CHICAGO, Ill. — Rumors of its beauty have circulated among customers for hours. Then, one bold explorer sets out to find it. Successfully negotiating the laundry’s tricks and traps — running children, lost socks and the ever-unpredictable roll of carts — the intrepid explorer takes sight of his prize. You can almost hear John Williams’ sweeping melodies and pounding percussion cadences during such a moment.Cautiously sneaking up to his treasure, the explorer allows himself a smirk as he prepares to make the switch. After one final glance at his surroundings, he’s ready. In one swoop, he knocks the empty laundry basket off the folding table and quickly replaces it with his own basket, full of newly dried clothes.He has pulled it off, successfully bumping a “folding table squatter.” But suddenly, there’s a rumble from behind. The squatter comes tearing at him. John Williams wrote music for this dramatic confrontation, too.Sadly, he did not compose theme music for the laundry manager, whose job is now to listen to the arguments and deliver wash-dry-fold justice.A DAILY STRUGGLEMy store has 161 washers and 140 dryers. We routinely have more than 150 people in the store at a given time. But as we all know, there is only so much room for folding tables, and on busy nights there are never enough.That’s when things get a bit crazy. Customers pile into the store, and the classic strategy is divide and conquer. One person takes off with the clothes and steams ahead to the washers. The other, armed with a laundry basket, bookbags, small children, etc., searches for a folding table. If they find one, everything they own that isn’t being washed gets tossed on the table. You know you’re dealing with a pro when he/she leaves their small child with a coloring book to hold the table. Never mind the fact that it might be another hour before they are ready to actually fold.This self-declared reservation is quite similar to what happens during a Chicago winter with parking spaces. Residents in the dense parts of the city shovel their parking spots and leave the likes of lawn chairs and grills there to ensure the spot they worked so hard for will be waiting for them when they get home from work — nine hours later.STATE YOUR CASEThe ensuing argument goes something like this:“Excuse me! That’s my table and my basket that you just tossed out of the way,” the alleged victim says, with just a touch of sass.“You’re not folding anything, I am. You can’t just sit here for hours and stop people from folding their clothes,” the newcomer responds, trying his/her best to sound outraged.“Oh, did the employee hand you a rule book when you came in? Because I didn’t get one that says I can’t be here. Is there a sign somewhere I didn’t see? Sorry, first come, first served,” the squatter replies. He or she then balances the empty basket on the two inches of the table that is left.However, in this incredibly diverse and rich community of Berwyn, though, often that debate goes more like this:“¡Esa es mi table señor!”“I don’t know Spanish, but I know this is my table.”And with that, the manager is called in to be the voice of reason.THE WISDOM OF SOLOMONThere is no rule book or sign to lean on at times like this. If you started posting signs for things like folding-table etiquette, then suddenly your store would be covered with signs and warnings such as:
- “No running”
- “The carts are not race cars”
- “Please give your seat to the elderly”
- “We don’t want any graffiti, but thanks for thinking of us.”
- “We have snack machines, so no selling your candy in the store.”
- “If you don’t have laundry, why have you been here since noon?”
At some point, you have to hope common sense and common courtesy take hold. And that’s what makes policing this stuff nearly impossible. If you’re one of those people who defines a good decision as one that will make everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside, then this role isn’t for you. Not going to happen here, folks.Here’s a few basic things you can do to ease the situation.Head over to the war zone and be sure to listen to each party’s stance. This is a time to listen, not talk. You don’t even need to “hear” the people, just listen and nod a lot. I think the last time I had this situation, all I did was nod and say, “I see, OK” about 15 times.The reason you don’t need to devote your jurist skills to this is because the outcome has already been decided, based on a couple of simple standards.First, don’t put yourself or your employees in the position of telling someone they’re wrong. Second, don’t put yourself or your employees in the position of taking a customer’s things and moving them. Third, be sure everyone has a place to fold their clothes when they are ready.The worst thing you can do is say, “OK, you’re wrong and you’re right,” and take the guilty party’s stuff and put it on the floor. That’s strike one, two and three. You’ve probably lost a customer. And if it’s a customer who knows how to play the folding-table game, then it’s probably a regular customer.Whoever has the table, has the table. If it’s the squatter, you can ask if they’d be willing to help out and let the other person fold. Then, they can have the table when the other person is done. Essentially, the folder is holding the table for the squatter.If the holder of the table won’t give it up, stop wasting energy on negotiations. Turn all of your attention, and the attention of your employees, to helping the person left out find another table. It may not be easy, but at least try to find a table that isn’t being completely taken up. Ask the holder of this table if he/she wouldn't mind sharing the space. This third party hasn’t had their attitude spoiled by the earlier argument, and I’ve found them to be very accommodating when asked.With this situation and many others, a basic philosophy can be applied. This is a bottom line kind of problem. Both customers want a place to fold their clothes, so go find one for them. Sure, they’re going to steam a bit about losing the table they had, but in the end they just want a table. Just get it through your head that it’s YOUR JOB to get them what they want.