Retail: An Insiders Guide to Surviving the Shops.

Before I became a beauty blogger, for 17 years I was a retail Store Manager.  I want to share my knowledge and what I consider the insider secrets of how a retail shop operates during 'Holiday' more commonly known as Q4 or 4th Quarter;  November, December and January.

For starters, why do you think it's called Black Friday? It's the day that Retail hopes to get out of the red and get into the black.  It's also a day that seems to trigger an instant thought of fighting.  Fighting for parking.  Fighting for personal space.  Fighting for the last one.  Fighting your way in line and finally fighting fatigue.  The truth: You're only fighting yourself. 

The following might explain why you feel frustration when you're shopping this season.

Complaint: There's never enough employees... why don't you hire more people.
I have worked 'boutiques' such as Victoria's Secret with 23 employees to high-volume vendors such as Apple with 186 employees.  Depending on the volume - also known as profit - your particular location is projected to generate, Corporate allows you to hire you an additional 25% - 100% more staff to cover your peak hours.  And you do.  Or at least you try real hard. 

Truth: Unemployment pays more. That's right, most retail shops ONLY pay minimum wage during Q4 which is $7 - $10 an hour, depending on where you live. Where I live, minimum wage is $8 an hour - if you earn the maximum Unemployment, it pays $12 an hour.  Basically UE is competition.

Some 'employees' are only in it for the discount. Then they quit. Think that's a one-off?  Think again.  Any Store Manager knows that you have to plan for 25% of your fallout to come from 'discounters' - people who have no intention of actually working past their acquirements and generally quit via phone, an hour before their shift.  So hire more people.  See above.

Complaint: Why do you hire such incompetent people?!  We don't - I promise.  Wanting to 'sell things' and actually working in retail are 2 completely different animals.  

Truth: Retail isn't a cake-walk and a seasonal Holiday employee is usually thrown to the floor on their first day; on-the-job-training style.  So that deer-in-headlights look is legit.  That employee is probably overwhelmed and yelling at him will only make it worse.  Much worse.  Instead of insulting due to the obvious, calmly ask, How can we learn together / who can help us.  That simple phrase can empower or more importantly re-empower the associate and in turn, they will provide you with better customer service. The idea here, is to be nice about it.

Complaint: I've been waiting FOREVER!  Your wait times are going to increase and there is nothing you can do about it but shop online or go during off-peak hours. And when you demand to speak with the manager because of your wait, you will wait some more - they are busy running the store, after all.  

To put it into perspective, during December the average retail location generates 5 weeks worth of volume in just 1 week. Or they sell the equivalent of 5 weeks worth of inventory during one week.
Truth: Sickness happens.  And when it does, it spreads like wildfire in a hot cramped retail store with recycled air.  It's common for the flu to strike 10 employees at once - that can be 50% of your holiday hire staff and you have no-backup.... Your backups are sick. Then the entire staff becomes spread thin like butter that's been scraped over dry toast;  there's not enough employees to cover all of the departments, all of the registers, all of the service desks and the phones...

True story: I was the SM of a retail store and I had 6 employees call out sick with the flu.
I had the flu, the Assistant Store Manager had the flu and the Lead Sales manager had the flu but the three of us HAD to come in, we have the keys to the store and the code to the alarm, neither of which you can share!
I was running one of the 4 cash registers to try and lessen the line that was to the back door. In the middle of the controlled chaos, a customer waiting in that line called Corporate to complain about the wait times and lack of employees.  From there, Corporate called the District Manager who called me.  I had to excuse myself from the register, go to my office in the back of the store and get reprimanded for not staffing enough employees...
The irony being, I was taken off the register for 10 minutes - holding up your line even longer, over something I had ZERO control over in the first place.

Cashiers are the newest employees and the one you're hoping moves the quickest yet doesn't.  So why put that person on the register?  Because Holiday employees don't know the merchandise the way core employees do - they can't sell and upsell to meet the demands of the store's goal(s).

