Retail!

It is time that we all come clean here with each other about retail. Strip malls and minimum wage have pretty much swallowed our entire society and our entire planet. I know that this sounds a bit bombastic, but when you are in the mood to drop some Truth Bombs, this is what happens. We have been so busy rolling up our sleeves and getting down to the dirty details that we have forgotten to think and reflect on our actions, on our very way of going about things.

We all know the phrase associated with retail and low paying jobs on being asked a question: “Hey, I only work here”. It reeks of lazy ignorance; a slovenly teenager slouching through life, dying just to get home, smoke some pot and watch Adult Swim. Or whatever. I’m just trying to nail down the stereotype to illustrate it. Because it is false. I have worked a variety of minimum wage jobs in a variety of circumstances in a number states over a number of years. Thus, I think that my experience is valid and forceful, if not comprehensive and exhaustive.

This stereotype of the “I don’t know; I only work here” employee is a product not of lazy idiots, but of the system of minimum wage/retail/profit maximisation economic system that we have embraced since the Reagan years. For all of you out there who shop a lot, but still seem to misunderstand the way our economy works today, let me enlighten you. Retail leans heavy on the managers and supervisors, who effective are the store in question. The basic employee shows up to a repetitive, cog-like job, like checking out customers or straitening cloths or what have you.

Employees receive no real training; if they do, it is largely a “drink the cool-aide” sort of training that is closer to propaganda than anything else. All the real training happens “on the job”, i. e. when a customer asks a question. My point is that it is the retail system itself (which yearns to get rid of all employees entirely) that generates the the alienated, lazy, ignorant employee.

Too many part-time minimum wage workers are college educated, responsible, hard-working, dedicated and motivated to account for the extreme paranoia that both Corporate offices and customers show towards these employees. I know that it takes to qualifications or real skills to become a retail sales clerk; I know that it requires no experience and requires hardly any intelligence at all; yet retail jobs are remarkable taxing psychically and emotionally. To be blunt: retail jobs are soul crushing.

Retail means “fancy shopping warehouse”. It means profit-maximisation for the Corporate Office; this means minimising wages and employees as much as possible. Retail is efficiency towards profit and profit only. And all I want you to realise is that this is a system and this is system has strengths (profit maximisation for the shareholders) and weaknesses (its soul crushing, its employees are paid little). A different system would have different strengths and weaknesses (say a system where wages where maximised somehow).

I would like to suggest that there is a subtle collision between the Corporate Office and the Customer against the Employee. Employees are the face of the legal fiction that is the corporation; thus when the corporate retail system generates mistakes, errors, and general shoddy-ness, and the customer quickly becomes frustrated or angry (they feel like they are getting the run-around), this is taken out on the Employee. This is implicitly encouraged by the retail system as the actual individuals that are capable of making a change in the policy are totally isolated from the Customer in question.

TV adds constantly refer to customer service, hospitality. They insinuate that here, unlike all the other minimum wage paying places, there is real customer service: “Our employees actually do care!” They don’t. Not because they are lazy, but because they are under-trained, under-paid, see no opportunity for advancement, and are simply running the clock to go home. The system engulfs people in contexts that are emotionally, mentally, and economic that, on a basic level, cause the “Bad Behaviour”.

There is a huge gap between leadership and simple ‘management’. I have personal experience of truly awesome management; they understood that their job was in large part to keep their employees happy. Each employee was personally valued and even had a profound sense of personal development. However, these high quality managers are few and far between. Most feel and seem to sincerely think that there job is simply to designate tasks, make sure the rules get followed and the work, done. They play a parent to the employee’s child.

Obviously, individual personality makes a big difference here. I do not deny that there are a lot of factors that go into management (not to mention the challenges; I know from personal experience), but I have had some truly surreal experiences. But I have had too many examples of “rules for rules sake” thinking, with all the implicit distrust that comes with it. There is often a total lack of perspective; a certain disconnect from what might be called the immediate context.

For example, I was told off (after being observed from CCTV) for reading a book behind the cash register in a bookstore that was totally empty of customers. “It’s our rule,” I was told. I wanted to respond: “No, this is your rule. You have chosen to enforce it despite the fact that we are alone in this cavernous warehouse of a store with no one in it.”

I still have trouble imagining what was going through this General Manager’s head, going so far as to spy on me, then take the book from me and return it to the shelf himself. A control freak? Anal retentive? A good, old-fashioned sociopath? Does he spend his evenings flossing his teeth and remaking his bed over and over again, chasing the perfect fold? Maybe he finds it simpler and easier to simply all the rules all the time instead of pondering and/or arguing about exceptions and contingencies. Either way, it represents a pretty astounding dedication to rules, rules which have very little value or reason for being. Who is harmed if I read a book? What exactly is the problem? Is reading a book in a bookstore with no one in it bad customer service? What exactly is customer service, then, and how was my reading a book – with legitimately nothing to do  – a violation of customer service, even if there are some people in the store?

