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  • Dan Connors

Adventures in Retail- Pandemic edition

Retail has played a significant place in my and many other lives. Over 10 million people work in the retail field helping customers in thousands of stores large and small. It is an employer of last resort for many- requiring little education or skills other than honesty and a willingness to be dependable and work hard. I've turned to retail at several low points of my life and it has kept me going even with its limitations.

Retail has a huge turnover every year, so they are always hiring people. Stores attract a wide variety of employees, mainly older and younger people, women, and people of color. The people like me that stayed around year after year are a special breed that either has no place else to go or actually gets off on dealing with the public day after day. I had some extra time on my hand this year and decided to give retail a try part-time and see what had changed in the 15 years since I last rang a register. So how did it go?

I chose to work at Macy's department store for several reasons. First, I admire that Macy's sponsors the annual Thanksgiving parade, which holds a warm place in my heart. Second, I will always remember the movie, Miracle on 34th Street, and its ties to Macy's that have nothing to do with the current incarnation of the department store chain. Third- I want to support actual stores over online ones, because I think the algorithmic convenience of Amazon is slowly killing us. And finally, I prefer department stores because they are busier and more interesting, and the main competitor in our town, Dillards, was a store I already had worked at for many years. Dillards was an evil company when I worked for them, setting impossible sales goals for us and then lowering our pay when we didn't meet them. They promoted a dog-eat-dog atmosphere on the sales floor that made things way too competitive and not at all fun. Macy's at least is slightly less evil, though the bottom line rules there like it does everywhere.

The first difference I noticed coming back was the modifications that had been made for Covid-19. Plastic dividers were at the cash registers, disinfectant was everywhere, and all the employees (and most of the customers) wore masks. These precautions made things a bit less inviting, but made me feel fairly safe while I worked there. Like most stores, Macy's had to shut down entirely in early 2020, and they seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously.

Here are the plusses that I noticed in my six months of working retail:

1- Because they really need the help, work schedules were much more accommodating. I had more control over my schedule than I had in the past, though working weekends was expected as that was the busiest time.

2- The pay, which has always been bad, had to go up to remain competitive in this market. Most retailers have cut costs by staying at or near the minimum wage, but Covid-19 has changed that. $15 per hour seems to be the new standard in our area, more than twice the official federal minimum wage. You still couldn't afford to live decently on that salary alone, so luckily I had income from other jobs and sources.

3- My fellow employees for the most part were good people. Even the customers were mostly appreciative and decent. That makes a difference to me, and I want to do my best when surrounded by people of varying backgrounds who are also doing their best. Plus as a bit of an introvert, it's good for me to get out of my bubble once in a while. Macy's also seems to be more open to hiring senior citizens, and since I'm not too far away from that designation, it's refreshing to see older employees being active and sociable.

4- Working retail is not for the sedentary. You don't get to sit down much, and that's a good thing. I got in my 10,000 steps every day and since my other job is mostly sitting at a desk by a computer, I probably added some months to my lifespan.

5- I had a lot more power to help people than before. If we were out of stock on something, I had to ability to look for different colors or sizes in other stores and immediately order them for a customer. That felt very gratifying. I also had the ability to modify prices at the cash register. I could override prices for legitimate reasons- match other offers, incorrect signage, wrong price tags, and more. This power could be abused, but in making things right for the customer it makes a lot of sense.

6- Returns are a lot easier than they used to be. Macy's has a huge database of sales data, and with a receipt, return tag, online order number, or credit card I could look up purchases and return them smoothly. This used to be a huge problem in the past that involved managers and unhappy customers.

Now the minuses:

- People can be pigs. Part of my job this time was to clean out fitting rooms, and I was shocked by how much of a mess people left behind. Every one of those garments thrown on the ground or left in the fitting room has to be re-folded, put on hangers, and returned to the proper fixture, a process that can take a long time when you have hundreds of fixtures to sort through. If I could share any message from this experience it would be for people to please, please return unwanted merchandise back where you got it and not leave messes for others to clean up.

