Retail.

2 May

I was a retail manager for 17 long years. For legal reasons, I won’t name any of the companies I’ve worked for. I was good at what I did. I knew how to turn a profit, recognize unnecessary spending waste, was extremely good at loss-prevention. I was a Spanish/English translator for corporate and I somehow managed to usually be everyone’s favorite manager to work for. It’s extremely difficult to separate the corporate greed you’re forced to farm and still be a humanitarian. You wouldn’t believe how little money you earn for how much responsibility and work you have to do. Not to mention the stringent rules and regulations. I wore a mask 60 hours a week. Not a physical mask, like now, but a personality one. Looking back, its almost criminal. Imagine running a 10 million annual store, 72 employees directly under you, and not being able to treat yourself to a drink at the dive around the corner that costs $4.50. I’m not sure how the people who treat retail employees terribly, or anyone in service for that matter, lay their heads down and sleep at night. In light of everything, maybe we’ll all learn to be less shitty to everyone. That cashier that just rung up your precious Roma tomatoes and toilet paper is risking their lives for minimum wage. My jobs weren’t essential, but at the time they were all I had on my resume and it was what I could get hired for. Trust me, I tried for years to get out.

This story is not about my grievances. I have many. This story is about what was probably my best retail job. It prepared me for other jobs. It taught me work ethic. For the time, it paid me extremely well, with top-notch medical. Bonuses, concert tickets, parties…they took care of us. I also saw way more genitalia and nudity on the job than one would expect for a corporate chain. This particular store is found in every mall. It serves young adults and kids, for the most part, to find their way and who they are as they are maturing. It carries a variety of items. Most known and visited for band t- shirts and body jewelry. It also sold pop culture things, hair dye, nail polish… you know, anything you would need to make grandma uncomfortable at Thanksgiving. I’m also proud to say even way back then, in a mostly conservative town, we sold gay stuff too. You wouldn’t believe how happy a scrawny teenager would be when they pulled their crumpled up money out of their pocket that they had obviously been saving and covertly bought a pride shirt as if it were contraband. In Fresno, CA we were the highest-volume store in all of the United States. Also, the smallest square footage. We were only 1100 square feet. What does that matter? They ship you product based on volume, not size. Let that sink in. Everyone who worked there became extremely good at Tetris.

I have worked at many well-known retail places, but this one was special. I have made life-long friends during my time there. People I still talk to today, 14 years later. One person, became an official member of my chosen family and notarized executor of my estate. One, I fixed up with a former partner’s brother and they got married. Another, I sent my zines to with mixed tapes when I was in my fledgling stage of a real writing career. One is married to one of my high school friends I used to go to ska shows with and is now living here in Portland. I would equate it to the movie Empire Records, but that would be too contrite. It was a renaissance time. We made each other laugh, did weird shit, and yes… flashed genitalia.

FUN TIMES

As I mentioned, we were extremely high-volume. That means you gotta bust your ass selling those AFI shirts, Playboy bunny belly button rings, and those impossibly heavy JNCO jeans. Oh! Also, gotta process those 50-75 boxes of shipment daily. You gotta keep the shelves that barely exist because you’re operating out of a closet stocked! Oh! Things are selling so fast, you must constantly remerchandise! Don’t worry! No one is waiting to be rung up or needs help out there in the locked-up body jewelry case or the trench coats and goth dresses hanging on the wall because of lack of space and can only be accessed with a hook. A hook only an employee can touch. One of my coworkers once fashioned a shelf out of two pieces of cardboard to stretch across the top of the body jewelry case in order to fit more Nightmare Before Christmas merch that we were being bombarded with by the carton full. I thought it was brilliant, but corporate said no. Safety issues. Fix our square footage then, assholes.

We were under a lot of pressure, but we played games to keep us entertained.

Once a bat got trapped in the mall and decided to hang out in the store. Not joking. We named it “Bella”.

