Apparently we have been watching a lot more TV during this lockdown than we did during the last one. This may be due to the time of year, with winter weather leading to a lack of enthusiasm for outdoor activities, and a desire to hunker down and shut out the dark.
I’ve certainly been spending more of my evenings watching TV, and my latest Netflix find is Superstore. Billed as a sitcom, it is centred around a fictional big-box megastore called Cloud 9 in St Louis Missouri, with their strapline “have a heavenly day” and a corporate magazine called Stratus. I found the first few episodes entertaining and humorous, with quick-fire witty dialogue and an abundance of irony. Any Parks and Recreation fans will recognise and admire the format.
As I began to absorb and unpick the various themes and levels, I realised this was way more than a simple sitcom, and would actually make a good business school case study. I’m still at the exploratory stage with my “research” and am only partly through Season 3, but given the increasingly positive reviews the show received as it unfolded, I’m looking forward to many more laughs.
So, to my case study...
Laissez-Faire would probably be a generous description of the leadership style of the bumbling but earnest store manager, Glenn, as he struggles with decision-making on a daily basis, and tries to please everyone. However his deficiencies are mitigated by input from his two side-kicks, Amy and Dina who operate as assistant store managers.
Amy, played by America Ferrera, of Ugly Betty fame, is the archetypal efficient and competent manager. She knows and understands every member of staff, and displays situational leadership in her day to day engagement with them.
Amy is very conscientious and takes her role seriously. But her nod to protest is illustrated by wearing a different name badge every day to avoid customers becoming too familiar or getting to know her.
Dina has a much more forthright manner, verging on bullying, and takes bureaucratic leadership to a whole new level. But she always has Glenn’s back and often extricates him from difficult situations.
The other key character is Jonah, a business school dropout. We meet him in the first episode, displaying some arrogance around a customer service role, and taking every opportunity to show how smart he thinks he is. Amy gives him a simple task of reducing all electrical stock by 25% using a pricing gun. Jonah pays scant attention to Amy’s instructions, and all electrical stock ends up on sale for 25 cents. This leads to a virtual stampede at the checkouts, but is a valuable lesson for Jonah, and leads to a humble apology and growing respect for Amy.
The store layout is completely authentic, and picks up on the nuances and idiosynchracies of individual shoppers. It also captures the wider societal role which these big stores play in the USA, honing in on the lonely shopper sitting for hours in the in-store café, with her “pepperoni pizza for one.” Or the guy who spends an inordinate amount of time debating over which type of toothbrush to buy.
I’ve visited big-box mega stores in the USA, and I was instantly transported to a mashup of Target, Walmart and Kmart, with maybe a little bit of Publix thrown in!
The in-store pharmacy operates as its own little kingdom, run by the narcissistic Tate, who considers himself to be “a doctor to the doctors” and does his best to do as little work as possible. He even delegates the flu jab service to an entirely unqualified Jonah with predictable results.
The focus on the role of supermarket pharmacies in vaccine programmes is particularly apposite with a headline in the Orlando Sentinel on 29 January stating “Publix vaccine rollout exposes wealth gap.” Publix is the largest employee-owned grocery chain in the United States and is currently administering vaccines in 20 of Florida’s 67 counties. Their role has been criticised given the lack of Publix locations in poor and rural areas.
Consumerism is an obvious theme and cleverly laid bare in one episode when the store staff spend hours creating a wedding fair display, only to have it trashed in seconds by a “mob” of brides-to-be. In tandem with the Valentine’s Day displays being removed, the Easter bunny is literally sitting in the aisles.
Teamwork is a constant theme of the series, and this is further broken down into the specific skillsets and competencies of the various teams. Most of these are taken for granted by those not actually carrying out that specific role. Again the dynamics played out here are cleverly written and full of witty observational comedy.
In one episode the warehouse team go on strike and the customer service team attempt to deal with a large and complicated delivery. The quintessential “how hard can it be?” is answered within a few minutes, resulting in breakages, injuries and a staff member literally getting "boxed in". This dynamic is switched when the warehouse supervisor is allocated a shift on the meat slicer. Cue "spillage at the deli-counter".
The store’s relationship with “Corporate” is insightful, with the HQ being portrayed as a faceless entity whose role seems only to issue unhelpful edicts and exercise control over arbritary areas, including the store’s air conditioning system. This does little to engage or motivate employees and highlights the challenges of developing organisational culture in a company with dispersed locations.
Any staff disciplinaries ultimately result in a group staff training session. This is held in the break room, and involves a formulaic video presentation from “Corporate” which usually has a counter-productive effect on staff behaviour and morale and creates a blame culture which did not previously exist.
Equality and diversity are handled beautifully in the roles of Garrett, Myrtle and Mateo. Garrett is a wheelchair-using store associate who is also the in-store announcer. He proudly states that he always puts in minimum effort at work, and never less than that. Myrtle is an associate with over 30 years’ service who possibly joined Cloud 9 when she was 60. We mustn’t forget Mateo (or Matato as he is incorrectly called) the gay undocumented Filipino immigrant who delivers many great gags.
So, purely in the interest of ongoing research I will dedicate some coming evenings to viewing a few more episodes, and will watch with intrigue to see what unfolds next. At the very least I will get a good laugh!
Spoiler alert, the store gets destroyed in a tornado. Will they enlist the help of the Wizard of Oz? You'll just have to watch to find out.
Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.