Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Five Things I've Learned Working in Retail

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A day late with this post but better late than never! I got called in to work on Monday, the day of ridiculously cold weather here in Minneapolis, so cold that school was cancelled and it was said on the news that Antarctica and parts of Mars was currently warmer than my own city. So I braved the -20 degree F temperatures to go to work in a very, very empty store as most people were bundled up inside, viewing the cold tundra of our city as place to feared to be tread. So the slow night gave me a lot of time to contemplate working in retail.

If you're unfamiliar with my job, here's what I do: I'm a sales floor employee at Target, a retail store sometimes called the "middle class Walmart" in the United States (and apparently now Canada). It's a local company, based in Minneapolis, and the corporate headquarters is only a block down the street from the store I work in. Which puts a lot of pressure on our store to perform well. We're known as the flagship store, but we're also very different from your average Target - we're downtown as apposed to being in a small town or suburb. We carry groceries but also carry hundreds of other products. It's a two-level store and seems really large until you've worked there for a few months and begin to realize what our particular store doesn't carry many things that other Targets do simply because we don't have the floorspace and  are in the middle of downtown Minneapolis. In my opinion, there's a lot of mixed expectations - we have to carry what people need from a day to day basis, working downtown or heading home from work or trying to stock up their apartment, but we also have to meet the same expectations of other Targets and corporate's goals for us. We have to juggle being a short walk from Macy's in the skyway with a supermarket/ discount retailer structure. We have to provide incredible guest service, stock shelves, put away stray, back-up at check lanes, provide shopping assistance to people with disabilities, and zone at the end of the night in a high traffic store in an eclectic downtown environment. I heard about Target plenty from my friends who worked at the store in Lakeville when I was in high school and I never expected it to be this complicated. My job is simultaneously very easy and very hard.

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Most of the time, I like my job on the sales floor. I've learned a lot from it, especially about myself as a person and about how people think and communicate. Unfortunately, not everything I've learned has been entirely positive, but some have. Here's a quick summary of some of the important realizations I've had being the employee instead of the shopper and would like to pass on, for the benefit of basic understanding of how retail works and to make everyone's lives a little easier. And, just for clarification, the opinions within are my own and are in no way an expression of Target Corps. opinions or so on and so forth, thank you and good day.

1) Most of the people you see in the store have very little to do with the organization, the structure, and the items sold in the store: I often get confused glances from customers when we don't have a particular item on the shelf and don't have any in the backroom. We get sent thing when we get sent things and, though we can notify suppliers when we're low on something, it doesn't guarantee that we're going to receive the item soon. With competitors like Amazon and the on demand/ instant gratification mentality developed around shopping now, it's a real struggle when we truly are out of an item and there is nothing we can do. Especially in the cold spell we've had, it's very difficult to explain that yes, everyone from out of town has bought all of our gloves and hats and we likely won't be getting more because we're making way for spring and summer attire and no, we can't not put that out or we get in serious trouble for not having merchandise go out as specific times. Now with Amazon wanting to develop those little drones that drop off things soon after you order it, I'm deeply worried how customers are going to further respond when they can't get what they want in our stores.

We also don't get to choose - generally - how things are arranged, especially in softlines (aka clothing). There are very specific layout plans given to us that we have to follow and suppliers sometimes develop how they want their products displayed during sales and special promotions. You might be annoyed that we moved that endcap (the end of an aisle where merchandise is displayed facing a larger aisle in the store) where you totally saw something you wanted to buy but didn't because you thought it'd be there for another two weeks, but it isn't and now you can't find it. Understandable. I used to be totally annoyed that my Lakeville store was always rearranging things. But now I see the utter necessity for this - retail stores are in constant flux. We are continually moving out old merchandise to make way for new things and we simply have to move things around to make this work. Yes, it may make it difficult to find certain things, and it makes it hard for me to remember where things are at times, but so it goes. Need help finding something? Ask. I'll be glad to help you find it. But...

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2) Target carries lots of things but it doesn't carry everything: If you are walking into our store looking for the Holy Grail, abandon hope all yea who enter. Target carries a pretty varied amount of stuff. I particularly love the guests from abroad who are not used to a store where you can purchase groceries and clothes and cleaning supplies all at the same time, or the guests who aren't used to a two-story store and ask if they can bring their purchases to the second floor without checking out first. I don't like the people who don't understand that we don't carry flip-flops year around, don't have every kind of soap known to mankind, and, while this is a big drawback, don't have much in the way of organic foods/products - because there are other stores for that - and get upset with me. Also, I don't know all of the things that Target carries - some products I don't know about or I may not the recognize the name of it. Be patient with me. I get moved around all over the store and know some areas far better than others. I might say we don't have something and be utterly wrong because I'm not aware of it. I usually try to look things up on the equipment we have but I may not always have equipment. And please, please, please don't assume that you can walk into our store and find an expert on humidifiers or light bulbs or home decor. We aren't given training for things like that. This is why Home Depots and furniture stores exist. And while we have to say we'd prefer to you to shop with us at Target, we simply can't have all the knowledge of all the things in our store. However, I'm doing a pretty damn good job of helping men buy shaving equipment. So yay.

