Sunday, September 30, 2012

Retail Bluz Part 7 - The Escape from Cleveland Edition

As you can see by the “Part 7” in the title, I've been writing about my early experiences working retail.  If you’re new to the series, you can pick up the trail from the beginning by clicking here for the first “Retail Bluz” post.  I now pick up the tale during my run at a large, freestanding record store in Maple Heights, Ohio.

As I've been trying to demonstrate throughout these last couple of posts, life as a retail store manager was really tough.  The pressures brought to bear on us managers were huge, especially considering most of us were basically kids in our 20s.  (OK, to me NOW, people in their 20s are still “kids.”)

Remember that we had the hope, aspirations and bottom lines of a very large corporation resting on our young shoulders.  We had a store to maintain, product to order, staffs to hire and run, theft to prevent, people to assist and money to properly account for.  That’s a lot of balls in the air, and dropping any one of them could spell the difference between making projections or not.  (And keeping your job or not.)

The holiday season was ungodly.  I basically worked 60-hour weeks from Black Friday on.  The week before Christmas, I probably worked 80 hours.  I’d go home at night, collapse into bed, then dream that I was still at work, taking drops and clearing customers at the checkout.  There was no escape, not even in sleep.

The piles of money at Christmas were gargantuan.  Have you ever seen $13,000 in cash spread out on a table?  I have.  We actually had days when we’d have bundles of fifties or hundreds to deposit.  Believe me; I could see how someone could convince themselves that no one would ever miss a couple bundles of twenties.

It was a non-stop sprint from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, when we could finally close the store at 5:00 or 6:00 and breathe, knowing we at least had Christmas Day off.

As soon as we’d close, I’d usually hop in the car and head for Pittsburgh, where Grandpa would have some cold Iron City Lights waiting, and Grandma had soup, sandwich and a Klondike for me.  I’d spend Christmas with them and the rest of the extended family, then head back to Cleveland the next day for my shift at noon.  The week after Christmas was almost as busy as the week before, due to returns and gift certificate redemptions.  I couldn't let up on the gas until January.

Season after season we’d grind on.  I forgot what it was like to actually enjoy the holiday season.  I did all my shopping either at my store or the liquor store.  To quote Al Bundy, that whole period became like one big month: “Helluary.”

I realized, during my time in Maple Heights, that I needed to get out of the stores.  I loved the industry, but I wanted a career where I didn't have to wear a name tag, and 6-day workweeks weren't the norm.  I figured my best bet would be to try to get a job with our home office, in upstate New York.  I had a decent enough relationship with the Regional Managers that visited and the home office people I talked to on the phone, so I kept my ear out for any openings at HQ.

Eventually a job opening came up for a procedure writer, so I applied for it.  In retrospect, I’m surprised they even talked to me.  I had zero that I could show them as far as examples of my procedural or technical writing.  All I had was a story I wrote, for my own amusement, about playing backyard football (which will totally be a post here, one day).

I had a phone interview with the operations manager, and then I was supposed to talk with one of the big honchos, Mr. Smooth, when he came out for a new store opening.  The execs love to come out for the big store openings, so they could stand around and tell each other what a great job they’re doing, while the rest of us hired hands work our asses off to get things set up.  In this case, we were opening our Midwestern “flagship” store at the Terminal Towers in downtown Cleveland.
This was the first store in which we used such a glitzy design. 

I loved the piano key wrap-around for the registers.  I wanted a table like that in my apartment.

Mr. Smooth said to come out early and we’d talk over breakfast.  I was so excited… an interview and a meal, all in one!  So we sat down, with me in my store-opening work clothes and him in his impeccably tailored suit.  The waitress came and I ordered a big stack of pancakes with sausage and toast.  Mr. Smooth ordered a muffin.  That was it.

[Gulp]  Fuck.  Me.  I looked like such a rube.  I guess he didn't want to spend that much time.  Anyway, I didn't get the job, which was no surprise.  I honestly wasn't qualified.  (In retrospect, it’s funny because I do exactly that kind of job right now, and that’s how I now know how unqualified I was.  Back then, I didn't know what I didn't know.)

I don’t know whether it was my idea or my DM’s, but we realized that I’d have such a better shot at making the leap to HQ if I already lived in the market.  So that’s how I came to pursue a store manager position at the mall store closest to the office.  It was a high profile spot and an opening was coming up.

With my DM and RM behind me, I got the job at the New York store.  They flew me out for a mere day and a half, so that I could find a place to live.  The RM was just so cavalier about it… “Oh, just throw your shit in a truck and get out there.”

I should have taken that as a sign that these people had even less regard for their managers that I was accustomed.  It was like all I had was a couple of folding chairs, 2 dishes and a fork.  I had to seriously scramble, not only to move, but to find a reasonable apartment for what they were paying me.  Sure, I got a decent bump in pay for the new store, but the cost of living was far higher there than it was in Cleveland. 

I went from paying about $325 per month for a large 2-bedroom place (that allowed pets), to a 1-bedroom place that cost me $485.  And I had to give up my beloved Siamese, too.  There might have been better places around, but I just didn't have the time to find them.  I had the manager I was replacing driving me all over town, so I absolutely had to return to Cleveland with a New York apartment in hand.  Don’t you just love it when you get a big promotion, but you standard of living decreases dramatically?  That’s retail for you.

At least I knew I was leaving my store in better shape than I found it.  My old friend The Dragon Lady was succeeding me and I wanted her to be able to hit the ground running, with a finely tuned machine in her hands.  Didn't work out that way, but I tried.  More on that, later on.

Now I was taking the Big Leap, moving far from everyone and everything I knew.  I wouldn't have any kind of support system out there, the way I did in Cleveland.  I was going to be the New Guy and would have my trials by fire.

So it was the summer of 1990 when I “threw my shit in a truck,” and with my trusty cat and my best friend, Brill, drove a 22-foot Ryder towing my Honda CRX behind, clear through to upstate New York.  All this was so I could take a high-stress job that I didn't want, just for the chance to get a job that I did want.

Think things went according to plan?  Fuggedaboutit.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Retail Bluz Part 6 - The Staff of Life Edition

OK, I’m tired of linking them all individually, but I've been writing about my early experiences working retail.  If you’re new to the series, you can pick up the trail from the beginning by clicking here for the first “Retail Bluz” post.  I now pick up the tale as I was running a large, freestanding record store in Maple Heights, Ohio.

By far, the most daunting task for me as a retail manager was staffing.  It was a real jolt, going from just another schlub with a key, to the guy that interviews, hires, and fires.  It was a major step up in size of Big Boy Pants.  As I've mentioned, your staff can make you or break you.  And I probably made every mistake there was because I got broken a lot.