**Secret Shopper** They don't stop just because it's Holiday!  Secret Shoppers have 2 - 4 pages of bullet points that have to be covered by the retail staff during different points of the store, including checkout.  I mention this because I overheard someone say "I hate when they ask for all of that information! I just want to pay!"  Trust me, the cashier wishes the same thing but it is her job to ask you if you found everything you were looking for.... do you want to share your mailing and / or email address so they can send you their catalogues... All in hopes to grow their business.  What does a low secret shopper score deliver?  It personally, financially impacts the Store Manager. These scores are used during the managers performance review and can impact the 'raise' he/she earns. Let me repeat: they don't want to ask you this, they have to. They have to ask every single customer, not just you.

SKU check!  Most stores do not have a "Master SKU List" or a log of all the merchandise in the store with all of the price tags.  Did you know the average kitchen store, like Williams-Sonoma has 20,000 different items?!  Price tags fall off.  Sometimes they're never captured off of the box by the stockroom associate.  Sometimes other customers pull them off while waiting in line, only to decide to not buy the item and it is returned to the shelf tag-less.  I promise you, if you take a deep breath and calmly and politely tell the cashier you will wait, she will probably find the information quicker because she is not under pressure.

Complaint: You should have ordered more! And we wish we could - think we want to send customers away? Not a chance! We're in the business of making money not making you mad.

Truth: Retail employees, including the Store Manager have NO control over stock / inventory levels.  Don't waste your breath asking if they can order more, the answer is no.  Stock levels are left to the Buyer team at Corporate. Those numbers are set in Spring and the merchandise is ordered and paid for by the Distribution Center in Summer.

Some stores will start to receive that merchandise as early as September, meaning it's been selling for 2 months before you decided you had to have one.

But it was Oprah's favourte thing, how could you sell out? See above. Corporate originally ordered in Spring. Oprah convinced you to fall in love with it in November.  Remember those freaking apples?  omg.

Complaint: You're sold out! Can you call another store and look for me?  Let me be honest - you will get faster service if you call yourself, chances are your mobile phone is in your hand.

Truth:  When I call, a couple things can and will happen: If they don't put me on hold, something they/we are more comfortable doing to a fellow co-worker then a customer, I'm going to chat with the cashier about how busy we all are... I'm going to ask how 'much' do you have 'in' which means how much money have you made today and I will wait while they look it up in the computer because I am competitive.... and when I get around to asking if the item you're looking for is in stock and the other cashier 'doesn't think so'.... to me, that's as good as a 'no' and means they didn't even put the phone down to look and I didn't ask them to.

**On the flip side, if I am calling to complete a sale, ie: you want 12 dinner plates and I have 11... I will call every store in town till I find that "1" just to guarantee I sell those 11.

Complaint: Can I talk to someone who actually knows something...The person you are single-handedly making feel like a tiny piece of shit - it's probably their second day.

Truth:  Sales associates and cashiers are there to HELP YOU! I promise!  They want to sell, it might not seem like it but they do.  There is no 'real' training for holiday hires.  Do you own an iPod?  Do you think you could sell one at the Apple store right now?  Could you sell one when you're talking to 25 people who are all asking questions at the same time, talking over each other and you?  It's over-whelming to say the least.

Not only do you expect that person in front of you to be a specialist, for some reason you also expect them to know the on-hand inventory for every item.  If there is 4 times as many employees on the floor selling and up-selling common things on top of telephone orders coming in, products can sell out during the time your heart is becoming set on 'it'.  Breathe.  You might not leave with instant gratification but chances are, if you haven't waited until the last minutes, that employee can provide you additional information to try and locate 'it'.

Complaint: How can you be out of bags / tissue paper / gift boxes? Easy: I don't have room to store excess; that space is reserved for sellable merchandise before items solely for your convenience, therefore I didn't order 'enough'.  PLUS: If the distribution center is on the East Coast and there is a hella snow storm, my box order is going to be delayed and that is an uncontrollable FACT.

Truth: The stockroom is the size of a thimble.  Given a choice, what do you think I am going to fill it with first?  Product to sell or gift boxes? Target has a great selection of boxes, in all kinds of shapes and sizes.

