Note that all said in this collection is true with some slight changes to certain details. The collection is anthological with no real chronological order in mind.
Before you is a short collection of recollections and stories from my time as a retail worker, a profession that I have just recently left in order to pursue my studies. I leave it with great elation. This does not mean that I will not miss certain aspects, such as those I worked with and the plethora of new and amiable people I met during my time working there. That being said, I will definitely enjoy my short time outside of the system of wage slavery and theft that is modern employment under capitalism. Hopefully what I have to tell is of interest and you will enjoy it.
I worked at a Kohl’s store in the relatively small Washington DC suburb of Haymarket, Virginia. This town’s claim to fame was a dispute in the 1990s over the Walt Disney Company wanting to build a large American exceptionalist propaganda piece on town property. It is a fairly affluent suburb with lots of big houses, bourgeois country clubs, and such. Most of my fellow workers were not from here, some were. The clientele is what one would expect from the area, rich and entitled white people. These are the core ideas to keep in mind as I discuss my experiences.
I began working there in December of 2017, just around the Holidays. I had needed a job due to the fact that I had very little money and was about to enter university. I had applied and interviewed at a multitude of other places but, they either rejected me or I did not want to work there. I was lucky that the area I lived in gave me options. I applied at Kohl’s due to the fact that it was local (30 minutes from my house) and I had been shopping there with my parents since I was a kid so, it seemed like a decent fit. The application process started off smoothly enough with an online form and an interview. The interview went smoothly with me getting a 30 out of a possible score of 35 on the interviewer’s score sheet. I left the interview in confidence of a call. I would not get one for some time. A week passed with nothing, so I emailed them asking about the status of my application. No answer. I was not necessarily worried; I had an interview lined up at a few other places but, something told me that I wanted to work there. Come two weeks from the date of my interview and lo and behold an email from the scheduling manager asking me if I could change my availability. I tell her yes and fill out a new form. After a few more emails with various formalities, I am given my first day of work for orientation. Thus, it began.
I started working during the height of the Holiday shopping rush. In my time there I never saw the store more crowded as it was my first week. Despite Kohl’s performing badly on the previous Black Friday, this small store saw much more traffic than the other, much bigger store nearby. As many of you who have worked in retail before are aware: the Holiday rush is defined by long lines, messy departments, and angry people. This means that working there is comparable to torture that time of year.
I began my job there as an associate in the shoe department. During these busy days, I would work with another shoe associate in order to serve customers more efficiently. My main duty at this time was to learn how to work in the department. This was not difficult, and I was hard at work after 3 days. I would soon experience retail at its worst. It was three days before Christmas and the endless hordes of shoppers turned into desperate hordes of shoppers as the day closed in. This led to many people becoming angry and frustrated by the most insignificant things. It was my first day working in the department by myself. I was doing quite well up until around six-o’clock in the evening when the first big horde came barreling through the gates. I had been on my 30-minute meal break when they first started coming in and was not paying the state of the department much mind, this made me quite horrified at what I saw. While still on break, I hear a radio call for me from one of the shift managers. She says something along the lines of: “Could the shoe associate please come down to the department” with a noticeable tone of anguish and worry. A bit worried myself, I cut my break off early and make my way towards the shoe department only to see it brought to a state of mayhem and destruction. It was like the Fall of Rome and the customers were the Gothic hordes, looting and burning the city. That may seem like a dramatic comparison but, it fits. I rush in brazenly to try and meet the needs of most of the people in there but, that proved near impossible.