It’s a fact that every retail manager has to face every single day, that even though he may have done everything right in training his employees, anything that they screw up is his fault, in the eyes of the higher ups.  It doesn't matter if you show your clerk how to greet a customer, harp on the importance, demonstrate it every day… one day someone important will walk in, the clerk won’t greet him, and it will be the manager’s fault.

Sometimes I think that’s the only reason retail managers are necessary… to be convenient receptacles for blame.

I mean, for the most part, my staff was made up of kids and while this was a “career” for me, it was just a part-time job for them.  They didn't really have a stake in the store’s success.  So it was a hurdle just getting people to care.

If I have one piece of advice to give the young Manager Me, I’d tell me to listen to my DM when he said that I should always be interviewing and always have a stack of promising applications on my desk.  My biggest staffing problems always started with having to hire someone out of immediate need.

When you had someone quit right before a big weekend, (usually to take another job making a higher wage or getting more hours), you couldn't afford to be picky; you just had to find someone with a pulse that who would work the hours for minimum wage.  So it’s no wonder that I wound up with some bozos from time to time.

When I was hired, my boss asked me a series of questions he used in every interview.  That became my original template for conducting interviews.  If you ask the same questions, you have an even basis of comparison between applicants.  I used that question list for years before I became more comfortable with interviewing.

After a time, I found I changed my focus in interviews from a “Q and A” to more of a conversation.  I’d use the question list as a jumping off point and then go from there.  I was more interested in getting a sense if my applicant could string a coherent thought together and think on his feet.  If they couldn't hold up their end of a conversation with me, how could I expect them to sell to customers?

I always tried to hire the extroverts, to counter my own introverted nature.   The company was all about up-selling and getting add-on sales.  I hated that stuff because I hate “selling.”

If you think about it, I was probably the worst salesperson in the district and was completely unfit to lead a sales staff.  I mean; I knew all the theories and techniques, but executing them rubbed me the wrong way. 

When I’m shopping, I hate being sold to and am repelled by pressure, so I was never comfortable with doing that to anyone else.  To me, a perfect salesperson lets you know he’s there, offers assistance and then remains available for questions later.  He does not try to talk you into buying a bunch of crap you don’t need or push music you've never heard of.

For example, the company was always on us to push blank tapes at the register.  We were supposed to say, “Hey, these blank tapes are 99 cents apiece… [laying 3 of them down on the counter]… how many do you want?

I absolutely refused to do that.  I find it incredibly pushy and presumptuous.  As a customer, I would shut down anyone doing that to me and I’d shop somewhere else next time.  So I wasn’t going to do it to anyone else.  It’s just rude.  I had no problem with pointing out the blank tapes and asking them.  The phrasing makes the attitude, I say.

Side note:

One thing I was VERY good at was playing “Name That Tune” with the customers.  You wouldn't believe how many people came in wanting a song, for which they didn't know the artist or title or, well, anything.  If you were lucky, they’d know lyric or two.  Sometimes they’d just know a bit of the tune and they’d try to hum it for you.  And then they would get mad at US if we didn't know what they wanted.  I’d be like, “If YOU don’t know what you want, how can you expect ME to know what you want?

Anyway, if my people got stuck on a customer's Name That Tune request, they’d bring me in, like “the closer” from the bullpen.  I should have had my own walk-up music like they do in baseball.

The funny thing was, I usually hadn’t even heard the song, but I was real good with artists and titles, just from doing the ordering or just reading Billboard.  Far more often than not, I could figure out what they wanted.  But it could be really challenging.

Customer: I’m looking for this song I heard on the radio… I don’t know what station.  I don’t know who sings it or what it’s called.  There’s something in the lyrics about “love.”

Me: Ummmmmmmm… [WTF?]  Yeah, we’re all out of that.

So for the store to function, I needed friendly, quick-thinking extroverts to execute what the company wanted us to do on the sales floor.  Having music knowledge was fine, but not essential.  Artists and titles could be learned on the fly.  It was more important that they could use the available tools to find the information or product they needed.

I often ended up hiring the people I enjoyed talking to.  Sometimes, a good interview would last an hour and a half, as the conversation would range all over the place.  It was really like having a first date.  We either clicked or we didn't.

I remember one guy who totally screwed the pooch.  He was telling me about his previous job, working for a waste management company.  That wasn't the problem; it was that he said that he was glad to be out of that job because the company was “run by a couple of dirty Italians.”

Picture this face, only 25 years younger.

He must have read my “Are you fucking kidding me?” expression because he started walking it back immediately.

Oh, are you Italian?  Sorry, I didn't mean anything by that; it was just these guys were this and that and blah blah blah.”

Yeah, that one went right into the “circular file.”

But if you could have a decent conversation with me, (assuming you met my logistical needs) that was most of the battle.  Then I just needed to see that you were presentable, had some common sense and a little personal ambition.  And because of my predisposition towards interesting people, I ended up hiring a fair share of flakes.  I mean, I like flakes, sugar-frosted and otherwise. 

I remember one girl who used to crack me up on a regular basis.  She kind of channeled (80s comic) Judy Tenuta’s “goddess” persona as her default demeanor.  She was fun, but kind of mousy.  Then she’d come out with some bizarre, salty statement right out of left field.  Like one time when she was feeling some job pressure and yelled this at me in the back room:

I’m a fragile flower!  I can’t deal with this shit! 

Other things she said:
“I crossed hell and high water and lots of Irish people to get here, goddammit!” (after coming in on St Patrick’s Day and encountering the parade.)
“Correction fluid… the Holy Water of stupid people!”
“I curse this safe, and all its ball bearings!”
"I am NOT a fundamentalist pagan god!"
“ I've rounded up the primates… now what?”  (meaning she just pulled all the Monkees titles.)
“Fuck you!  Everybody likes me, goddammit!”

She became my Third Key in short order.

Director’s DVD Commentary: The reason I can reproduce those lines, even after all these years, is because I used to keep this little notebook of people’s quotes.  It was a habit I picked up in college.  Whenever I heard someone say something funny (especially when out of context) I’d put it in the book with their name and the date.  Believe me, she had a bunch of them.  I could do a whole post from the Quote Book.

Like my DM before me, I enjoyed spinning people off into their own orbit.  Like when I took Maple Heights, there was a 17-year old girl working there, who had just graduated high school.  She was very sweet and quiet, had a good head on her shoulders and was very conscientious, so I quickly made her a Third Key.  She was into Top 40 so I put her in charge of singles; (the records, not the dollar bills).  Not long after that, she moved up to become my assistant manager.  I had to work with her a bit to get her to become a little more authoritative, but it was gratifying to see her blossom.  Before long, we spun her off into her own mall store.  I was very proud.  I’d post her picture here, but we’re still in touch and she’d probably kill me.