Games we would play:

*Counterfeit*

So we had this marker that you would drag across larger bills. It would be yellow on a real bill, turn black on a bad one. We HAD to use it. If there was a $20 or larger without the mark on it in your till at the end of your shift it was automatic termination. The counterfeit game went as such: You run the pen across all bills, even smalls. Coins, credit cards and debit cards while maintaining a serious and straight face. You must be all business and never crack a smile. You should see a customer’s face when you run a counterfeit detecting pen across a nickel.

*No Habla Ingles*

We would only do this to the terrible moms that were pissed off and yelling at us for no damned reason. Those people who hated their lives and their personal choices so they take it out on service workers. You know, “Karens” I guess we call them now. We didn’t have a word for it back then. We just called them “assholes”. So, when mom was mad about a sign, an expired coupon, not having an item in the magical back room, or any other bullshit, suddenly we all spoke only Spanish. “Yo no se pendeja”.

*Blackout*

Any retail worker knows that it’s annoying and extremely frustrating when people rush into your store right at closing time. Most corporate businesses are under intense monitoring as far as clock-out times. Everything needs to be straightened perfectly, and that till must not be over or under even a dollar. This is extremely stressful and people don’t give a FUCK. They’ll roll in 5 minutes before close. Corporate wont let you tell them what for. How dare you upset the paying customer? Oh, and you best believe they take their time too. They know, oh lord do they know what they’re doing. Guess what? The breaker is on my way to the back. Guess who just had a power outage? Looks like I need some time to fix it. Not safe for customers, and I’m just a girl so it’s absolutely going to take a while.

*Flirt game*

When we would see two people that were very obviously a couple, and they were being gross, this game would begin. We hated PDA. So, if a couple sauntered in, groping each other, hands in each other’s ugly-ass jean back pockets, or making out in the store and blocking everyone’s way we would engage. We would choose whatever employee we thought would be the most attractive to one of the two people, and that person would go and flirt. Ever so gradually. First it would seem like friendly customer service. Then, it might be touching them and telling them how good they look. “Oh wow! You’ve been working out!” We would slowly, and gradually ramp it up until the couple gets in a fight while we all wordlessly and expressionless, look on. We always placed bets on whether or not one of us would get punched.

*Hazing*

Getting a job at this particular place was coveted and extremely difficult. We only had so many slots. Also, in our small town we were considered rockstars if we worked there. I know that sounds strange, but it was true. There were times I’d be out in Fresno, just doing a normal-person thing like going to the movies and people would want to shake my hand or take a selfie with me. On a disposable camera. That’s what we had then. We were a small team, and it had to be a right fit. We were swimming around in a fishbowl, and everyone needed to get along. Sometimes it would be determined on something we were lacking. For example, at one point I was the only girl, therefore we needed some diversity. It was never based on looks. So many people wanted to work there. My stack of applications and resumes each week were larger than my head. When we would finally select someone after interviewing them at the food court in front of the Sbarro’s, they got hazed. I would hire someone and on their first day make them walk around all shift with balloons tied around their wrists I purchased at the Hallmark store so I could “see them” and “knew where they were”.

I once made a new hire wear a pink, fuzzy Kangol bucket hat all shift and told him it was a corporate requirement to boost sales.

*Acting*

One coworker would pretend to have an arm injury, and would tell the customers that he needs to build up the strength in his hand. Any assistance a customer would need with an item, he would ask them to put in his weak hand in order to make it stronger. He was the only one who could do this game. The job for the rest of us was to try and keep a straight face. The man deserved a god-damned Oscar, or a Tony…I don’t know, but you’ve never seen a more convincing performance. It would not be uncommon for one, or more us to have to duck behind the cash-wrap to get the giggles out so we could all stay in character.