The fact that nobody is harmed (certainly not the company’s profit margin) should alert us to the fact that “rules for rules sake” is symptom of larger things in our society. It reveals something about our automatic assumptions and our train of thought. I have met and worked for too many managers exactly like the one mentioned above for this to be a one-off encounter. So why the obsession with rules and a fear of breaking them due to context and circumstance?

There is a lot of subtle things going on here: distrust of the employee in a moral sense, the need to eliminate any reason for people to complain (a whole other blog post in and of itself), the need for the employee to be a station in a Fordist assembly line (and therefore my need to be mentally engaged is a problem), the ease of enforcing rules instead of reflecting on them (The Good German Syndrome),  and a heavy does of traditional Calvinist assumptions about work simply expressed in their contemporary American/business form (which does not make them any less Calvinist). It is exactly the same problem as to why American sales clerks cannot have stools to sit on; and why they need basically a doctor’s slip if they want to wear tennis shoes or have a bottle of water, coffee or tea to sip on.

I have been to too many other countries where the clerk gets to sit on a stool (and where everything works just fine) for you to tell me that the stool would result in poor customer service. I can respect rules, and respectfully break them and bend them without Things Falling Apart. The fact that we need to control our low-level employees speaks volumes about our rather prison/punishment-oriented mindset about things. Work needs to be work; and corporate America is only too happy to oblige us in our strict moral assumptions to their own massive benefit. I am reminded of a recent news story where a ski company dynamited little huts associated with people smoking pot in them; this in Colorado where pot is legal. To me, this is a striking example of a company enforcing a certain set of moral values and assumptions for the sake of brand image. Note the lack of perspective; the whole thing was quickly carried to its logical extreme: dynamite. All in the name of someone’s morality which is questionable at best. Hard-ass-ness just doesn’t work.

In many retail situations, such as an angry, unreasonable yelling customer, or a rule-crazed manager, the correct response, we are all told is to “not take it personally”, and “be like teflon” and to “move on”. That’s fine. I understand that; I have followed that logic many times myself. But our lives our made up of our instances. It is what we choose to do at these instances which to a very large extent dictate our lives. Are we sure that “being like teflon” is not being a push-over? A sheeple? What about CCTV, ostensibly meant to deter shoplifting, which in practical, everyday reality is used by management to spy on its employees, and their potential moral laxity. The logic of “teflon” allows the system, the unconscious assumptions of people, in other words, to continue unchanged. The same logic goes on and on and perpetuates itself because it encounters no resistance.

This has run rather long, for that I apologise. I have only one more point which I want to ram home. It is the customer’s mindset: the “why” we shop retail at shopping malls. As the clerk manning the till, I have come to see customers as simply a long procession of self-helpers (“Thin Thighs in Thirty Days”, “How to Get Rich in Three Easy Steps”, “How to be More Happy Everyday!”, “How to Be a Business Executive and Conqueror the Universe”, “How to Be a Good Husband/Wife” and “Get Organised and More Productive”) haplessly tortured by social expectations of perfection they don’t understand and oddly don’t question.

There is – forgive the rhetorical bombast here – a certain implicit savagery to the whole retail proceedings. I’ll just say it: we like retail because we can annonymously abuse the staff. We are always right; we can criticise without fear of being criticised in return. We feel superior. Self-righteousness in its true social expression. Far too often – to a crazy extent, it is the customer which has generated the problem. You, the customer: your mindset is a much the problem, if not more so than mine as the employee. The customer gets to display a odd mix of arrogance and ignorance, which always going hand in hand, and come out the other side with an apology, a discount and ten minuets of being the centre of attention.

The bizarre psychology of the impulse buy: junk on display, which aims to prompt the ejaculation: “cute” by the shopper. only out of its context of ‘glamourous suggestion’ do we realise that it is junk (like in the bargain bin or once you put it in your house); a cliche. It is dehumanising for everyone.

The longer I work at these bottom of the barrel jobs, the more people tell me the typical Horatio Alger line: I have to “work hard” too get ahead; that it will teach me humility, that I need a “real job”.  Its a mindset which has little to do with economic reality.  It is really about protecting identity and personal comfort zones, not about me getting a job or there being a healthy economy or society or individuals. The eerie circular logic that repeats over and over and only points to itself, kept because it satisfies emotionally. It sounds very tone-deaf to me anymore.

Do we really want our society to be like this? Endless parking lots and strip malls? Anonymous employees and customers; implicit hostility and misunderstanding? We are headed full-steam towards a Wal-Mart society. Do we actually think that this is a good thing?

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