I spent the summer working in a department store, my first time in retail since working for Philadelphia’s venerated Strawbridge and Clothier in the year (1995-96) before it sold to May Company. I had anticipated and prepared for the change in my income for the summer but the job brought me out of the house, introduced me to new people, taught new skills, gave structure to my week. It was a good idea.
The only other middle-aged white man at the store was in management, and that was the first lesson. Looking at my colleagues, they were mostly college kids starting out or retirees finishing up. I worked with a lot of single mothers, lot of two- and three-job professionals, lots of women. In other words, people who are in a one-down position in this society. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw about retail, or about society, from that information, but it probably contributes to some of the dynamics that I saw.
Here are some other lessons:
1. Everything is a big deal to someone. You might have heard the cliché, “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff,” or some other religious or philosophical basis for detachment that is probably right, is probably relaxing, almost certainly a good idea. However, you’re turning your back to the ocean if you expect everyone to see it that way. People will go bonkers on you for the smallest reason – yelling, cursing, threatening, over what should be little, or nothing. It’s going to happen and you can’t control or stop it, but it does you no good to be blind to this wave that can deck you if you let it.
2. You have only the defenses allowed in the context of where you are. You might look at the person who is loudly questioning your ancestry and conclude that you can defeat this person in everything from arm wrestling to Words with Friends. You might even be right. It doesn’t matter. You’re going to follow company/agency policy and stay within parameters when blunting the attack or else you will be in trouble. You don’t have to take it passively but you have to play by the rules, even if the other person isn’t.
3. Retail is business. The store makes money by buying something and then selling it to you for more than it cost the store, including the cost of the resources (packaging, people) that it takes to sell it to you. It seems straightforward but when people start to talk about “loving” a store, you can see some of what drives the previous two points. The one-down status of many of the staff probably does, too. It’s a coupon, not a valentine, and it’s not forever, and name brand X won’t allow coupons on its merchandise because that is how they set up their business.
4. The person who gets close enough for you to yell at is never, ever the person who created the policy that has you yelling. Never. That’s one of the privileges of the power to make a decision like that. Please see points 1-3.
5. Michael Buble is the Barry Manilow of his generation. I just needed to get that out. Thanks.
6. All kinds of weird stuff happens in fitting rooms. I can’t elaborate, much less explain.
7. Retail is physically demanding. Even standing at a register for 8 hours takes a toll. I did that, but I also cleaned fitting rooms, unloaded trucks at 6 AM, moved walls (“bunkers”) of shoes, all kinds of work that kept me sweating through my short-sleeved shirts in an air-conditioned store.
8. Every profession has its own jargon. As in the previous point, a bunker is typically a storage place, like for fuel or ammunition, but it can also refer to a wall with shelves. A u-boat is a type of cart for moving merchandise, in addition to being a German submarine. A z-bar is a particularly maneuverable rolling merchandise rack with a z-shaped base. In its own way, a z-bar is almost as cool as it sounds, the sports car of moving t-shirts.
9. Americans go through plastic bags like you can’t imagine. Merchandise comes off the truck in boxes and wrapped in plastic to keep it clean and safe until you buy it. Loss prevention wants your purchases in a plastic bag to distinguish shoppers from shop lifters. That’s not a secret – the shop lifters use the same bags for the same reason. Americans go through a crazy amount of plastic.
10. If you want the store to yourself, come on a weeknight after dinner. If you want the weekend’s sales – and there is a sale every weekend – and the store to yourself, then come first-thing on Saturday morning or an hour before closing on Friday. The lines are shorter, the staff are eager to chat with you, and it’s a great time to sort out that complicated return or to look for that obscure item.
11. The person on the floor and at the register isn’t your enemy, or your friend. We will be friendly but we also have to follow store policy. My reputation with the managers – following directions, working hard without much direction, being nice to people – is what determines what and how many hours I get, where I have to work, what slack I might get when I make a mistake. I want to help you, I really do, and I will go out of my way for someone who seems to need and want my help, but no matter what happens, I’m going to satisfy the managers. That might mean leaving a register when there is a line, if that’s what a manager told me to do. There are a bunch of them and my reputation there determines my income.
12. If you become nasty with me and complain to a manager and I keep my cool then the situation helps my reputation in the store. The managers will know that I am professional and composed and that is good for me. Your complaint will not get me fired – far from it, especially if you are upset because I tried to uphold company policy. However, if you encounter an associate who is truly nasty, dismissive, or hostile – nothing that I saw over the summer but it does happen – then your complaint, delivered privately and calmly, helps the store.