*Code*

Everyone who has ever worked retail knows that corporate visits are extremely stressful. You’re under a microscope, and they give zero shits about your day-to-day or your specific business challenges. They are paid to be there to focus on the bottom line. They are the ambassadors of corporate greed. When a visit occurs, we all know we have to behave differently. That means abiding by SOP (Standard Operating Procedures). The folly in that, is all corporate retail has an idea of how they want the business ran, but to actually serve customers and the insurmountable side-work asked of us…we find ways to make it work. At the end of the day, the customer needs to come first. The money they spend lines the corporate pocket, and they fail to see that. When the Big Wigs were heading in, we always put on a certain song as a signal to all workers clocking on that doom was upon us and we need to switch to a different mode. Wear your service hat, and sorry about all the people we have clocked on that we have zero budget allotted for. Don’t worry! I’ll just be forced to cut your hours later as a result to make up for it so we can all tap dance for people making more money than we ever will! That signal was Du Hast by Rammstein. My district manager once commented “wow, you guys really like Rammstein.” Yep. We love it.

The Music

There is a certain sort of torture that occurs to every retail worker. The music. It’s shoved into your fucking ear-hole anywhere from 20-40 hours a week, if you’re lucky. In my particular position, I had to listen to absolute garbage for about 60 hours. Can you listen to whatever you want? NOPE. You have to play whatever t-shirts are selling best. We also got free tickets to live bands and I had to organize it as a team-building event where no one could drink and I had to stare at people hard-core dancing dead-ass sober. Have you ever seen hard-core dancing? Yo… That means I have an acute knowledge of shitty bands from 1999-2006. During quarantine, while I’m cooking, we play a “name that tune” off Spotify from that time. I didn’t even realize how many Alkaline Trio, A Simple Plan, and Fall Out Boy songs I can still identify. Song, artist and album. Gross.

So, understanding that we had zero control over what we had to listen to due to corporate I submit to you bands we hated least. At the time:

Saves The Day

Andrew WK

Modest Mouse

A Static Lullaby

Coheed and Cambria

Taking Back Sunday

Smashing Pumpkins

Weezer

Reggie and the Full Effect

Le Tigre

Snake River Conspiracy

Thursday

Music became tasteless to us. As if you were force-fed Graham crackers every day. Sure, Graham crackers are good, but do you want them all day, every day? All music is valid, regardless of your opinion. Someone put themselves out to create it, and someone else is out there to enjoy it. When you’re forced to listen to it when you are doing a job, it can feel like waterboarding.

Even to this day , when we close the bar the very first thing I do is turn the music off. My coworkers hate it. I know this, but I need that sweet, sweet silence.

I understand that this isn’t good music for most. We had to pick something from the list, and you do with what you have.

To this day, Sublime is strictly banned at any bar I work at, or any home I live in. Oh trust me! there are so many more bands I was forced to play and listen to, that as the very first 3 notes play I can name both title and artist and gag at the same time. There were so many bad bands at this time, and we had to play it SO uncomfortably loud. When I say we had to, I mean we had to. Corporate came in, tested our sound system and put a line on the volume dial with white out and we couldn’t go lower or higher than that line. People accuse me of being a music snob now. I wonder why?

*Cue Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous*

Bands that make me instantly puke:

Lincoln Park

Eminem

Good Charlotte

All American Rejects

Yellow card

Mindful Self Indulgence

ICP

Sum 41

Look here… the list goes longer. This is just to name a few. As I perfectly folded the ever-so-trendy at the time black and hot pink t shirts of these terrible bands fucking my ear hole day in and out, I happily lined my pockets with my quarterly bonuses.

For the most part. Everyone that has ever worked retail will tell you about the Christmas music. When I finally lose it, they’ll put me in a home and mall Christmas music will be soundtrack in my addled brain.

Being a music writer for VICE was tough because of this. I’m sensitive to a lot of music now, and a lot of it fucking sucks. That god-damned horrible music festival they sent me to broke my brain.

Relationships

I’m still friends with a lot of people that I worked with from back then. Looking back on it, we all got along too. For how young we were and how much pressure we were under, its amazing. Believe it or not, there were few squabbles. Did we hook up with each other? YEP. Did it cause problems, NOPE. Not to say once in a while we didn’t hire a dud that needed to go. I got extremely good at the interview process. Not to brag, but I can feel someone out and know if they are good people or nah. It saved us a lot of red tape. You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to terminate someone from a corporate in the state of California. They’d rather have someone straight-up stealing than deal with unemployment or a lawsuit. That’s why you must choose your candidate carefully. I think, for the most part, we did. As the official Loss Prevention officer, this drove me up the wall.

