Where America Used to Shop

15 Feb

1988, Sears Commercial:

See all that stuff in the commercial up there?  Drapes, furniture, bedding, towels? Yeah, our store didn’t carry any of that.

A New Hope

I went to work for Sears, Roebuck, & Company right after I left Shoneys.  A new store was being built in the brand spanking new New River Valley Mall and I was on the very first crew.

It was a small store by Sears’ standards–what they called a “C-class” store.  This meant that we had clothing on one side (shoes, men’s, women’s, children’s) and hard lines on the other side (appliances, hardware, paint, electronics, sporting goods, and lawn & garden).

This time things started off pretty well.  I understood retail much better than I understood food service and took to it like a duck to water.  We also had the luxury of an extended training period before the doors opened to the public, which gave me a better understanding of many product lines too.  I worked Paint & Hardware at $2.85/hour plus commission.  Commission rates depended on the item sold.  Hand tools, small power tools, and most items from the paint department paid one percent.  Large power tools, premium tool storage boxes, and the high-grade paints paid three percent.  Once in a while the company would pay out a spiff on promoted items–fifty cents a gallon on outdoor paint, for example.  Even as a part timer still going to school I was making in the range of $200 to $300 per week.

Oh and I almost forgot the biggest money-maker–Maintenance Agreements.  Most people know these as “extended warranties”, but Sears at that time tried to dress them up so that they were slightly more than that.  On most items, it was just money down the drain, but the pressure to sell these things was so great that I went through the information with a fine toothed comb to find the items where the agreement was cost-effective for the customer.  My favorite one was the 2-year agreement on wet/dry vacs.  A yearly maintenance check was included in all plans, but on the wet/dry vac in particular it included a free filter each year.  Two filters were about 50% more expensive than the 2-year agreement, and so I sold the daylights out of that program.

My favorite day of the week was stockpen day.  Farmers came in in their overalls and the little college boys I worked with were often too stuck up to wait on them.  I loved them.  The farmers always knew exactly what they wanted and had big rolls of hundred dollar bills to pay for it.

There were a few drawbacks, but for me they were more puzzling than they were distressing.  The most obvious one was the dress code.  Even those of us who worked in hardlines had to wear dress clothing.  Guys were in shirts and ties, we gals were in skirts and dress shoes.  It made the job much more dangerous than it had to be, I thought, and it just plain made no sense.  Just before Christmas the first year our store manager put out a memo cracking down on what he saw as relaxing standards on this dress code and admonished us all to look our professional best for the coming holiday season.  The day after the memo came out, we received huge boxes of white paper hats with “Santa’s Helper” written in green on them.  I led a bit of an insurrection, and hardlines refused to wear them.

After I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1990, I went to full time status.  I even became a “red badge”.  An associate with a red name tag was allowed to approve voids and returns and a bunch of other minor managerial duties–all without any additional pay, of course.  I even moved up to Lawn & Garden–a department where most of the merchandise paid three percent commission.  After a year of this, I asked my manager about the management training program, and he said he’d see what he could do about getting me in.

At this point Sears as a corporation was running into some major problems.  We found out along with the rest of the television viewing public that the company would be closing many stores of our size across the country, and wondered if we would be among them.  Our training department, which had been top-notch, was eliminated.  Management training would now only be held in a few magnet stores around the country, and ours was definitely not in that category.

One of the stores that would be a center for management training was at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, Georgia.  Coincidentally, I had some friends who had moved down there I could stay with while I found my own place, so I asked for the transfer.  My local manager agreed, contacted his counterpart at that store, and told me it was all set up.  I could start in mid-January, 1993.

The Empire Strikes Back

This is where things stop going well.

I arrived in Kennesaw right after the New Year, having braved a horrific ice storm on the way.  The very next day, I took my letter of reference from my previous manager to the Town Center store and requested to see the hardlines manager.  The gentleman to whom my old manager had spoke had retired the day before I arrived!  Let me repeat that–the day before I arrived.  What’s more, no one at that store had any idea who I was.  There was no position waiting for me.  I persisted in getting someone to talk to me, and finally spoke to the store manager himself.  He took my letter of reference and told me someone would call me when they were ready for me to start work.

It took a few weeks, but I finally bulldozed my way into getting a part-time position in the Hardware department out of desperation.  Still, I thought it would be a stepping stone to management training and a “real grown-up job” as I had come to call it in my mind.  It was back to the one percent commission ranks, but still I had hope.  This was a much bigger store and had all the departments that my old store had not.  Plus it was a much more metropolitan area with many more Sears stores within a small radius, so I thought that any opportunities that arose in those stores might be available to me as well.

By the time I had been there three years, the company really started to decline.  Full-timers were made part-timers.  Part-timers were scheduled no more than 15 hours per week.  Benefits were a thing of the past.  And management training was only available if you were under 25, white, and male.  (By that time I was only one out of the three.)  I still consistently scored in the top two or three sales people in the store, so I held onto hope just a little longer than perhaps I should have, thinking that hard work, knowledge, and skill would pay off.

But the Jedi Doesn’t Return

“Hey I heard you might be hurting for money.  I can help you out.  You could help me sell cocaine.”

This is what one of my co-workers said to me one day.  I don’t know what else he said, because I was terrified at that point.  He said this right out on the sales floor, not seeming to care who heard him.  I managed to make enough conversation  to determine that yes, he was serious and not just blowing smoke.

So, like the innocent little lamb I was, I went to the loss prevention people.  These are the folks in any retail store who chase down shoplifters and make sure associates aren’t dipping into the till.  I told the story several times to three different people, the last one being the head honcho of that department.  When I left, I felt sure that the boy would be fired and everything would be fine.

He was not fired.

It was not fine.

I worked one more day with him as he glared at me from across the aisle and then I quit.  No notice, just said “I quit” and didn’t come back.

No, I had no plan or anywhere to go, but I was so terrified that I just couldn’t go back there anymore.

And so began my “Nomadic Period”, which I’ll talk about next week.

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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in Work History


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