First of all, we were running very low on stock for most items in all departments. The Holiday shopping rush had put a tremendous strain on distribution and there came a point where we simply ran out of stock for certain things. Instead of getting a shipment every two weeks as we usually did, we only had two the entire month of December. Secondly, we did not have the staff to handle the influx of people coming into the store. This meant that there were tremendous lines at the registers and in the individual departments. The shoe department was particularly bad as we had the least amount of stock on the floor and only had one person, me, working in it at the time. One notable experience where a customer was angry with me was a situation with this one woman and her son. The mother was a usual suburban white mother with the glazed look of a daytime drinker and the son was a slightly pudgy child, around 10-12 years old, typical of the area. The mother looks at me and asks me if we have any of this specific style of shoe in the back. I tell her no as we have no stock in the back. I then go through the whole process of checking to see if the shoe is on the floor somewhere which takes a couple of minutes. At the end of that, I politely suggest that she goes to the bigger store in Manassas and see if they have it. I was trying to get her out of my department because while I was trying to help her, a number of other customers had come in seeking to be helped. A few had left out of frustration with my apparent sluggishness. The mother refuses to look elsewhere, asserting that it has been here in the store. As I try to convince her to leave, the son suddenly starts screeching at the top of his lungs. He had been running around the department while I was helping his mother and he tripped. The mother is generally unfazed by this and continues to press me about the shoes and insists that we have them. I tell her two more times that we do not have the shoe she wants here. At this point, I was so swamped with customers that I asked for a manager to either come down or send someone to the department to help alleviate the burden. My request is heeded by one of the associates in the men’s department who takes some customers and gets them taken care of quickly. I am still trying to get this one woman to leave and her son is still screeching. Eventually, I ask her if she wants to see a manager because I was not being paid enough to deal with this insanity. This is where she begins to go off. She starts yelling at the top of her lungs about how I am hiding this shoe from her or something. To be honest I do not fully remember what she said as I was trying to keep a distance from her at the time. Suddenly half of the store is over by the shoe department, looking at the circus that is occurring. The woman only began to calm down upon the realisation that the whole of the store was looking at her. She said nothing and left as if nothing had happened. Her son was walking with her, still screaming. That was during my first week.
I share that story not necessarily because it is funny but because it is quite absurd. The truth is that most stories about retail are not necessarily funny but, are more often merely absurd situations one finds themselves in when working in a very customer-oriented industry.
The Hat Lady
Skip forward a few months to February of 2018 and I am still working at Kohls. I am at this point a battle-hardened veteran of the Christmas rush and am accustomed to the work and people. I had gone two months without much incident with even Christmas Eve being pretty tame. I had become acclimated to the job and was generally fine with it, neither loving it nor hating it. Excitement would come to me on a Thursday night while working the closing shift.
It had been relatively quiet most of the night with a few customers but, no real rush. This was to be expected as it was a sort of downtime between the holiday and spring shopping rushes. Anyway, I had been helping a customer in the men’s shoes find a pair of oxfords. Routine stuff. Whilst discussing with the customer about the price and coupons, I noticed two brightly coloured figures walk into the women’s shoe section. They were quite loud but, nothing of any real note at that time. I continued to help the customer all while the extremely loud conversation from the two brightly dressed women goes on, interrupting my job a few times. It goes on for a few minutes and right as I am about to conclude with the customer we both here a loud, almost bloodcurdling scream come from the women’s section. Confused, the customer and I both look at each other with a slightly worried smirk on our faces. Suddenly there is another scream, less intense but nonetheless as loud as the last one. Then we both see a sun hat fly through the air like a frisbee over our heads. It is at this point that I decide to investigate. It should be noted that the two screams were less than a minute apart from each other.
I walk over to the women’s section to investigate the screaming and bizarre hat throwing to see two middle-aged women looking at the clearance shoes. Both were wearing these tacky looking leggings that were way too small for them. They also had on what appeared to be some sort of athletic shirt with a kitschy phrase like: “Too much swag” or something on the front. I ask in a concerned and polite tone if everything was alright and if they needed help in any way. They say “No, thank you” as if they had not just screamed at the top of their lungs and thrown a hat through the air so, I inquired. The response from the hat lady to my inquiry was: “Oh, I was just really excited about the deal”. The other woman confirms that also was her reason for screaming. Somewhat taken aback by the absurdity of that statement and their lack of social awareness, I tell them to keep it down. I went on with my job. Both continued to yell loudly until they left the store.
Personally, I will never understand why some people want to have sex in public places. It just seems like a lot of trouble and risk for something you could do in the privacy of your own home. Perhaps I just have the patience others do not have. It is also quite unsanitary both for those involved and those that have to inevitably clean it up afterwards. This situation is one the most awkward and hence most feared situations to be in as a retail worker but, for me anyway, it was funny then and it is still funny now.