Of course, the downside was that I then had to replace her.  While I preferred to promote from within, often times it wasn't possible, due to logistical limitations or aptitude.  

Sometimes I could get someone from another store transferred in.  The upside was that they were familiar with our systems and needed minimal training.  The downside is that sometimes, it was a matter of one store transferring their problem to another store.

So there were some rocky times when I found myself surrounded by a bunch of bumblers, but for the most part, I had some good staffs.  You try to keep the good ones, let the dumdums wash out before they do too much damage, and hope for the best.

But the main thing I took from my experience in that store was that for the sake of my sanity and emotional and financial well-being, I had to get the hell out of retail.  I had a plan to do so, but to pull it off; I had to get in even deeper.

To be continued…

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Retail Bluz Part 5 - The Thankless Edition

In my - lastfour - posts, I wrote about my early experiences working retail.  I now pick up the tale after I became entrenched in the larger, freestanding Maple Heights store.

Once I got comfortable with the more urban clientele and product demands, I could settle in and work on just running the store.  Staffing was always a huge issue.  See, this place was really too big for one person to work alone.  It was laid out in an “L” shape, so if the one person was at the cash register area, he couldn’t see around the corner to the back of the store.  That made a ripe situation for theft.

One of the biggest problems in staffing was that the company would only start people at minimum wage, which in 1988 was $3.35 an hour, and wouldn’t reach $4.65 until 1990.  We paid minimum wage, I’m sure, because we could.  Management pay wasn’t too much better, but you could do OK if you made your sales projections. (That is, as long as your product “shrinkage” (product losses and theft) was within the acceptable range.)  For example, I made $19,900 in 1987 and $20,900 in 1988, and that was after my raise for taking a larger store.  Even for 80s money, that wasn’t much to live on, considering the pressure we were under.

In my opinion, they traded on the young people’s desire to work in a record store rather than fast food.  McDonalds’ starting pay was at least a couple bucks more per hour than was ours.  But kids would rather work in a record store.  I mean, who wouldn’t, right?  They just had to take a hit in the wallet to do so.  And once I had them hired, there was the continued risk that they’d jump to another job for a nickel an hour more, especially once they saw how small a dent their paychecks made in their bills.

It was always a problem getting daytime help because the people most likely to work for that minimum wage (kids) were in school.  So finding someone responsible, with daytime availability, who would work for minimum wage, was problematic. 

Eventually, I got found someone that fit the bill.  He was a guitarist in a local metal band, and I swear, I could write a post just about him.  He was a bright enough guy, knew music inside and out, and worked hard for me.  But it was funny because as his band played more and more show, packs of girls would show up at the store, just to talk to him.  I didn’t have much of a life at that time, so I got to live vicariously through him.  He also taught me a lot about the structure and terminology of music, which greatly improved my understanding of what I’d been listening to for so long.

I remember the day we got our first delivery of the debut Guns and Roses album.  (2 copies.)  He told me they were going to be the next big thing.  I’d never heard of them.  But 6 months later, they were the biggest act in the nation.  Dude was spot-on.

The biggest letdown for new employees working in a record store was how little they actually dealt with music.  I think they came in thinking about how they were going to stand around and talk music with the customers, all of whom would be seeking their advice on what to buy.  Reality, however, was far from such a scenario. 

The truth is that we had a great deal of daily drudgery to deal with, and painfully few people to do it.  These were some of the main jobs:

Running the register.  One person was responsible for running the register and making sure they secure the cash, run charges properly and check ID for checks.  (Weekends, we had 2 or more registers going.)  I had a full system for register accountability, which I learned back in Toledo.  All change needed to be counted back properly (not just going, “$3.17’s your change” and handing it to them).  All bills needed to be face-up in the drawer and facing the same direction.  Cash “drops” were required, whenever we got more than $150-$200 in the till.  I tracked each cashier’s over/under on their drawer and posted it on the bulletin board.  (Cashier with the average variance closest to “even” at the end of the month got a free album.)  Yes, I was the drawer Nazi, but I rarely had serious cashier shortages.
This was our cash booth, with 2 registers in action.

Check in and prepare product deliveries.  Usually, a manager did this.  All items had to be reconciled with the invoice, price stickered (usually twice, list price plus sale price), and alarm stickered.  Cassettes had to be put in “shucks,” those plastic contraptions that increase the size and make them less “pocketable.”  We had such a large store, we sorted the tapes into different boxes, one for each music genre, which would allow the employee to put the product away without running all over the store.

One note on the stickering: I did not tolerate sloppy sticker placement.  On record albums, the stickers had to be straight, placed in the upper right-hand corner, and they couldn’t hide the title or faces.  On tapes, the sticker had to be lined up evenly on the tape spine, placed to the right. Many a time I sent a batch back to have the stickers peeled off and put back on straight.  I mean; the albums themselves function as a display.  You don’t want to see a bunch of stickers slapped all haphazardly on a display.  It just looks careless.

Put away stock.  In my store, there was to be only one place that a piece of product should be (not counting bulk displays).  Alphabetizing was crucial.  For catalog product, we only carried a piece or two of a particular title.  If it wasn’t alphabetized properly, a customer might not find it and we’d lose a sale. 

Alphabetize stock.  I always said the store would be in such better shape if we never let the customers in.  The general public will destroy a store, especially one that relies on precise placement of product.  Just think how many people will pick something up and then put it back somewhere else.  Then add in the people who let their little angels run all over the store, snatching things off the shelves.  It’s different at, say, WalMart.  A piece of glassware will stick out when left in the toy department.  Not so with records, tapes or CDs.  So restocking and alphabetizing was a constant grind.  I had to get real good at the Rugrat Death Stare, to keep the little darlings from trashing my store.  (A slingshot would have been better, though.)

Take inventory.  Before the advent of POS (Point of Sale) registers that scanned barcodes and kept title by title record of sales, product was ordered by taking manual inventory and ordering whatever was missing.  It was a very labor-intensive operation, and even when the POS registers went online, we’d still have a series of inventories to do on popular titles.  And again, it went back to alphabetizing. 

If the inventory taker couldn’t find a title, another one (or more) got ordered, which led not only to unnecessary expense but overcrowding on the shelves.  You know what it’s like when you have to put a title away that belongs on the top of a shelf, but the only room in the section is at the bottom?  Of course you don’t, but I do.  You have to then shift every tape on the wall down until you create the room where you need it.  Or, if you’re lazy, sneak the title into the wrong hole and hope no one saw you do it, so you can blame it on a customer, later.
This was our tape wall, with my guy clinging to a shelf about 3 feet off the ground.  There is plenty of available room in this panel, but you can see how labor-intensive it would be to have to shift the tapes around, while maintaining the same order, to open up space in the right place.

