recession, the usual flood of job-change announcements — new hires and promotions — with which we populate our “Movers & Shakers” column slowed to a trickle. Some weeks we could fill only a half-page; some weeks we skipped it entirely.

I told Michael Pakko, the resident economist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, that the queue of Movers & Shakers items could be a local economic indicator.

These days, we’ve got plenty of material and we only fail to run Movers & Shakers when our page count doesn’t allow. In fact, I’m starting to think that there should be even more hiring going on.

For instance, my husband and I went to the Regal theater inside McCain Mall in North Little Rock for a weekday matinee during the week after Christmas. We weren’t the only people who had that idea, since school was out and many other workers were on break. The line to get tickets was eternal — we actually missed some of the 20-plus minutes of trailers and commercials that must be endured before any feature film these days — because only one of four registers in the box office was manned. (Yes, there’s a self-service kiosk inside, but, for some diabolical reason, it does not accept gift cards issued by the self-same theater chain.)

I complained gently to the young man selling tickets as fast as he could. “Can’t they get you some help?” I asked. He smiled wanly. “You’d have to talk to the manager about that.”

I didn’t seek out the manager, but while waiting for “Fences” to finally start, I opened Facebook on my phone, went to the theater’s page and complained. “Plan to stand in a long, slow line or maybe go elsewhere,” I wrote. (Slowly. My son once said, “Mom, watching you text hurts my heart.”)

Two hours later, when we walked out, the line still (or again) stretched out interminably and the same overwhelmed young man was still all alone in the box office. How many customers have to decide to go elsewhere before it is worth scheduling more help during what is a predictably busy week for moviegoers? I’d be surprised if a ticket-seller is paid much more per hour than the price of one ticket to a first-run movie — which is as much as it costs to subscribe to Netflix for a month.

I mentioned the frustrating wait to buy movie tickets to my co-workers after we came back to work, and it seemed like everyone had a similar story of being irritated by how long it took to give a retailer their money. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why didn’t I just order this from Amazon?’” one co-worker said.

My first reaction, then, is the simple one: Just hire some more people, whydoncha? Or at least do a better job of scheduling workers when business will be predictably brisk.

But if the answer were that simple, people whose livelihoods depend on retail sales could have figured that out. It has to be at least as complicated for brick-and-mortar retailers to keep up with their 24/7/365 online competitors as it is for those of us who are buying paper and ink to compete with the online-only news organizations.

(Cheer up, retailers. At least online retailers have to pay for the merchandise they resell. Some of my competitors just make it up out of thin air.)

The headlines about Macy’s and Sears closing stores and The Limited shutting down completely make perfect sense. Dillard’s has been struggling with same-store sales. Wal-Mart, Kroger and others are trying to thread the needle by allowing customers to order online and pick up in person.

I practically grew up inside McCain Mall, starting as a pubescent mall rat because my friends and I actually had to be at the same place to be social. Then I had after-school jobs there, first at Kempner’s, where women with more money than my mother bought lovely clothes and shoes, then for Tony Rand’s two-screen theater, where people would actually buy tickets to watch “Star Wars” over and over.

That was four decades ago. Twenty years ago, when online shopping was new, I assumed that was the way we would buy wonderful things that weren’t readily available locally. I also assumed that the internet was where we would get news from far-away places, not local. Clearly, my assumptions are always wrong about pretty much everything.

But there is this: When Denzel Washington was up on the big screen, I completely forgot how irritating it was to wait in line and to watch all those trailers.

Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.
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