- Management can get lost in priorities. One of my most frustrating experiences had to do with the constant pressures to open new credit card accounts. The need to open new accounts is drilled into every employee every day through headsets they are asked to wear. Every day comes with new account goals, and when those goals don't get close to being met, managers can sound nasty and desperate. It seems like nothing else matters- not helping customers that already have credit cards or don't want one- not putting away the mountains of returned merchandise- and not doing the dozens of other things you are pulled into doing on a busy sales floor. Not being recognized for what you ARE doing crushes morale, especially when you are continually reminded of what you aren't doing enough of. This single-minded pursuit of new credit card accounts I'm sure has to do with the money that's earned through credit card interest and fees, but I wish it was put more into context and not made to shame people. At times I felt I was working more for Wells Fargo than Macy's.

- They need a lot more help. I sometimes felt bad that I couldn't do more. You couldn't avoid the occasional reality of unhappy customers, problem merchandise, shortages of critical items, and things that were out of place. Some of the new hires had no place working there, and ended up getting fired after wandering off and being unreliable. This is not a job for perfectionists.. The overworked management staff was pulled 100 different ways, helping with stock, selling, fulfilling internet orders, and dealing with problem customers. It takes a special kind of mental toughness to handle as much as you can and yet be able to step back and let go those things you can't fix. Register areas sometimes became consumed by piles of returned merchandise that no one had any time to handle. Fitting rooms became swamped with unwanted clothes, and new merchandise sat on racks for days waiting to be put out on the floor. The fact that things managed to function at all seemed like a minor miracle to me.

- Pricing is confusing. Trying to explain to customers why their coupons won't work gets old and frustrating. The stores send out lots of coupons through the mail, and on the back of each one in tiny print are rows and rows of excluded items. Coupons are digital now, but customers still insist on bringing the paper ones and scanning them. Prices change often, and sometimes fixtures had old pricing on them, which added confusion. Also the Macy' website sometimes had different prices than the stores, and I had to know how to find them. There are at least four different pricing models that the store utilized, and keeping track of them was tricky.

And now for some shopping tips for you customers brave enough to venture out in the stores. (And God bless those who are, because the thought of retail become 100% online scare the sh*t out of me- we need physical stores for so many reasons.)

Most stores use algorithms to predict demand for their items and adjust their prices accordingly. Prices on the same item can vary wildly, and Macy's used a lot of tricks to make it seem like you're saving money. Like most stores, they rely on coupons somewhat, and with the right coupon code you can save 10-30% on some items. But this seemed to be getting less common, as the alternative model is the "Special", where coupons don't work because the price is already as low as the algorithm will let it go.

In addition, Macy's has a frequent shopper program called Star Rewards that's like most other frequent shopper programs- you get money towards future purchases when you reach certain spending levels. If you have a store that you frequent a lot, always sign up for their reward program. (Sometimes Macys supercharges their rewards program and gives out more reward dollars.) If you are responsible with credit cards and able to pay them off monthly, getting a store credit card offers a lot of perks including special coupons, more reward dollars, and more notification of upcoming sales. Otherwise, it's not worth the 20+% interest rates.

And finally there is the clearance rack- where the stuff that nobody wants ends up. Macy's calls it "Last Act," and the discounts can be pretty substantial. If you aren't too picky these are the best deals in the store.

The best times to shop- during the week for smallest crowds but most sales are on weekends. Black Friday prices were the lowest prices I saw, but they advertise "lowest prices of the season" several times a year. And of course buying clothes out of season is cheaper than buying them right at the start of the season. Certain designer brands are immune from store-wide sales and rarely take coupons, but almost all of them go on sale eventually, even Polo- which is one of Macy's biggest clothing items.

Most of us never talk to postal workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, or CEO's. Retail workers, however, are on the front lines and choose to listen to us and help us. So please try to be nice to them.

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