Clean all the things.  Big old wood-paneled stores like ours were literal dust factories.  We had to clean and dust constantly.  No one wants to buy a block of blank tapes or a tape case that’s covered in dust.  And we weren’t in a mall, so whenever the weather was bad, our floors would get tracked up with water and mud.

AND… at the same time all these things are going on, everyone has to greet and assist every customer that comes in the door, make suggestions, locate titles, take special orders, all the while making sure they weren’t peeling off alarm stickers and stuffing cassettes down their pants.  ALSO, answer the phone and provide any assistance needed there as well, usually to track down a title to see if we had it in stock.

These are just the hourly employee tasks.  I still had to lay out the work schedules, do evaluations, interview and hire staff, train them properly, counsel and/or fire the bad ones, quality-check everything the staff was doing, calculate and place the product orders, oversee all banking transactions and provide reporting up and down the food chain.

Now, if I had a whole squad of people to throw at these chores, retail management would have been a breeze.  But besides me, I normally had one, maybe two people working, at most.  I could have a few more come in on the weekends, but that was for sales only.  You never worked on projects or tasks over the weekend. 

The company was all about payroll control and kept our hours so tight, it was practically impossible to accomplish everything they expected, all the time.  The inventory tasks required a degree of concentration if you wanted them to be thorough and accurate.  They were tough to do if you had to stop every minute to help people.

It became such a no-win situation.  Every time my DM visited, it was a tightrope walk.  Even if he was beating me up the day before about getting a big catalog inventory done (or any other project) he could come in, see us working on the inventory, and then make these kinds of comments:

“How come that rack has an empty spot?”
“Didn’t I tell you to move those blank tapes to the front?”
“Why is that display so dusty?  Don’t you guys ever clean?”
“How come you’re out of this title?”
“Why isn’t anyone helping that customer?”

It’s a wonder there aren’t more employee shootings taking place in retail stores.  My theory is that it’s because we weren't paid enough to afford guns or bullets.  Instead, we just drank heavily.

Early in my tenure, I took a lot of crap from the DM.  But the longer I stuck around, the more I’d fight back.  I admit that near the end of my tenure, we had some pretty epic backroom battles.  It is so hard to appreciate the difficulty in keeping so many balls in the air at once… the company service platitudes often came directly into conflict with required company tasks, and no one in charge would ever acknowledge it.

I remember one summer when the main street outside my strip center was torn up with construction for months.  The company refused to reduce our sales projections, even though our traffic was cut down to a trickle.  They told us to “Just be better sales people.”

I’d say, “To whom?  The fucking mice?  There’s no one coming in the goddamned store!

Well, to myself, I’d say that.  Even though it was a thankless and often impossible job, for which I was paid jack shit, it was mine and I wanted to succeed at it. But it’s no wonder the turnover was so high in retail stores.  There were many times I felt so burned out and unappreciated, I just wanted to chuck the whole thing.

But then I’d think, “It still beats working at McDonald’s,” and put my nose right back to the grindstone.

Do you want some blank tapes with that?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Odd Bits - The Retail Interval Edition

I want to take a quick break, amid my long, rambly tale of retail life, to off-load some of the bits of crappola that have been building up over the last two weeks.  I’ll jump back into the story on Tuesday night.

The Google Monster
WTF is up with The Google?  Is it just me?  Wednesday morning, about 11:45, as if a switch had just been flipped, I suddenly started getting Google hits out the wazoo.  Most of it came from searches for pictures of the Hilton Camden Yards… I got over 165 hits on Wednesday and Thursday.  (I did my own search, but couldn’t figure out why there was such sudden interest.  But one of my shots was #5 on the list.)

But it wasn’t just that search; I was getting an unusually high number of Google search hits on all kinds of random stuff.  It was like all of a sudden they upped my Google status all over the web.  I don’t get how that happens.

While it’s good for my overall sense of blog well-being, I know they’re like empty calories.  I’m not getting quality visits from people that want to read my goofy shit, they’re just picture trollers.

The search that’s blowing up for me now is just plain weird.  The search string is, “Keep calm and bang Hermione.”  I trust that’s a play on the old English axiom to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” from WWII.  Now, before that earlier sentence, those words have never appeared on my blog.  But if you search under them, you come to a post where I mentioned that, sure I watch the Potter films because hey, Hermione’s hot.

Because it’s an image search, the image from that post is that “Demotivator” picture about the Twilight Moms, with the caption, “If they were middle aged men obsessing over a 17-year old girl, you’d call the police.”  Apparently it drew enough curiosity that people clicked on it. 

Anyway, I’m always happy for the traffic and obviously I hope that people will notice and return to the blog as they’re copying the pictures, but based on my own picture-acquiring activities, I doubt it. 

The New Giant Jesus
There are two subjects that, when news breaks about them, people send me the links.  One is bacon.  The other is the Solid Rock Church in Monroe Ohio, famous for displaying a 62-foot Half-Jesus statue along I-75, which was hit by lightning two years ago and burned to the ground.

This week, my alert brother-in-law sent me a link to the story on how they have put up a new replacement statue.  Giant Jesus Part 2 comes in at 50-feet, and this time it’s His whole body and He’s not chest-deep in water (which should have been biblically impossible.)  His hands are not raised overhead, so it can no longer be called “Touchdown Jesus.”  The statue has its arms out to the side in a welcoming gesture, and has thus been christened “Hug Me Jesus,” kind of like a “Tickle Me Elmo” for the evangelical set.

As the statue was going up, my BIL happened to be driving by and at the time, the head hadn’t been attached yet.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the opportunity to get a picture.  Gah!  The comedic possibilities for The Great Headless Jesus would have been boundless.

If it were me that was driving by, I don’t know that I’d have been able to get a picture either.  I probably would have assumed that the sculptor got the specs wrong and mistakenly did a statue of John the Baptist.

Where’s the Shirt for “Silas the Syrian Assassin?”
In preparation for my birthday that comes up in about a week, I started laying in some birthday presents for myself.  And when left to my own devices, I usually end up with more Monty Python t-shirts.  Check out my new additions.
The Spanish Inquistion, from Think Geek.

Nnnnnnnnnnnnoooobody expects the Spanish Inquistion…” I love this shirt completely. 

Emblem for the Ministry of Silly Walks, from Café Press.

This is from one of my favorite sketches, and a classic bit of physical comedy.  But are there any classical students that can translate the Latin around the perimeter?  I get that “leviculous” is probably the root for “levity” and is used to represent the “silly,” but what about the rest?

