From the Magazine: Shopping Smarter (Thanks to Zeynep Ton)

November 7, 2013 at 4:56 pm 2 comments

I always say that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a talk show host. Which is why I love those moments when I’m interviewing someone for a story and learn something so fascinating that I just want to look into the imaginary audience and say something Oprah-esque—“THIS IS BIG, PEOPLE!”

I had a lot of those moments when I talked to Zeynep Ton ’96, an operations management professor at MIT. At first glance, Ton’s research didn’t seem all that…hmm, how can I put this delicately? Accessible. At least not to the average reader, who, like me, isn’t familiar with supply chain management or the logistics behind retail stores. But boy, was I wrong.

Zeynep Ton in the classroom.

Zeynep Ton in the classroom.

Ton’s research is about people. And even more relatable to yours truly, it’s about shopping. “Everyone shops,” she told me. Which means that we all make decisions about which companies we support. Some stores pay meager wages, over-schedule employees, offer little to no health benefits, and expect employees to be machines, with no concern for their happiness or well-being. Because Ton got to know some of these employees personally while researching her book, The Good Jobs Strategy, she got emotional when telling me the stories of men and women who are really struggling. Needless to say, it made an impact. And I hope after reading “Labor Pains,” in our Nov./Dec. issue, you feel a little of that emotion, too.

Through my interviews with Zeynep, I had a few lightbulb moments that didn’t make it into the final story—but still pop into my head every time I shop. Here’s a quick breakdown:

You get what you pay for. And that includes the shopping experience. Say you need toilet paper. Here’s the example Zeynep gave me: Would you rather deal with crowds, less-than-friendly employees, and face a wall of TP options—to save 25 cents? Or pay the extra quarter to breeze in and out of a smaller store with fewer choices but a cheerful, well-informed staff?

Happy begets happy. Ever notice how one small but pleasant exchange with a cashier or barista can shift your mood all day? When employees are treated well, they treat customers well. You leave the store feeling energized, even if you’re not exactly sure why. (And Zeynep didn’t have to convince me that it works the other way, too. Negativity is contagious.)

Be compassionate. Zeynep made me realize how seemingly rude employee behavior can be a consequence of poor operations management. At some stores, if you ask for help finding a certain shampoo, the best an employee can do is point you in the right direction. Timed customer interactions mean employees literally can’t afford to spend time guiding you to the correct aisle, no matter how much they might want to.

What factors do you consider when choosing where to spend money? Does a company’s treatment of employees affect the way you shop? Tell us in the comments below, or email us at

Mary Murphy, associate editor

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The Penn Stater Daily — Nov. 7, 2013 The Penn Stater Daily — Nov. 8, 2013

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jo Lantz Prostko '75  |  November 9, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Unlike many Americans, I do not shop for entertainment. Perhaps because of that, I definitely consider in my buying decisions how well the employees are treated. I look for fair trade products and try to purchase from nonprofits or consignment shops or co-ops. All of those places tend to have employees who are valued and/or who find meaning in their work. Another benefit of these purchases is usually reasonable prices!

  • […] Ton’s revolution: When we featured MIT business prof Zeynep Ton ’96 in our Nov./Dec. issue, when knew she was doing interesting and important work in the field of retail labor issues. Turns […]

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