Was there drama? Sort of. My Shift Lead dated a sales associate and broke his heart. I just didn’t schedule them together, going forward. I heard two associates making fun of me in the back room, saying I had “greasy hair”. They got their hours cut. Don’t bite the hand, idiots. I had a crush on an associate, and I knew he liked someone else so I never scheduled them to work together. It’s all just another complicated game of Tetris.

I fell in love with a subordinate, and we had to hide it from everyone. That was so scandalous, we’d have to drive to San Francisco just to hold hands or be seen together in public. In the corporate world, fraternization is strictly forbidden. Eventually, he had to quit in order for me to not get fired. I got in extreme hot-water anyway. Rumors spread that people saw us out together, and my boss was extremely nosey. How strict were the rules? For example, if you were out somewhere, and a co-worker walked in, you were required to leave and walk out. If you even said “hi” it could be automatic termination. Working corporate is cool.

My illegal relationship

Nudity

I know this is the one you were waiting for. This is going to be a complicated list, and triggering to some. I never was nude there. Not outside of trying clothes on in the actual dressing room with the curtain closed. You know, like a normal person.

In my time there, I was subjected to the following:

Butts. So many damned butts. Of all variety. Part of our job was to climb ladders. Constantly. Like I mentioned before we had a space issue, so everything had to be merchandised up. Also, we had to store most of our back-stock product in The Loft. Every person who has worked at that store, in Fresno, CA just had a shiver go down their spine when I said that word. We had to pull a giant, 20-foot ladder out, lay it against a wall, sometimes on top of other boxes, and climb up it to get more studded belts or arm bracelets. This was such a dangerous and shitty day-to-day that the person tasked with scaling the wall would often moon their co-worker who had to spot the ladder and catch the box. Not “catch”, so to speak, but break its fall with our bodies as it sails down so the merchandise didn’t get damaged. That comes out of your budget. So the person chosen to climb after a fierce rock, paper, scissors would descend the precarious ladder with their butt hanging out. You would be forced to do nothing but stare right at it, because you have to hold the ladder or they may fall to certain doom. I fell off the ladder once. I had to get 12 stitches.

“The wristwatch”. Do you know what that is? I didn’t, but I apparently know what time it is when its half-past a freckle. So the “game” is you surprise a co-worker with your penis wrapped around your wrist like a bracelet or a watch and make them look at the stem. Like I said, I was working with all dudes at the time. Apparently, this is normal bro behavior but at the time, I wasn’t ready. To this day I hate the phrase “what time is it?’

Nipple rings. I hate them. No offense if you have them. They can be a beautiful adornment. Here’s my journey. Managers used to have to work the middle of the store, so they could see everything going on at all times. That meant I worked the body jewelry cases the most because they were dead-center. I cannot tell you how many funky dudes, in 101 degree weather would walk in, straight out of jail, lift up their shirt with a god damned toothpick through their nipple, and ask me what gauge I thought that was. Guess what folks, unfortunately this is information I have. It’s a 14. One of my female coworkers got her nipples pierced and couldn’t change the initial piercing set to the regular set. For those that don’t know, when you get a piercing, the introductory jewelry is a spacer. When it heals, you have to change it. Being the mom of the group, we went to the employee bathroom and I did it for her. Im not going to do this to you, dear reader, but the blood. Something you wont unsee.

Okay so this one is hard to talk about. I had a superior pull out his entire junk and show it to me at 7 in the morning when it was only us in there. I will never forget it. He was trying to show me his new Prince Albert. I just froze. I didn’t know what to do. He had called me in because he said we needed to inventory the merchandise in the loft. We climbed up, one by one with the inventory sheets. I started counting, he then kicked the ladder down so I couldn’t get away. Inventory that day was a ruse. He expected me to have sex with him. I absolutely did not. I actually jumped down, onto a shipment box with Sponge Bob plushies conveniently, and luckily, situated below. It was a little over a 20 foot drop, but I would have still done it if it were 60. I didn’t tell anyone because I needed to keep my job. He was later fired for reasons unrelated to me that I can’t discuss. I knew it was coming. I just had to wait it out. It was his word against mine. No cameras, remember? Who would believe me?