Nautius Maximus, from Café Press.

I’ve always loved joke names, and this bit from “Life of Brian” still kills me.  “Nautius Maximus” is the purported name of the father of Brian of Nazareth.  As Brian explains this to Pilate, it gives way to one of my favorite scenes in the movie, where the guards tell Pilate that it’s a joke name, like “Sillius Soddus” or “Biggus Dickus.”  When Pilate explains (with his Elmer Fudd speech impediment) that he has “a very gweat fwiend in Wome named Biggus Dickus,” the guards can’t help but bust out laughing, much to Pilate’s chagrin. 

(Later in the movie, Biggus Dickus actually shows up, and he has a speech impediment too… he can’t say his “S’s."  It’s another great piece of physical comedy, which I’m not too proud to co-opt.)

Orioles Magic
As I watch the Pittsburgh Pirates dreams of a playoff run, or even a .500 season disappear like dignity on the Jerry Springer Show, I turn instead to my local ball club, the Baltimore Orioles, who are in a pennant chase with the hated New York Yankees.

Last week, Sitcom Kelly, her sister and I all got emails giving us the chance to register to buy playoff tickets.  With the O’s not having sniffed the playoffs since 1997, it would be crazy to have playoff games going on here without trying to see one or two.  The offer was that you could buy up to four tickets, which would accommodate the three of us, plus Sitcom Sister’s husband.  So I let them try to get the seats and I would reimburse for my ticket.

The good news was that they both got tickets.  The bad news was that they picked games that there are heavy chances that they won’t come to be.

First, Sitcom Kelly bought tickets for “Baltimore Game 3” of the American League Divisional Series (the ALDS).  That means that A) Baltimore will have to be the higher seed, as to ensure home field advantage, AND B) the series would have to go a full 5 games.  I find that scenario highly unlikely to happen.  (Of course, if it DOES, these tickets will be gold.)

Then, her sister got tickets for the single Wild Card game, where the two teams with the best records, that didn’t win their division, play a single game to decide who plays the division winner with the best record, in the ALDS.  For that to occur, the O’s can’t win the division (they’re currently one game behind the Yanks) and they would have to be the first Wild Card team, so that the game is here.  With about 9 games to go, the whole thing is a tossup.

So I decided to get into the mix, and got a pair of tickets for the 1st and possible 2nd ALDS games in Baltimore.  In all cases, if the games aren’t played, everyone gets their money back.  Also, in all fairness to the sisters, they knew they would be out of town during the opening ALDS games, so they didn’t want to risk buying the tickets and not using them.  Personally, if the O’s get into the ALDS, I don’t think they’ll be the top seed, so it will be games 3 and (possibly) 4 that take place in Baltimore.  Confusing, much? 

The only scenario where we’re closed out of seeing any games is if the O’s take the 2nd Wild Card position, so that it’s played “away,” and then lose the game.  Anyway, all will be known soon enough.

The Romulan Nation
It’s not going too well this week for the Rominator, is it?  That video leak really put him back on his heels.  It was Romney speaking to a room full of other filthy rich people, with disturbing things to say about the rest of us.  It reminded me of when someone is about to start talking about minorities and the first thing they do is take a look over both shoulders to make sure the coast is clear.

The GOP rebuttals to this mess are laughable.  My favorite is how they’re jumping on Obama over his “broken promise” to change Washington.  I mean, seriously?  How can the guy change Washington if the other side uses every option at their disposal, including sinking the country’s credit rating, to ensure that nothing changes?  And then to complain about how the other guy broke his promise?

Come on.  Nobody but Fox “News” can even take this seriously.  And speaking of, did you see Jon Stewart Wednesday night?  Holy Hell, he absolutely took Fox apart.  It was a thing of beauty, as brick by brick, he dismantled every argument their talking heads made while they were defending the Romney tape.  You have to see it to believe it.  And as a public service, you may see it right here.

In my opinion, this guy needs to be on at 6, every night.

Steelers Gameday
Maybe you’ve noticed, and maybe you haven’t, but I’ve bagged my old regular feature about my game day mojo.  I mean, I still track and work on wearing the mojo-correct game jerseys and apparel; I just stopped writing about it every week. 

In fact, most of my Steelers-related material is winding up on Twitter.  Now that I have an iPad, I’m “live-tweeting” the Steeler games.  If you care to play along, follow me on Twitter at @DarwinfishBluz.  It’ll be like watching the game at home with your drunk but amusing neighbor, without him peeing on the rim of your toilet.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Retail Bluz - Part 4 - The 'We're not in Kansas Anymore' Edition

In my lastthree - posts, I wrote about my early experiences working retail.  I now pick up the tale as I come to the end of my tenure at my mall store in Parma, OH.

All in all, my tenure at the Parma store was pretty successful, both personally and for the store.  I was often called upon to train new managers and that helped add to my own little “sphere of influence.”  I wasn’t just training my own managers; I would train new hires that were slated to run the new stores we were opening.  Anyone that you train, in a situation like that, will always look up to you as an ally and an authority (as long as you’re not a bozo, I suppose.) 

I always looked at it like a “family tree.”  My DM was the trunk, the original managers from Toledo, (me, Kenny the Viking and the Dragon Lady) were the main branches, and everyone we trained thereafter branched off further to provide the canopy. 

A little more than a year after I took the Parma store, Kenny the Viking decided to return to Toledo, so the DM tapped me to replace him.  He was running an 8,000 square foot freestanding store in Maple Heights, much like the store I started in, only smaller.  I recommended that the trainee with whom I was working, step into my place in Parma.  (You may remember her from the Whatsername Trilogy.)

I know I was turning over my store in good shape, and I expected that I’d find the same at my new place, but I was mistaken.  Apparently my buddy had just been going through the motions.  While on the surface, everything looked OK, once I dug around a bit, I could see that the required inventories weren’t getting done, the ordering was sloppy and returns were accumulating in the back room.  So once again, I had to go in and clean up.

This is the Maple Heights store, shown from the front of the store to the back.  That’s our tape wall on the right.  You can see that we still sold CDs in the non eco-friendly 'long-box.'

This area was to the left, when looking at the first picture.  The registers were just out of the shot, here, to the left.

The day I took command of the store was the day of the AFC Championship game between the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos.  I remember being introduced to the team as their new manager, and the first words out of my mouth were “Go Broncos!

Yeah, I probably started off on the wrong foot.  But I had to laugh, because that particular game went down in history as the one with “The Fumble,” wherein the Brownies had the winning touchdown elude them when their running back fumbled the ball just before he crossed the goal line, allowing Denver to hold on for the win.  My Steelers sucked that year, so without them in the hunt, all I could do was root loudly against their biggest rival.  In fact, I even went so far as to paint my office gold, with black trim.  It’s a wonder they didn’t throw me out on my ass.
This was my office, after painting.  In all honesty, when I looked at the swatches, the color I selected didn’t look this yellow.  I was expecting Steelers gold, not screaming canary yellow.

