The Kmart years…
I applied, was hired immediately (which I thought was because I’m great, but discovered really it was because it was May, and all the college students quit in May to go home for the summer.) I started the next week as a cashier, and I never did another closing with Jabba the Hutt.
Kmart was amazing! I got to wear normal clothes, and even more importantly, I went home smelling the same as I did when I got there. You just don’t really think about how much food service makes you smell, until you stop working there. And the other employees were so nice! I made a lot of good friends during my time at Kmart.
I worked at Kmart during its hey day as the second largest retailer in the US, behind Sears. It was expanding right and left – I always said later that it expanded too fast, and then crashed hard. Not that I’m some great retail CEO, but I always felt they went nuts spending money, and then discovered so many of those stores were not in a good location, and they were locked into long leases. That’s why I would never buy stock in Dollar General – even though I know their approach is totally different, I think they are building way too many stores too quickly. I’m probably wrong, but I’m not a stock broker, either.
Any way, I worked as a cashier for just a few months, before I was “promoted” to the camera and jewelry department. I was in heaven! I loved cameras and photography, and I found it was getting easier to talk to customers since it was something I enjoyed. Jewelry – eh. I showed customers what they asked for, and sold them what they wanted, but I certainly wasn’t going to try hard to sell that shit.
I stayed at that job until I finished college in 1989. I tried to find a “real” job – my degree was in computer programming – but that was right during the beginning of the Bush recession. Add in my lazy tendencies and a fear of talking to people I don’t know, and the job search really didn’t go that well. So I decided to try graduate school, and remained at Kmart.
I thought I would get a degree as a media specialist, since I loved photography and computers. I went to classes for about a week, and realized how very much work was involved in a graduate degree. I dropped out, and went full time at Kmart when I was promoted to a merchandiser position.
I was in charge of the health and beauty aids departments, generally making sure everything was in its right space, and ordering what I thought we would need for the next week. I was good at it.
And then computers came to take our jobs – with bar code scanners now taking over at the registers it was far too easy for the computers to just send us what we needed, based on what was sold. And the theory is great – as a computer programmer I totally recognize that the system should work, and make life easier for the store, and maybe cheaper to run with less employees hours needed.
So my new job title was the “pricing team.” We were supposed to make sure everything was scanning the correct prices, and were in charge of price changes. We were also in charge of correcting inventory, so the reordering system would work properly. But there was still too much opportunity for human error. A cashier sells 5 cans of various flavored cat food – but instead of scanning all 5, they hit the quantity “5” button, and scan 1 can. Do you see the problem? Now the replenishment system sends us 5 cans of that flavor and no cans of the others. Cashiers did all sorts of crazy things whilst ringing up orders, all of which made my job much harder than it was when I just ordered what was needed.
After a year or two as the pricing manager, I accepted a position on the management team, as the hard lines manager. That put me in charge of all the merchandise in the store that wasn’t clothing. I also had to make sure all the incoming merchandise for ads found a place on the floor. The operations manager was in charge of finding room on the floor for all non-ad merchandise. And of course, I had to make sure the employees were doing what they were supposed to, make customers happy, and be there too early in the morning to open, and stay too late at night to close. (And try to live off 4-5 hours of sleep, which my body was not fond of.)
Walmart was playing around with the same computerized ordering ideas, but they realized it needed more work, and started giving the merchandisers more control. But Kmart was determined to stick with this system. That was also about the time that Walmart opened up in Boone. Before Walmart, our Kmart had some of the highest sales in the district – but it’s true we had little competition. After Walmart opened, honestly, we were fucked. They were bigger, with a new pretty store, and seemed to have a much better control of in stock merchandise and competitive pricing.
I went into management right when Kmart started going downhill in general, and our store in particular couldn’t compete against Walmart. We were at the mercy of whatever merchandise the corporation did or did not choose to send us. We didn’t get sleds in winter, because we were in the southern district. We got 50 trillion comforters in, because they based our stock numbers on the week that our local university had dorm move-in week. We would get cases of ad merchandise in, and I would pore over all the available space in the store, pick a location, have some grunt employee move what was there, and then drag my “ad merch” out, only to find the operations manager had swooped in and filled up the spot with some of his “non-ad merch.” And of course, the district and regional managers were breathing down our necks, wondering why our sales weren’t as good as last year. Duh.
People who know me well might remember that I’m not a big fan of Christmas. (I hate it.) Kmart is why. At Christmas time in retail, you really see the “true” side of people, and their “Christmas Spirit.” 12 years at Kmart, and especially the last 2 years, really beat all Christmas joy out of me.
One thing Kmart management cured was my reluctance to talk. It was not optional as a manager. And, as with so many things, practice makes better. I really did get used to talking, to anyone, about anything. So no matter how badly the job worked out, there is always a silver lining. I’m proud of my ability to “chat” with anyone, because I had to learn how to do it. (It doesn’t mean that I love it, just that I can do it.)
I started having migraine headaches. I’d always had them occasionally, like once or twice a year. But I was having them 2-3 times a week. So I went to a doctor, who decided my problem wasn’t migraine headaches, but depression. You think? (I actually think it was more stress than depression, but whatever.) He prescribed some drug. After 1 week it kicked in, and now I couldn’t fall asleep at all.
Somewhere, the part of my mind that remembered who JoAnne used to be yelled loud enough for me to hear. I didn’t need anti-depressants, I needed to quit Kmart.
Fortunately, since I lived at home, and had no spare time to spend any money, pretty much all of my Kmart salary had piled up in the bank, and I had a nice financial cushion. So I went to visit a good friend (who used to be my Kmart manager) and she helped me write a resignation letter. I went into Kmart on my day off, went to the fax machine and sent it to the district and regional managers, and then told my manager that I quit.
It was one of the best days of my life. Even 20+ years later.
(wow, this post turned out much longer than I had intended. I still apparently have a lot of built up feelings about Kmart…)