Shenanigans

Despite how busy we were and all we were tasked with, we still found time to do shit on that corporate dime. I became really good at haircuts. I would give them to everyone that worked there in the bathroom. Mohawks, upper-cuts, regular cuts, fresh fades, bang-trims, layering…none us spent any money on hair cuts at that time. Want your hair dyed? No problem. That Manic Panic container over there looks damaged. Let’s just mark it out and slap it on your head. It looks like you’re not feeling well and you need to go sit down for about 30 minutes.

Ear stretching was very “in” at the time. They forced us to to do standard ear piercing for customers, in which none of us were trained for. That’s right, they just handed us a gun and told us to practice on EACH OTHER. Then! After one go at it, we were allowed to pierce your children. If you ever see anyone with fucked up earlobes, chances are they are alumni. Mine look like my dog chewed on it. So because of having to do this, we were really comfortable with modifications of the earlobes. I’ll save you the gory, and often times stinky details of stretching ears, but we did it in the store all the time and I was the best at it.

For any retail worker, Christmas is misery. There are long lines, people are pissed because they feel they have to spend money they don’t have. That being said, they are assholes and don’t give a shit how they talk to you or how hard you have been working. They money-grub, try to under-cut, and push their way into any front any way they can get. They will shout, berate and degrade an underaged kid working a cash register. It’s a sad state of affairs. One particularly trying day, one of my coworkers got cornered by one of these awesome people, and he almost started crying. He sucked it up and went back to working the fitting room. I decided the fitting room was out of order. A pipe burst! Oh no! I hung an out of order sign on the curtain and let him wrap his Christmas presents in there instead. You treat our people like shit, you get shit.

Dress Code

One of the things that made the store so attractive to work for most was the very lack of any dress code. As someone who has worked for many corporate business, usually it is extremely strict on its specifications. One place I managed, wouldn’t allow nail polish, and your hair had to be tied back at all times. Another didn’t allow any other tops except ones that had sleeves to the wrist and no bare legs. Its rough out there in the retail world. When I started working at this particular establishment, I had a hard time breaking this habit. Everyone else were in punk shirts, pierced for days and tatted out. I would be in a designer skirt and high heels. I mean, that was this place was all about. Be your own, weird self. We even had a person working for us that would occasionally show up in full drag and run the register. It was amusing how many dads buying ICP shirts flirted with them and had NO IDEA. They even wore an alternate name tag we made for them and they would come back and ask for her. By name. At that time, in that town…quite brave. That could have gotten your ass killed.

So here I am, the manager of a store that, by definition, is supposed to be alt and I’m trying to do my best Linda Evangelista impression. They let it fly for about a year, but soon the corporate higher-ups descended upon me like vultures. They asked me what my goals with the company were. I said I wanted to move up to the corporate level. At the time, I really did. They explained to me if I were ever actually achieve that, I would “need to reflect more of the company’s image”. I asked them what I could do. They suggested either dying my hair a weird color or getting a piercing. I didn’t want to do either. Sure, I used to dye my hair purple, and shave my head when I was a fourteen-year old skate-punk. I just wasn’t that person anymore. That’s when I got my first nose ring.

They were not satisfied with this.

The next year, when we revisited this issue, I got a second one.

They still were not satisfied. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I never moved up beyond the store level. Most of me knows its because retail is a dead-end. They hire from the outside and rarely promote from within because they can pay less.

So that’s why I have two side-to side nose rings for life. I once took them out for two years, hoping they’d seal up. They won’t. What would you rather see? Two gaping holes in a person’s face or studs covering that? They’re here to stay. I’m going to be one progressive-looking granny.