There was a huge difference between the Parma mall store and the Maple Heights freestanding store, and it wasn’t just size and décor.  Maple Heights was on the “east side” of town; a considerably more urban area than white bread, suburban Parma.  I wouldn’t be getting the teenybopper mall kids and their mommies and daddies in my store, my clientele would be older and predominantly African-American.  I admit that I experienced a bit of culture shock when I started out.

I remember the first Friday night I was there.  I was working the floor, basically just drifting around, keeping an eye on things and trying to help them find stuff.  It was tough because I didn’t yet have a good handle on the popular music there, nor an ear for the lingo. 

The first customer that needed my help asked me, “Ganny Blah Blue Bleah?”

Bluz: I’m sorry?

Customer: Blah Blue Bleah.  Ganny Blah Blue Bleah?

Bluz: Hold on, let me find out.

Knowing that this could go on all night and I still wouldn’t know what she wanted, I bailed.  I went and found one of my black employees and asked her to go and help that lady.  When she was done, I asked her what the hell the lady was looking for.  And that’s when I discovered the ongoing popularity of Bobby “Blue” Bland, an old R&B singer.

I know I had just gotten back from Nebraska but I now certain that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. 

On one hand, working there gave me the perfect chance to start selling some blues.  I got on the horn with Alligator Records in Chicago and began getting promos sent to us for every new release and set up an expanded blues section.  I had to go through independent wholesalers to get it, because our company didn’t keep a wide enough selection in their warehouse stock.

Since I always worked Friday nights, it became our de facto “Blues Night,” (much to the chagrin of my younger employees.)  But my clientele loved it. I’d rock the place all night long with Alligator’s “Genuine Houserockin’ Music.”  There was an album called “Showdown,” by three stellar blues guitarists, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray.  I used to amaze my newer employees by selling it every time I played it.
My copy of “Showdown,” signed by the late, great Albert Collins.  Seriously, this is one of the best blues albums ever.  So sayeth the Bluz Dude.

I’d wait until I had the right crowd in the store… mostly black, middle-aged and female.  Then I’d go, “Watch this… I guarantee that someone buys this tape.”  I’d put on “Showdown,” the feet would start tapping around the store, and always… ALWAYS, someone would come up and go, “What is THIS?”  I’d whip the tape on them and then look at my employee, like: “Who’s the Man?” 

The stock selection proved to be an ongoing problem.  Our company wanted to supply as much of our product as possible, through their centralized warehouse.  Unfortunately for us, their stock modeling was mostly based on generic mall stores with predominantly white customers, not urban locations.  I could rarely get the artists my customers wanted, through our usual means.  So I ended up using those independent wholesalers, called “One Stops,” more and more.

Director’s DVD Commentary: One Stops are so named because they carry product from all labels, which you can get in just “one stop.”  You call them up and tell them what you want, and it’s delivered to you the next day.  The tradeoff is that they cost more per unit than when our company bought titles to distribute through the warehouse.  It was a good way to stock up for a busy weekend when you’re out of the hot titles, or to supplement a particular genre, like I was doing.

We also customarily had these cassette racks at the front of the store, with older, “catalog” titles, available at a discount.  Typically, it was stuff like Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits, the Led Zepplin titles, AC/DC titles, and other classic rock tapes, available for between 4.99 and 6.99. 

Side Note: One of the worst things I ever heard was when I saw a kid holding up AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and saying, “Oh look… they have oldies…” 

This was in 1988!  I almost choked that snot-nosed little fuck.

But those titles didn’t make much sense in my store, so I basically created my own cassette rack program.  I created a couple of soul and jazz racks, filled with Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and all kinds of Motown titles.  The trouble was that our warehouse could rarely fill my orders.  Either they were out of stock, or cut my order on sight, because it didn’t fit with their models.

I had the same problem with Christmas music.  They sent me all the Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Barbara Streisand and Carpenters I could display, but precious little of anything I could sell.  My first Christmas there, I sold out every piece of my R&B Christmas product (probably a grand total of about 12 pieces) by noon on Black Friday.  Try as I may, I was never able to get any more in subsequent orders.

The following year, I obtained several cases of the good stuff from a one stop.  That lasted me to the end of Thanksgiving weekend.  Eventually, I got it down and by my third year there, we were flush with Christmas music from the Temptations, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Alexander O’Neal and any Motown titles I could get my hands on.  Before I moved on, I was able to provide my successor a list of all the in-demand titles, with target stock levels.

Next up, The Grind.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Retail Bluz Part 3 - The Corn-Fed Edition

In my last two posts, I wrote about my early experiences working retail.  I also figure I better start subtitling the posts, for greater clarification when I’m trying to remember which post is which.

I now pick up the tale after being promoted to Manager of my own mall store in Parma, OH.

Despite all the problems, I really did enjoy being the boss.  This mattered most when it came to dealing with the label reps. 

As opposed to when I was in Toledo, every major record label had offices in Cleveland.  So they had people to go out and schmooz all the retailers, put up displays and generally promote their products.  As manager, it was my place to work with the label reps and generally milk them for all they were worth.

The currency was promo albums and CDs, and concert tickets.  It was kind of a give and take… they wanted in-store play and display space from us; we wanted freebies.  I always made it my business to maintain solid relationships with all the label people, even if I only had a piddly little mall store.

Then as manager, it was up to me to allot the freebies as I saw fit.  I pretty much did as I saw it done in Toledo.  When we got in a stash of promos, I went through it first and affixed my name to the ones I wanted for myself.  Don’t think that didn’t help round out my music collection…

Then I’d put everything else up in the in-store play rack, and it was first come/first serve from then on.  Whoever stuck their name on the record first, got it when we were done using it in-store.  If I knew someone had a particular favorite group, I’d try to make sure that they got the promo if we had one.

In the “old days,” when I was just starting out in Toledo, managers had a lot more leeway to wheel and deal with the reps. My boss used to horse-trade with the label sales guys all the time.  But once our chain was bought out by the larger company, all the decisions were made at the home office, so we had much less to offer.  But still, I was happy to feel like I was involved with the ever-glamorous music business, even though I wasn’t anything more than just another mall jockey.

That was another new thing for me… I’d never worked in a mall before.  Sometimes I thought it was kind of cool, because I got to roam around the back halls that were off limits to the public.  And shopping for stuff was easy; I could take care of that on lunch breaks.  (Well, I could have if I had any money…)

But why oh why did I have to work across from a Roy Rogers?  Geez, I must have gained 30 lbs that first 6 months, from sucking down roast beef sandwiches and Cherry Cokes.  I had to take some serious steps to drop that weight, but it was tough.  That roast beef smell really carries.

