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?


Jessica R. said...

The cool factor of working in a record store was definitely offset by all the mundane details that almost all minimum wage jobs require. Good thing minimum wage has gone up! Bad thing that prices have too...

bluzdude said...

Yeah, costs were definitely lower then too, but it was still tough living on my own at that wage. I don't know how any of the part timers made do on what we paid. That's one of the reasons I tried to spread the promos around as best I could. The perks could help morale sometimes. It was just such a grind, always getting pulled all those directions at once. Upper management didn't have a clue how tough it was to do things the way they said to do them. It was up to me to prioritize what things we weren't going to be able to do at a given time.

Valerie said...

I always sucked at running the register. Mostly because our counter was slightly elevated, much like a stage. I would put puppet shows on constantly. And also make our mascot fish say rude things to the customers.

Good thing I don't work in retail anymore!



bluzdude said...

That wouldn't have been a problem if you worked for me. I'd have grabbed another puppet and joined in. You'd have been fine, as long as your drawer wasn't short.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

As a non-thief, I never understand what those huge plastic jackets were for. Funny.

I have nothing else specific to say, but I loved this post as much as the others! More, please.

Anonymous said...

So, I'm definitely seeing a period picture movie here. Who would play Bluz? Back in the day, John Cusack, no doubt. A little bit too spot on?

Today, I'd cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt or James McAvoy. Not too cheesecake, but a smart and savvy everyman. We just need a few more explosions and a good villain to play the DM.

bluzdude said...

Not only did the tape shucks (allegedly) secure the product, they also pushed them forward, so they could be better seen on the shelves. (Because the shelves were much deeper than the depth of the tapes.)

Of course, people broke the tapes out of the shucks anyway… it didn’t take much; a knife, shears or scissors, or even a screwdriver could do it. The thief just had to be out of our sight for few moments, which wasn’t hard, thanks to the nature of all we had to do and how few people we had to do it.

I’ll have the next installment on Thursday night. I think I’ll write about interviewing and staffing.

bluzdude said...

I say, cast a slightly younger Mick Fleetwood. Cusack’s already played that role. Of course in Empire Records, he played the manager of a hip, independent record store, the kind I wished I ran, as opposed to the big corporate store in which I ended up. (When I first started, we WERE the cool, hip store, but then once the company went broke, we got bought up by the conglomeration.)

Anonymous said...

My brother has the same problem with the minimum wage/fun job thing. He manages a movie theater. Everybody wants to work there.

Cassie said...

Please feel free to smack me. I read your blog on my computer and then never commented. WHATEVER. Bad friend.

I totally understand being paid shit, yet wanting to kick it's ass. And that's super respectable mainly because if you want to succeed at a minimum wage job, what wouldn't stop you from taking the corporate world by storm?

So...what are you waiting for?!

bluzdude said...

That’s the thing… some jobs just sound better or more “glamorous,” if you will. The reality is not even close. How glamorous do you think it is to have to clean up all the crap left behind by slobs that think all their trash disappears by movie magic?

How glamorous is it to work at the snack counter and have to listen to one person after another bitch about how expensive things are, and how much cheaper they can get that box of milk duds at the drug store? I swear, after 6 hours of that, someone would end up with a bucket of popcorn on their head.

I bet your brother and I have a lot of the same war stories.

bluzdude said...

Who says I’m waiting? I love my job and am generally happy with my pay. And I’m happy to not be managing people, although I have done it here with this company. I’ve got a nice little niche for myself, with a degree of autonomy and a great boss.

But yeah, there were times when I wondered why I insisted on putting myself through all the stress. I often say that if I was working that same job in any other field, I’d have chucked it within 6-months. Only because it was the music business, did I stick around for 13 years. Considering all the cool stuff I obtained and amazing musicians I got to meet or hang out with, I have to say it was worth it.

And don’t worry about not commenting… you’re a great friend, period. It’s not like I comment on every single one of your posts either… (I read every single one but sometimes, I just don’t have anything of value to add.)

Cassie said...

Completely understand.

Anonymous said...

I'm back tracking through your story. Catching up, as it were. Oh, and fun fact . . . I can't comment on Blogger sites on my iPad, so only the work computer will let me. And I have to run to court in 2 minutes. Fun!

Anyway, that sounds like a huge corporate pain in the ass. Good for you for fighting back. But, um, I'm glad I never worked for you. You sounded like a real hardass. For a very good reason, of course, but still. I'm sure the kids didn't want to deal with that kind of intensive situation for the measly funds they were getting.

bluzdude said...

Yeah, there were some things that you couldn’t mess around with, especially the cash drawer. When it came to the cash, it was my way or the highway. But look, it’s a job… they’re getting paid to work, not stand around yakking with their friends or each other. Thank goodness there were no cell phones yet… I know that would have been a problem. I would have been like, “If I ever see you or hear about you with a cellphone on the sales floor, you’re gone.”

The thing is; I went in as a pretty nice guy. But after getting burned by my staff enough times, I learned that “nice” only goes so far. It was my ass on the line. So I’m sure I overcompensated from time to time.

I think I eventually found the ‘sweet spot’ for staff/management relations, but it wasn’t until later. (I’m still getting there, in these posts.)