Loss prevention

People stole from our store. A LOT. Normally, we wouldn’t give a shit. Sadly, that crap we’re moving around on pegs and stocking on the shelves is inventoried. If your store has too much deficit after the lovely folks of REGIS visit you (those who know, know), you become a flagged store. What does that mean? You must do inventory more often than usual, and I assure you a root canal is more pleasant. A company comes in after hours. They mark for all your shelves and things with area tags. They count and scan all the pieces in the area marked. You then, as the employee, must come in and double-count them. There’s always mistakes. It takes all night. They leave, then you have to clean it all up again before opening. The hours you’re paying those employees to do this come out of your regular budget. Now you have to cut the operating hours. Less people on the floor equals…guess what?? More stealing!

OH! And if you’re a flagged store, corporate is required to come do a visit once a week. Imagine the pleasantries in that.

One of the humanitarian things we did, was scare kids straight. What I’m about to tell you is illegal, I’m sure, but I think we did some good. We’ve never had a parent be mad at us once for doing this practice. If we ever caught a minor trying to steal, and trust me, they weren’t good at it. It was obvious. We would tell them they were caught. Then, there would be a moment of us breaking them down. We’d say shit like “ooh, you know what’s punk rock? Getting caught stealing a Blink 182 shirt”. We’d make them sit behind the cash register, provide a guardian’s number and we’d call them. Then, we’d call over our mall security guy (who cant do anything. They don’t know that) to come over and tell them what can happen if they continue to commit larceny. He was always really nice about it, but let them know of the seriousness of the situation. Eventually, the parent or guardian would show up. We’d pull them aside and explain what happened, no one owes any money, we just wanted to teach a lesson. We got a hug every time. Looking out, shaping those youths.

I will tell you working LP is one of the most stressful retail positions. You’re forced to monitor and keep track of every piece of merchandise that enters and leaves those doors. OH! And even those that don’t. Out of the average of 525 shipment boxes that come every week, better hope no one mis-delivers. OH! And if someone does steal, which they do, you are not allowed to stop them outside of verbally communicating with them. Same with mall security. It comes out of your budget and your paycheck.

Money

The pay was very good, at the time. This was a Fortune 500 company, and it showed. Not only were we earning an unheard of hourly wage for a mall store, we got bonuses every quarter. Big ones. The store manager got to go to a huge party every year, put up in a hotel, and had a band play for them. Not just “a band”, but a huge-name act. Also, got a company car.

At one of these legendary parties, an unexpected thing happened. Jesse James, the proprietor of West Coast Choppers, presented us with a briefcase full of cash. We had sold the most of his merchandise out of our tiny little store of anywhere in the world. He wanted to say thank you. Jesse pointed out that he has “pay up bitch” tattooed on his hands, and he wanted to be a man of his words. I won’t disclose the tax-free amount he handed us, but it was a LOT. The most money I’ve ever seen at once. We did a lot of math and divided it up amongst the staff based on hours worked and tenure. He may have broke Sandra Bullock’s heart, but he stole ours.

I used that money to go on a trip, buy some shit, and pay off all my stupid credit card debt I racked up in college.

To this day, best employee discount you’ve ever seen. We got 40% off, always. To put that in perspective, the last retail store I managed gave us 10%. We also got that discount on top of any clearance price. Also unheard of. So that means when things went on clearance, and we ran the additional 50% off promotion…we got 40% still on top of that. Guess what crap everyone got for Christmas? Hope you like Invader Zim dolls and cat collars. For humans.

The Leaving Song

This has been a long and hard look back on a specific time in my life. It may not seem like it was good, but it was. I will never regret taking this job and staying there for 6 years. I was one of the lucky ones. One of the chosen few that got to work at one of the greatest mall jobs there was to have in Fresno, CA in 1999.

I quit for a myriad of reasons. There was a lot of resentment over my clandestine relationship and I felt I was being forced out because of it. I was also being forced out because I was getting paid too much. That one got me, because I’m sure you’ve noticed I could have sued multiple times. I was frustrated with not being able to move up in the company. Mainly, I felt I was getting too “old” for that place. How many more piercings would I have to get? I chose to leave. The money was definitely worse, but it was time.

If you’re struggling to understand how this was my “favorite”, that will tell you how much working retail SUCKS.

SUPPORT LOCAL BUSINESSES.

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