Road Trip
I figure I must have been doing OK as a new manager.  I won a Regional Manager of the Year award, for bringing the store up to making sales projections, plus training other new managers and helping out around the district and working on setting up new stores.  Next thing you know, they sent me to Nebraska.  I was like, “Why?  I didn’t do anything wrong?

No, the deal was that the company was opening a mall store in North Platte, Nebraska, and they needed someone to go out, help set up the store and train the staff.  I was actually honored that they chose me.  Sure, I’d run between Toledo and Cleveland a number of times, but this was my first Real Business Trip.  I had to fly in, rent a car, and stay for a week in a hotel.  I was only 26 at the time and it all seemed like such a big deal to me.

Of course, I’d done all that stuff before but it had always been as part of a group; like a “hit squad” of other managers.  This time, it was going to be all on me to work with a bunch of newbies and get the place going.

That was my first and (thus far) only trek into the Great Plains.  I thought I knew “rural” from my time living in the boonies outside Toledo, but this was a whole new level.  I flew into Denver, where the DM picked me up and drove me out to North Platte.  I tell you, I'd never seen so much ‘nothing’ in my entire life.  It was just mile after mile of straight road and cornfields.  It completely blew me away.

North Platte turned out to be a nice little town.  It was funny because everyone there seemed like they were right out of Central Casting.  The guys tended to be 6-foot tall and blond, and the girls were all blue-eyed and pretty.  I felt like an invading goomba from some far-off land.

The store was located in a, well, I don’t even know if you can call it a “mall.”  There were 2 department stores on either end, with spaces for stores along a single corridor in between.  Most of the retail space was vacant.  There was only one little indie record store/head shop in town, so they were just aching for a decent place to get some music.  The funny thing is, though, that this dinky little not-even-a-mall was a “destination” trip within the state.  They told me that people drove for 2 hours or more to shop there.  I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why.

I dug in with the staff and I showed them how to unpack and check in and properly sticker the product orders.  I taught them how to set up product end-caps and accessory pyramids and such.  And while they were at it, I took the manager into the back room and helped her set up her office systems.  OK, “office systems” sounds kind of formal… it was really just a series of clipboards with different product inventory lists on them.  I went over how to do all the various product inventory cycles and place her weekly orders.

We had to wait a good bit for all the product to roll in, but by the end of the week, we had a pretty good store set up.  I was proud of our efforts.

My two best stories from the trip were just from talking with the kids that worked in the store.  Late one afternoon early in my stay, I asked one of them, “So what you guys do for fun around here?

He said, “Well, last weekend, we had about 20 cars out in the A&P parking lot… and some of them even had beer!

[Jaw::Table]  That makes my youth spent hanging out in our Barn with a couple buddies and a 6-pack look like an Arab Spring riot.

Later, I asked if they ever had any good concerts come to town.  One of the kids said, “Well, a couple of years ago, the Monkees Reunion came to the State Fair…”

OK, it’s not exactly Woodstock, but it’s a start.  This town desperately needed a record store.  Made me feel like I was starring in the road company of The Music Man. 

(Yeah, I know, only Carpetbagger will get that one…)

As for my own entertainment, I spent most every night in the hotel bar, which I was told was the only bar in town.  It had a dance floor and DJ, so I didn't mind at all.  And I liked that I was within crawling distance of my room.  When I was done for the night and the cute waitress, (whose name was “Twila,” if you can believe that), asked me if I wanted another, I’d say, “Not tonight, I gotta walk.”

I was hoping she’d offer to show me the way, but I don’t think I was blond enough.

Anyway, we got the place up and running and I was pretty proud of the whole operation.  I think I left them with every opportunity to be successful; the rest was going to be up to them.

When I got home, the first thing my DM told me was that he was never letting me leave town again.  Apparently there was a big multi-store blow-up regarding employees letting their friends steal from the stores.  One of my guys got caught and rolled over on several employees from other stores, including the manager of one of the big freestanding stores.

He even tried to say that I was in on it, but my DM and the Loss Prevention guys knew me well enough to know he was full of shit (no thanks to that little ratfuck.) See, all that time hanging with the LP men paid off.  He’s lucky I never saw his ass again, or I’d have stuffed him in a dumpster.

It still rattled me, though, because something like that went on during my watch.  Just goes to show that a manager never truly knows what happens once he walks out the door.  That’s why having quality assistants is so important.  No matter how you slice it, when you talk about retail work, it’s only a “real job” for the manager.  For everyone else, it’s just a way to put some money in their pockets.  Getting a bunch of kids to care about the success of the store is exceedingly difficult.  It’s not something I think I ever really mastered.

One thing it taught me was how tough it was to trust your people.  As a new manager, I naturally wanted to bond with my staff.  We were always laughing and joking around and had a slew of running jokes.  I’d never encountered an incident like that during my time in Toledo, so it was real betrayal to me, because I liked the kid.  I mean, he was a polar opposite from me… he was kind of a new waver to my unrepentant rock and roller.  But more of “his” kind were shopping at the mall, than were “my” kind.

It’s a real tightrope walk to tread the line between keeping a good rapport with the staff without getting so close that they lose respect for your position.  I learned that while want to be friendly and you don’t want to be mean, it’s not a terrible idea for them to stay just a little bit afraid of you.  You’d like to think that if you just remained reasonable and friendly, your people would never do anything to screw you.  But every so often, you have show a little bite, just to keep everyone in line.

The trials and tribulations of this retail manager will continue with Part 4 – Escape from the Mall.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Retail Bluz Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about my early experiences working retail.  I now pick up the tale after being promoted to Assistant Manager of a huge record store in Toledo OH.

It was a big change, when my manager was promoted to District Manager.  I went from 3rd Key to Assistant, and the Assistant became Manager.  Luckily, I had a great relationship with her.  She was a lot of fun to work with, despite her being nicknamed, The Dragon Lady.

That came from when the Manager and I used to go out to this Mexican restaurant for lunch, and they served these killer margaritas.  We’d have a huge enchilada and two or three margaritas, and then he’d swing me back by the store and say, “I’m going home.  YOU go in and tell The Dragon Lady.”

At least she couldn't be mad at me… I was the one who came back (even if I was useless for the rest of the day.)

Toledo was kind of an “outpost” in my DM’s new territory.  Most of his other stores were in Cleveland; some were little mall stores, and some were larger, freestanding stores like in Toledo.  A number of them had some operational problems, so we got used to him calling us out there and plunging us into cleanup projects.  Usually it was a situation where the store had an excess of “returns” filling up the back room, which needed processing.