3) Put that thing back from where it came from or so help me: While it is part of my job to put away stray in the store - items returned by guests or left in various parts of the store where they don't belong - it would help us all a great deal if there was less stray. Don't want to buy that floor lamp any more? That's totally fine. I get it. But put it back, or at least leave it in a convenient location for someone to put back for you. I read something online about people getting anxious about being judged for being products back. I would like to inform you that if anyone judges you for that, screw them. Really. You can change your mind - you have that freedom. Just don't be a jerk and scatter your merchandise to the four corners of our store. But if you put something back, in the proper place - which no one is making you do, buy the way - then I will hug you. Seriously. I have found floor lamps on the top shelf of the candle aisle. I have found bags of salad hidden behind displays in the pain reliever aisle. I have discovered entire carts of abandoned merchandise in softlines, as if someone either got bored with their shopping or were sucked up out the air by aliens. Someone once dumped an entire handfull of totally random items in the shoe department right after I tidied everything up (and I swear it was on purpose). Yes, it's my job to put away stray, but if you don't want an item, just tell me, or if you're nervous about it, just leave it in a basket out of the way of aisle where we can easily find it. And if it's perishable food, return that to its location or a store employee right away - otherwise we might have to toss it out due to spoilage issues. Though it bothers me when people dump merchandise in pull carts (three-tier carts full of items that need to go out on the floor), at least it's easier for me to deal with than trying to rearrange merchandise at the end of the night (what we call zoning) and find that half of the seasonal section has randomly ended up in the cleaning supplies area. Leave the store a little bit neater and I'll have more time to help you find things.

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4) I love people so please don't make me hate you: Working in retail has been a serious test of my patience and my opinion of the human race. Seeing how parents treat their children, how guests treat each other, and how people treat my fellow employees and me can be a bit disheartening. I especially dislike it when I am explaining something to a guest or helping them find something and it's utterly clear I am in the middle of something and another guest walks up, interrupts, and demands I help them right then and there. I feel worse that I often will deal with them quickly instead of telling them to wait so I can help the other guest and spend the proper amount of time with them. Often, they ask something that has a quick answer. But often I am so caught off-guard by their impatience that I treat them impatiently myself. I also dislike being treated badly and lowly. Nothing makes me more frustrated than to have a guest treat me like a child or someone entirely ignorant of their needs or, worse, to take advantage of my service position. I will do a lot of things to help you - but don't push it. Do not waste my time. Do not ask me to be your personal shopping assistant not because you have any limitations or need special assistance in shopping but because you enjoy making people feel subservient. Do not take the relationship between guest and employee and manipulate the hell out of it. If you're that jerk who makes fun of waiters in restaurants and gave my roommate a negative tip (which, by the way, can't be done by restaurants so STOP DOING IT), then know that I will be polite, but I can at any time contact my team lead and report you. Literally, my job is to be nice to people for $8 an hour. It's pretty straightforward - but don't push it. This is the part of the job where waiters and retail workers bond over the most, so don't give us more fuel for our stories when we exchange the hardship of service jobs.

Oh, and if you think it's funny or cute to hit on a female employee while she's on the job, just don't. It's awkward and embarrassing and I don't appreciate it. So stop.

Sorry, to my knowledge, my Target doesn't have flash mobs (http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/9q7R9qFcrbI/maxresdefault.jpg)

5) What you say matters: Last night, I overheard two guests say that everyone in our store should get raises because because of how great we treat our guests. Considering that guest feedback is very important to our store, this made my night. I wish I'd had the chance to stop them or tell my team lead or something, because it made me feel great. I try really hard to be opening and communicative and greet guests, but sometimes it's hard. Sometimes people will not look at you or make eye contact even after you greet them. Some people shop with headphones in or are on their phones. Some people do not want to be bothered when they shop. But other people won't ask for help unless addressed, so I'm trying to take it upon myself to great and ask more and not be bothered when people get annoyed when I do ask. (And I can understand that being asked again and again if you need help can be irritating, but why do people get so mad about it? Isn't it marvelous to be in an environment where people are willingly giving you their time to help you?)

Likewise, if you say something negative, it sticks with me. I'm not as good at brushing off problems as some people. When one woman was upset because we no longer have paper bags and she was upset with how I was bagging her items, she snapped that we should all take lessons in how to bag items and continued to complain as I continued to ring up her purchases. She was loud and expressive about it, so much so that later another cashier apologized for her and empathized with me. Words matter. If you say that I should be fired for something and want to tell my boss, realize the very serious impact of that (fortunately this has never happened to me, but this happened to another employee simply because we were out of stock on a furniture item). If you think our store is the worst thing on planet Earth and you proclaim this to everyone around you in the store, know that this has an effect on both the employees and the other guests. The success of our store is based on opinion - so be kind.

On the other hand, what I say matters. If I'm not clear about something or I make assumptions, I can make an exchange between a guest and myself much harder. But if a guest isn't clear about what they want, then it becomes much harder to figure out what they want. Quite often my job is a juggling act and it's getting the knack of keeping all the balls in the air more often than dropping them - and when you drop them, to get it back in the air as quickly as possible.

So there you are. I hope you learned a little something about retail stores in the United States. Or at least had some amusement from hearing about my work exploits.

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