Speaking of giftwrap.  Stores do not staff Gift-wrappers because their salary is a 100% loss.  They do not generate profit to the bottom line, they aid the red by providing an uncompensated service.  So when you ask for an item to be gift wrapped, most likely, it is being wrapped by the sales associate in front of you.  This takes that employee off of the floor to locate a box & tissue paper.... find a place to work... put it together, measure the giftwrap, wrap it, add ribbon and don't forget the enclosure card and gift receipt.  You know, all the work you didn't want to do because 'you don't have time'.  Yet you'd be the first to find time to call corporate about the long wait, right?  Not knowing it was because there was one less employee on the floor since they were... giftwrapping.

This is not Santa's Workshop - from the minute the employees enter the locked front door until the last man leaves - it is an intimidating, bustling stockroom that is shipping, receiving and restocking merchandise.  The store is a space that never grows yet the on-hand inventory is 5 times the normal for everything plus you have 10 times as many people! It can feel like a tiny submarine to the most seasoned of employees.

See someone being belittled? STAND UP FOR THAT EMPLOYEE! No one deserves to be bullied and Christmas brings out the worst in people.  It is not her fault that you couldn't find parking.  It is not her fault that the store is sold out.  It is not her fault that the line is long. It is your  fault for acting like a total jackass.  Control yourself.

And the dirtiest of the dirty:
Payroll: each store has a very specific dollar amount that they are allowed to spend on payroll. Meaning each store has their own restrictions and can spend "this" amount and no more, paying employees.  When you snark, You should hire more people, Managers want to say, Thanks Captain Obvious but we can't - there's no more money to do that.

Salary: Most Store managers make the same base salary as a public school teacher.  99.9% of all store managers are salary, so working over 40 hours per week means your average hourly wage breakdown drops significantly because you're now working for free....... hoping to....

Bonus: A quarterly payout that is usually up to 5% of your annual salary, only earned if ALL of the specific thresholds are crossed and maintained for 12 weeks.  Those are usually exceeding your sales goal and not overspending payroll among other things..... Store Managers will 100% sacrifice themselves and their own families to make this money.  They will work all of the call-out shifts, they will come in on their day's off, they stay late and come in early.  For what? They will never own that shop; "Nancy-Lee's..." was never added to the front of any sign where I worked.

What can you do to make check out run smoothly:
Paying with a check, have that check filled out as much as possible before the end of the transaction.

Paying with credit card?  If you're asked to present your photo ID, grow up.  The cashier is doing this for YOUR protection. How would you react if your card was stolen and used to buy a new iPad... You would be the first to want to know why they didn't check ID... wouldn't you.

Buying a gift:  This is a two-parter:  1) If you are making multiple transactions, tell the cashier FIRST.  Don't lay it all on the counter, watch her ring it up and then open your mouth.

2) Trying to pay with your bosses credit card?  Not going to happen.  The use of fraudulent credit cards is astronomical and retailers have to protect themselves.  When you take on this 'I demand you take it' attitude, you are essentially asking the associate to put their job in jeopardy. I'm not getting fired for anyone, especially a stranger.  Find another way to pay.

Know how your internet is slow at 9am and 5:30pm? Same thing happens to credit card lines. They get slow with lots of traffic on the line, they time out and cards have to be re-swiped... It happens.  And if your card does not swipe? It has to be hand keyed and called in to the card vendor for verification; Thieves put nothing on the magnet and a stolen number on the front, just hand keyed, it would work fine, this is protection that allows the credit card company to verify the photo ID matches the person and card in front of the cashier.  Crazy isn't it? 

You never know when your smile is the only kindness someone sees and I promise you with every ounce of my being, if you speak calmly, politely and respectfully to a retail employee, you will receive the best customer service they can provide.

Retail employees are busting their ass to ensure you have a great Holiday and it goes off without a hitch, all the while too sleepy to even enjoy that one special day with their own family, when it finally arrives.  Now is the time to dust off those "please" and "thank you's".
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