First Person: The Retail Chain Store Blues

This is my response to the first-person account by a young woman who worked her way up from a crappy retail sales job at Walmart to a not-so-crappy assistant manager’s job at Walgreens making 36K a year. Good for her – sort of. Although she’s worked hard to make a better life for herself it’s too bad she has to spend 40 or more hours a week toiling away in some retail chain store just to earn enough money to have a decent lifestyle in America today.

The woman’s story reminds me of two things: First, thanks to the Yahoo Contributor Network just about anyone can call themselves a writer these days; and second, when it comes to classified job postings retail jobs are among the worst of the soul-sucking, bottom-of-the-barrel employment options in today’s sluggish job market. As a Badge 7 contributor and former soul-sucked but thankfully short-lived retail employee, I hereby share my own experience.

I once worked briefly for Staples, the office supplies superstore, in the retail chain’s first center in Bend, Oregon. I got the job through the State of Oregon Employment Department, a soulless and dysfunctional state bureaucracy where hardworking folks such as the young woman who now works at Walgreens should never have to go. Being forced to look for employment at one of America’s vapid and impersonal state job centers is the epitome of personal failure. Take it from me, as this is a first-person of failure story.

The Staples managers in charge of the opening were retooled robots of corporate conditioning. As dyed-in-the-wool chain store bosses they’d traded in their personal identities for the drudging and expendable skins of corporate conscience, and were trained and reprogrammed to root like vacuous mascots supporting an abstract and meaningless cause. The only meaning was in the money. They wanted the salary, which they needed to have the same lifestyle as the next five-and-dime custodian in the next strip mall or retail center. Like the young assistant manager at Walgreens, they were looking for a leg up to the lifestyle-changing tune of 36K per annum.

Staples hired an opening crew and expected their new employees to work as laborers to build the new store from the ground up. This meant moving in truckloads of permanent fixtures and equipment plus all the merchandise and miscellaneous machines and materials. With 40 or so employees working 8-hour shifts punching in and out at $6 an hour, it took one week to ready the store for its grand opening. That’s dirt-cheap labor in any retail giant’s pocketbook.

During the first week of in-store preparations managers made it known that they were looking for several shift supervisors and one assistant manager. Only the most gung-ho in the aproned and name-tagged bunch would be considered. They eyeballed me like wardens in a prison yard, scrutinizing my slacker moves as I dollied in heavy equipment and bolted huge metal stocking shelves to the cement floor and mounted metal hooks into countless holes of isle upon isle of product display shelves before counting, pricing, racking, and placing a vast array of office products and supplies in their proper positions. It was tedious and uninspiring work, just like the folks at Walgreens probably have to do.

It’s too bad even smart young people in America nowadays have to spend so much of their lives doing the dreary dirty work of the nation’s chain store owners. As a 52-year-old failure with neither big money in the bank nor a silver spoon in his mouth, I’ve grown to loathe America’s wealthy elite, the retail and corporate fat cats of American society who could care less about the plight of their underpaid employees forced to work in their stores selling their overpriced (and overvalued) products that make them filthy rich. I shave with soap and water and it does the trick nicely every time. And so I say: Gillette is the worst a man can get. But that’s another story.

This story has a happy ending. The gal making 36K at Walgreens is a writer, or wants to be one. She aspires to something greater than the sum of her employee handbook and ID badge. She represents tenacity, diligence, perseverance, and the often fugacious ambition of youth. Her story is a success story – sort of. But her success has come at a great cost: The price of admission to her own insignificant sideshow of wasted time and effort in the subhuman sweatshop of promising yet unreachable vocational dreams.

She’s one of those invisible assistant managers who often goes unnoticed and unappreciated in the blazing, hurry-blurry buzz and lulling, humdrum drone of the retail shopping day; she’s one of those frazzled clerks checking and stocking and servicing an endless wave of demanding and irritable customers consumed by the splashy arrogance of their own materialism. Like thousands or even millions of retail workers across the nation she owns a name tag with no real identity attached to it. And like most servile wage earners she can barely wait for her next 10-minute break.

Did she sell out? Maybe not, but whatever success she’s gained remains part of the problem and not the solution. What’s the solution? Boycotts and a national strike by all retail workers until corporate giants like Walmart increase wages. Of course, things like that never happen. There are far too many workers who, unlike our career-climbing heroine, are often content with what they earn rather than what they’re worth.

I lasted two weeks as a Staples sales clerk (I was really more of a grunt since I quit a few days after the grand opening). I got paid every penny I’d earned, which wasn’t much, and left the neoteric megastore with my head held high but my dignity pretty low. Since that day I’ve had plenty of career ups and downs. I’m now gainfully employed as an English teacher in China , where I make about the same money as assistant managers at Walgreens do.

I’m still a working stiff but at least I’m not wearing an apron and a name tag.

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