Thursday, November 17

Big Box Retail, a Perspective

With Black Friday right around the corner, I offer these thoughts about my previous life in big-box retail, and what I learned there. And no, we will not be doing any shopping on Black Friday.

After six years, almost 1,500 days on the job and nearly 1.5 million potential customer interactions, my stint at Lowe's came to an end. What began as a six-month, part-time seasonal job in paint turned into a long-term commitment to big-box retail.

After the closing of Digital Labrador, and the dissolution of my own studio of twenty-five years, I had been doing freelance IT and Macintosh service work for graphic artists and photographers around Kansas City, and when the annual winter lull hit, I got a little twitchy and wanted a paycheck or two to make ends meet. After filling out an online application and a lengthy assessment to make sure I wasn't a psycho-killer, I was called in for an interview, then another. The store manager signed off on my application, and the HR manager offered me the position.

This was not my only job offer that day. Previously, I had participated in a cattle-call interview with the Apple Store on the Country Club Plaza, had been called back for a personal interview with the store manager and offered a part-time provisional position at The Apple Store. I also received a call-back from Best Buy offering me a job with their in-house IT group, The Geek Squad. neither computer related positions worked out.

While Apple offered me the same compensation as Lowe's, that position would have required me to turn off my Apple ID and surrender my Apple Tech Certifications - Software, Hardware, Server, and Network - as well as cease all free-lance consulting and service work. Bonus: they would allow me to work no more than twenty hours per week for six months until I could prove to the sales manager that I was Apple material. Nope.

Best Buy offered me seventy-five cents above minimum wage to do what I had been doing for one hundred an hour. Nope.

I started orientation at Lowe's in February 2010, and hit the sales floor late that month, starting in Paint and Home Decor. Orientation, at that time, was a number of days sitting the store's chilly training room, watching an endless parade of training videos, some well-produced, some not so well. There was a tendency to doze off, particularly after lunch, making the follow-up quizzes somewhat difficult to manage. I took one module six times, failing five, and eventually resorting to taking notes to pass the test.

After ten days, I was pronounced fit for service, given my first red vest and name tag and sent to the floor for departmental training. This was mostly deep-end-of-the-pool sink-or-swim trial by fire, but I caught on pretty quickly and settled in to what was really my fifth retail career.

Retail is challenging for many, impossible for some, but I've always enjoyed the customer contact and the challenge of making the "In the back door, out the front door." environment fun and rewarding.

Training on the job has its drawbacks, but I settled into a fast and demanding department and started to enjoy my time at Lowe's. After six months as a seasonal employee, I was offered the position of Department Manager in Flooring, given a nice pay increase and a challenging department to run. In hindsight, I was not ready for that challenge. There were struggles with management at several levels, a revolving door of sales associates and a department in which everything seems to weigh a hundred pounds or requires a forklift to manage. I struggled, but kept going.

Personnel issues were the hardest to manage. Personalities, communication issues and think-skins nearly ended my career at Lowe's, but after some changes at the department level, and more changes at the management level, the path again smoothed itself out and we kept moving forward.

Some time later, the sales-tier structure of the store, as calculated by corporate, dictated that the number of sales floor department managers should be reduced, and now, instead of one struggling department, I had six - Flooring, Home Organization, Appliances, Cabinets, Paint, and Home Decor.

The only way to describe this situation is management by squeaky wheel. When something falls apart in one department, focus on that area until another department bursts into flames. Lather, rinse, repeat. It was only after a new store manager was installed that the store started to perform to its potential and the requisite sales tier achieved that would allow for individual department managers again.

Given the option of taking over one of the single departments under my control, I chose Paint, my original home at Lowe's. It had several advantages over the others; a manageable inventory, lower shrink history, and a fast pace. Situated at the front of the store, you can see all the comings and goings from the Paint desk, keep an eye on Returns, and be available for spot-coverage on registers or to help other customers as needed.

Paint is a high-touch department, and to provide the best possible customer service experience requires having your head on a swivel and a short-order cook's mentality. People have many preconceived notions about paint, and asking the right questions to help them make informed decisions is key there, as it is in most retail situations.

This last February, I finally gave Lowe's back their keys to the store, said goodbye to the many good friends I had made during my six years there, and Kath and I began this adventure. My takeaway is not much different than my general attitude over the last forty years:

  • Service industries make the world go around. The person that brings you your food at a restaurant, or rings you up at the grocery store is not your inferior, he or she is the foundation of American business, and deserves your infinite respect.
  • All Americans should be required to work retail or wait tables for two years after they complete their formal education. There would be a lot fewer shitty attitudes and self-entitled jerks out there. It can be an entirely humbling experience.
  • Do not base your view of retail on TV shows. They never get it right.
  • I enjoy retail. I also hate retail. This is the normal position most retail people have adopted. 
  • Lowe's is a good place to work, provided you realize that all retail exists for its customers, and you will work odd hours - early mornings, nights, weekends, holidays - and spend the day standing, walking, lifting and smiling even when it hurts. There were days when I walked ten to twelve miles in the performance of my job as manager in the store. I have spent more time on ladders at Lowe's than I ever did building houses. The first three months in Paint, I lost twenty-five pounds. The hard way.
  • If there's a foot of snow on the ground and the cold north wind is howling. The store will be open, and you need to be there, sometimes at 5:00 a.m.
  • Bonus: At the age of sixty, I learned how to drive a forklift.
  • Lowe's has a certain corporate culture - all companies do - but the feeling that you get when you walk through that front door is evidence of how the store manager feels about his or her staff and employees. A staff that feels empowered to own their experience creates a welcoming and helpful place for customers.
  • Was I happy all the time? Hell, no. There were days when I wanted to strangle customers, co-workers, and managers. There were days when I sat in the truck at 5:00 a.m. and debated whether or not I would even bother going to work at all. Sometimes I went home at the end of the day and could barely walk at all.
  • Make no mistake, if you're working for Lowe's or any other company, your needs will be taken into consideration after the company's needs are assessed and met. Your function is to maintain profitability for the store, the company, and the stockholders. If you maintain that standard, and apply your best judgement to the needs of the customer within those guidelines, you will be extremely successful at your job. I enjoyed great success at Lowe's and consider my time there an important part of my life experience.
When you line up outside your retailer of choice next Friday morning, take a few minutes to remember that the people who work there are not a defective subspecies - they are people just like you, with families, mortgages, and car payments. That's why they're doing what they do. Be nice to them, tell them you appreciate what they do, and you'll be amazed at how happy they are to see you walk through those doors.

Thus spake the rabbit.

1 comment:

Applecart T. said...

LOVE THIS b/c it's so true. And well written / expressed. I have no idea of your current adventure, and why would I :) Maybe you are herding rabbits whose destiny is to have their pelts line the White House walls come January. I know you are not . . . I never leave the house on day-after-Thanksgiving-shopping-day, and it makes me sad that, even in 2016, reports of "sales are up by x%" is still our national religion.