As a point guard on his high school basketball team, Eric Delgado learned to dart around the court, making sure the ball got passed to the right people.
You might say it was perfect training for the job he now holds.
Delgado, 19, is a runner in the shoe department at the new J.C. Penney in midtown Manhattan. When a salesperson needs a pair of shoes for a customer, it's Delgado's job to dash around a lower floor stockroom and load shoes onto a dumbwaiter, which transports them to the salesroom floor one flight up. The aim is to make sure customers upstairs never have to wait too long.
"We have to move fast. We're always on our toes," he says.
With 1,100 stores in nearly every part of the country, Penney's knows a good deal about the retail industry. But when it opened its first store in Herald Square last month, it had to do things a little differently.
One big challenge was how to provide the kind of fast service demanded by New York consumers, not a group known for patience.
"New York just seems to be a very fast-paced city, and everyone is kind of over-planned out," says Jeff Bank, CEO of Alicart, which owns the New York restaurants Gabriela's, Carmine's and Artie's.
"Speed is essential," he says. Customers "want to get to where they're going. They're going to their show, or they're going to catch a bus."
Fast service is "very important" to New York shoppers like Clare Posnack, who was sweeping through Penney's early one afternoon last week.
"I have very little time to shop, and I'm on a lunch hour, so I want to do everything as fast as possible," she said.
What does she do when she goes to a store and service is slow?
"I leave," she said tersely.
A Store Optimized For Speed
To satisfy customers like these, Penney's set out to make sure shoppers in its Manhattan store never have to wait longer than necessary. For example, with space at a premium, Penney's has had to store much of its inventory at a warehouse in Connecticut. To make sure the store's shelves are always stocked, small trucks make the trip between the city and the suburbs almost constantly.
Inside the store, an electronic queuing system funnels customers through the cash registers as quickly as possible. The store has far more registers than other Penney's stores, and if one breaks down, it can be easily removed and replaced with a spare.
There are also eight dressing rooms with 63 stalls, which are staffed all the time, says Pete Sadler, district manager for Penney's New York stores.
Shoppers "may have to wait, but they won't have to wait that long," he says.
A longtime Penney's employee who worked most recently in Los Angeles, Sadler is a newcomer to New York and is still getting used to its ways.
Customers everywhere like fast service, he says, "but I think maybe it's on steroids in Manhattan."
He has his own theory about why people like to rush so much.
"People are in a hurry here, and most of it, I believe, is that most people are on public transportation, and the train's going whether you're there or not," he says.
Retailers need to strike a balance between serving customers quickly and not overdoing it, notes Alicart's Bank. For example, putting a check on a table too quickly after a meal can make a customer feel rushed and resentful, he says.
Still, with rents in New York so high, retailers who succeed need a constant turnover of customers. So serving customers quickly is "a win-win" for both, Bank says.
"They want to get where they're going, and I want to turn the seat," he says. "If somebody wants to sit calmly and enjoy their meal, that's great. But I'm working on an invention: a 45-minute comfortable chair. On the 46th minute, it gets a little uncomfortable. That's my goal in life, to retire off that."