Friday, June 30, 2017

Working retail

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’re quite aware that retail jobs are on the decline. Yes, I sometimes interact with the greeter and helpers at CVS, but mostly I just get in the line for self-checkout, scan myself, and I’m gone. I’m not at Home Depot that often, but I’m apt to check myself out there, too. Neither of my grocery stores has self-check out, and both of them – Roche Bros. and Whole Food – employ a goodly number of cashiers. But how long will this last?

Retail jobs are dodo-birding both because of automation, and because we all do so much shopping online. And because, it seems to me, there are a lot fewer clerks on the floor in department stores than there were when I was working retail. Other than the makeup counters, you can spend 20 minutes walking around Macy’s looking for someone to take your money.

For the most part, retail jobs are, unless you’re at Costco or Market Basket (a local chain), are poorly paid. And they’re exhausting: you’re on your feet all day. And they can be astonishingly boring, I might add.

How boring can they be?

I never worked in a grocery store or pharmacy, but I worked in both Filene’s and Jordan Marsh – two now-defunct Boston department stores – in the stationery department at each place Now, even in the quaint old days of paper and pen (that would be the early 1970’s), there were only so many boxes of letter writing paper and so many fountain pens that you were going to sell on any given day. And there are only so many times you can straighten up the merchandise, especially if you’re selling boxes of writing paper or pens that are mostly kept behind the counter and/or under glass.

I always kept my own personal paper and pen in my pocket so I could do things like extract the square root of my social security number, or figure out how many 5 letter words I could make out of MAUREENELIZABETHROGERS. (If you have a long enough name, as I do, the answer is “lots.”) You just had to keep a lookout for the supervisors. At one of these stores – I’ve forgotten which is which – the supervisors were called “Blue Pens,” because when someone paid by check, you had to have it okayed by someone with a blue pen; at the other place, the supervisors were called “White Flowers” because they wore fake gardenia’s on their shoulders.

Whether Blue Pen or White Flower, a supervisor DID NOT want to see you standing there idle, let alone catch you extracting the square root of your social security number.

Another way to kill the boredom was to be on the lookout for shoplifters, and for the undercover store security.

Shoplifters would change all the time, but once you spotted the store security folks, that was about it. The lady with the bouffant, bleached blonde hairdo, the car coat, and the chiffon scarf didn’t change her work outfit all that often. And not that Jordan’s or Filene’s was all that upscale, but this particular security person was a notch or two below the look of our average shopper. So I’m sure that canny shoplifters were able to pick her out immediately. Not to be too much of a snob, she looked like someone shopping in Zayre’s (crummy discount store chain of my youth), not in Filene’s – where once, while I was standing there bored out of my skull waiting for someone to buy a box of Crane’s, Jackie Onassis walked by. (While the security person may have looked out of place on one end of the socio-economic spectrum, Jackie – in her gorgeous long camel coat and slacks – stood out on the other. She was definitely slumming it. She was, I will say, far more beautiful in person than I had ever thought she would be. At least that was my impression. She was moving pretty fast, pursued by a gaggle of Filene’s shoppers crying, “Jackie, Jackie, Jackie.” She did not stop at my counter, but just high-tailed it to the exit.)

I am of the opinion that, by the time you reach young adulthood and take a “real job”, you should have worked at least one job in retail and/or food service and/or a factory. Or something equally dreadful. Forget these fancy-dan internships. All well and good, but there’s nothing like working a job that’s tedious and ill-paid to get you focused on finding something better.

But that’s, of course, from the perspective of someone with an education and the wherewithal to find work that is more challenging, interesting, and lucrative. And that’s not everybody.

There are a lot more retail workers in the US than there are coal miners. So there’ll be a lot more unemployed retail workers out there trying to figure out what’s next. Bad as retail jobs are, if that’s how you’re making a living, I’m pretty sure you don’t want those jobs going away anytime soon.

Leading me to my broken record question: just what is it that people are going to do for work???


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