Lessons From Retail

I just finished a two-month stint working in retail in Manhattan. I won’t mention the name of the retailer except to say they are everywhere. They sponsor a sale every day, sometimes two, which may be the reason they are closing a number of stores around the country. While I was there they had a one-day, “pre-sale” event that lasted three days. It reminded me of how the Romans measured time. Ever wonder why Christ rose on the third day, yet the crucifixion is commemorated on Friday and Easter on Saturday night?

I didn’t know anything about retail, which is the reason I wanted to work in sales. I have a small consulting firm (Fordham Road Collaborative), and we may be getting a retail client. I needed to know how retail works from the ground up as well as the culture and language of the trade. I worked during the holidays, including Black Friday and Christmas. I learned a few things along the way.

First, retailers will do whatever they can to make a buck. This may not be a bad thing, but it leads to all kinds of problems because of its corollary: not spending money is as good as making money. Remember what they yelled from the stands to the puny kid at bat: “a walk’s as good as a hit!” This means cutting costs in operations, which includes the hardware and software used to conduct sales transactions, hiring and training sales associates, managing sales events, dealing with the huge volume of inventory, and, of course, customer relations.

The two-day training that sales associates went through barely covered how to run the register, which had an outmoded software program. If you needed extra time to learn the sequence of steps required to do an exchange, for instance, the store made it clear they would not pay you for it. Forget about the customer who wanted to return one item, exchange another, check the price on a third, make a payment on her store credit card, add money to a gift card, and then asked for a gift receipt after check-out. Plenti points were for the advanced class.

The hardware was even worse. The registers used an Intel processor at least three generations old and computer monitors that turned pink if you stared at them for too long. I told a customer it was for breast cancer awareness.

Retail 1

Two, customers will do whatever they can to save a buck. They’ll come to the register with six coupons and try to apply them to the clearance item advertised at seventy percent off. One woman from Singapore cried when I forgot to give her the discount for participating in a storewide charitable program. She shuddered and wept in disbelief. It was for two dollars.

While it is true that you can save hundreds of dollars if you work the system (like that guy on Twitter who travels the world on free miles–“Let me show you how!”), most customers do not see that they are running on a treadmill of spend-save-spend. Actually, it is more like search and destroy. Search for discounts, destroy the competition, which, oddly enough, is the store. And its employees.

You see the inherent tension here. The buyer-seller relationship turns adversarial, which is why it gets to be a hostile environment on the sales floor. Mistrust is all around, even with mistletoe.

Third, employees have it the worst. This is something I did not know. They are caught between the employer trying to make a buck and the customer trying to save one. They get blamed for everything from a misplaced label to no five-dollar bills in the till to a stuck escalator. And they are subject to surveillance when entering, exiting, clocking-in, clocking-out, checking the warehouse for a triple X pocket vest, and everything in between. I am surprised they haven’t rebelled.

So, here’s my conclusion: the maximization of profit, or the effort to give shareholders the greatest return on their investment no matter what, can result in unorganized, slip-shod operations and a culture in which employees resent their work, management feels overworked, and customers just want to get the hell out of the building.

So, what brings you into the store today?

Haven’t had enough? Go to Robert Brancatelli. Look for Nine Lives in March. Note to self: They love you when you’re spending; when you’re not, you don’t exist. For top photo, go to Garment Workers’ Strike.

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