The record business was unique in the retail world in that you could write up a percentage of your stock and return it to the record labels for credit.  Like if the label rep convinces you to buy 2 cases of a new release and it promptly stiffs, you can return the overstock after a certain amount of time.  You could also write up all returned or defective merchandise.

But it was a very labor-intensive process which often got neglected, hence the need for some fresh people to come out and tackle the project.  Cleaning overstock out of back rooms became my calling card.  I was like Rambo with a tie tied around my head, a box cutter on my belt and a wild look in my eye.

There was one store manager out there that I particularly liked.  She was a cute little blonde named Debbie, who ran our mall store in Parma, (the place Drew Carey used to sing about in his original TV show theme song).  After cleaning out her back room like a pen and box cutter-wielding tornado, I asked her out.  I mean, how could she refuse me, after all the work I just did for her?  Anyway, I brought her flowers and we had a pleasant, if chaste, date, before I headed back to Toledo.

I didn't have a chance to work for the Dragon Lady very long before our DM changed the game.  One day in January, he phoned me and told me to pack a bag and meet him at 7:00 AM at our Parma store.  I was pretty sure that meant he was assigning me my own store, but he refused to give me any details.  He told me to tell no one.  It all was very cloak and dagger.  I was just hoping that I would have the chance to continue working on Debbie.

So, cut to Monday morning when I met him at the roll-down gate of the store.  We went to the Roy Rogers’, across the hall, where he crushed my dreams in one fell swoop.

Debbie is a felon and a lesbian.  Last night she turned over a gym bag with almost $5,000 in it that she had stolen from the store.  She stole money from the Christmas deposits and has been rolling the funds over from the subsequent days to cover it.  She’s in jail and you’re the new manager.”

I was cow kicked.  I sputtered, “What do you mean, ‘she’s a lesbian??’”

Always right on point, I am.  But apparently the irregularities with the deposits made our Loss Prevention guys curious, so they went into the store after hours and found evidence of her embezzlement.  And they also found a stash of love letters between her and a female friend, hence the “lesbian” comment.

So I didn't get any more dates, but I got my own store.  I wasn't disappointed for very long… I had too many other emotions flooding through my body…

Was I ready for this?  Could I really be the guy in charge?  How could I be manager when I didn't know what the EFF I was doing most of the time?  I was excited, worried and terrified all at once.  Once again, I’d stepped on the merry-go-round and it was spinning me along whether I liked it or not.
This was my new “home,” which was every bit as slick and ultra-modern as my last store was rough and retro.

Somehow, that next week, I found an apartment, rented a truck, packed up my shit in Toledo and hit the road for Cleveland.  It was tough leaving my buddies back in Toledo, but I was fortunate that I wasn't going too far; just two hours away.  The scary part was that I was completely on my own, with no security blanket of friends or family.  I had to be a grownup now.

Still, I made friends out there pretty fast.  In fact, one of my friends from the Toledo store, Kenny “the Viking,” was already out there running one of the freestanding stores.  And another guy, Ron, moved out there about the same time I did, so the three of us hung out a lot together.  (See my Tales from the Strip Club posts.  They all start with my moving to Cleveland and hanging with those rascals.)

Settling into Cleveland was a lot easier than getting started at the store.  My inherited staff was kind of a mixed bag, the most problematic of which was a father/daughter team that worked there.  Daughter was a high school student; father was a part-time DJ, the latter of which did not get along with my DM.  My first order of business was to fire him.

Man, I was scared shitless.  I’d never fired anyone before and this guy was probably 15 years older than me.  But they were used to basically doing whatever they wanted in the store, like playing his homemade mix tapes instead of the tapes the company sent.  Now, I hated playing the company tapes too, but as a new manager, I was a Company Man all the way.  Plus, I had direct orders.

It turned out to be easier than I anticipated.  The DM spoke to him ahead of time, basically telling him that the party was over and he was cutting his hours back.  When I met with him, all I had to do was accept his resignation.  Somehow, I managed to remain on good terms with the daughter and she was a turned out to be a decent employee. 

So, I got their back office systems in order, instituted the cash management techniques I learned in Toledo, and slowly but surely turned the store around.  Sure, there were some bumps.  I was still a bit too heavy-handed; probably over-compensating for feeling like a rookie.  But that was also the model I was used to.  When my DM was my manager, he set the rules and you followed them, period.

You can never underestimate the importance of a quality Assistant.  One person just can’t be there 24/7; you have to leave sometime, and you need to turn things over to someone that shares your vision.  It’s so much easier said than done.  Sometimes, I found, the Assistant does more harm than good.  If you’re lucky, you find that out before they do too much damage to your store and the rest of the staff.

I was lucky in Parma that I was set up with a pretty good Assistant and 3rd Key.  But I also learned that it wouldn't last.  If you have a good Assistant, you’ll inevitably lose her to a Store Manager spot opening elsewhere.  That’s the nature of the business.

Another thing I wasn't used to was the theft.  There was so much more of it in a mall setting than in my old freestanding store.  The biggest problem was the bin of loose cassettes we had near the doors.  It was just too easy to shove a couple in your pocket and ease out the door.

We also had to deal with professional record thieves, called “boosters.”  These were guys that worked in teams and could clean out whole sections of your bins.  They would only target high-demand hit albums, which they could easily resell to wholesalers. 

The scheme was simple; one guy would occupy the clerk with constant questions while the other guy would grab giant handfuls of albums and shove them into big pockets sewn into the lining of his jacket.  They would work every store in a market and then move on.  So we were always on the lookout for these guys, and when anyone got a line on one, they’d call all the other stores in the district.  Some of these guys even wore wigs and disguises and stuff. 

But I’ll never forget that punch in the gut feeling when I’d walk down an aisle and see one of the album pockets in a record bin sitting there half empty, when I know that 10 minutes ago, it was overflowing with product.  Fuckers…

Hey, you want to learn how to make a living by stealing from stores?  Ask a retail manager.  We have to know all the tricks if we are to have any chance of stopping them.  I used to love hanging out with our Loss Prevention guys, who always had these amazing tales to tell about scams they've seen, both internal (like the Debbie situation) and external.  What a world.

You know, I only ever intended to make one long post or maybe two short ones to talk about my retail life.  But don’t be surprised if this ends up as a series.  I have so much more to talk about.  I mean, I thought I was going to write a paragraph or two about Parma, until I started typing.  But how could I possibly omit a story like the felonious lesbian?

Stay tuned for more.  (Stories, not felonious lesbians. And "The Felonious Lesbians" is totally a great punk rock band name.)