It was a Friday night in January, just as the Holiday rush came to an end. We would get a decent amount of people due to the post-holiday sales going on and an influx of new clearance. I was decently busy. The end of the shift was upon me with only an hour left until we closed. At this point in time, we closed at 10 pm so the store was mostly empty for the last hour. While doing my usual end of shift routine of listening to music and picking up trash, I noticed two figures in the back of the store across from shoes. I wanted to go home at the proper time so I went over to try and see if they needed any help. As I approached I could clearly see that the two were making out in the corner of the store. Not wanting to disturb them, I went on with my routine and paid them no mind. A few minutes go by and they have moved around and as they pass me in shoes I overhear something about the dressing rooms. By then it was 30 minutes to closing and I was eager to go home. With that in mind, I used my radio to call the shift manager, Pearlita. Pearlita was from the Philippines and was one of the good managers if you could say that. She was generally easy-going but, did not take much flak from anyone. She also could get quite intense. Anyway, I called her on the radio to let her know about the situation and what I think, and she tells me: “Follow them”. So I did.
With nothing better to do in the last 30 minutes of my shift, I followed the two lovebirds around. Like the Viet Cong, I snuck around making sure they did not try and make a move for the dressing rooms. 15 minutes go by with no real action, so I was about to call it a night and give up but, they began to move towards the room. It should be noted that they were moving while hugging, sort of waddling around like a penguin. It was odd. Anyway, they go into the dressing rooms. Not even with any clothes to at least try and seem inconspicuous. At first, I hesitate to call it in or intervene because I feel some empathy for them. I would not want to be interrupted in that situation. That feeling quickly left me as I remembered they were going to keep me from going home. Before I called Pearlita, I did go into the foyer of the dressing rooms to confirm my suspicion and lo and behold, they were in the room getting busy. I leave as quietly as I can and then call Pearlita and tell her. Over the radio comes: “WHAT!” in a very loud and shrill voice made even worse by the radio static. In around 10 seconds comes Pearlita with the keys to the stalls. She bursts into the room yelling and then proceeds to open the stall door where the two are. She yells at them in a combination of English and Tagalog as the two struggle to put their clothes back on. After around two minutes of them trying to get dressed, Pearlita begins yelling about calling the police and that is when things get serious. The couple leaves with such speed that I have yet to see matched. They could have given Usain Bolt a run for his money. I was sitting there the entire time laughing hysterically at what has transpired, questioning if I was actually seeing it or not. Needless to say, I have not seen those two back in the store since.
Scammers and Shoplifters
One of the most common occurrences when working in the retail space are scammers and those trying to get money or items from the store. This is done mostly through coupons and returns. A notable case of this was when this one mother and daughter pair would come into the store trying to return things that obviously were not bought there. They would attempt this by taking the barcode stickers from other items and putting them onto things they probably just found laying around. One time they had brought in this old pool floatie with a beauty department sticker on it hoping to get $50. Needless to say, no one fell for their tricks. Despite this, they came back every week with something, unhindered by the threats of banning from the managers. To this day they probably still walk into the store trying to return their garbage. Godspeed to them.
The return policy at the store was very lax. This encouraged people to try and cheat the system. For example, someone could come in and buy a pair of shoes, wear them for three months, and then return them back for a partial refund or full store credit. If they had the receipt and/or the card used to purchase the item, they could return it. It was quite absurd and allowed for a lot of “returning returners” so to say. One of note was this one woman who would come in to buy shoes for her kids every month, only to return them the next month in terrible, unsellable condition and buy new ones. Eventually, this stopped when the management began keeping track of people who did this. Even with the list people still managed it but, never as much or on a regular basis.
Personally, I never cared much about the scammers or even shoplifters for that matter. It was an event completely out of my control and I mostly just let it alone. There was one time where I caught a shoplifter and it was somewhat amusing. It was the springtime; the exact month eludes my memory. It was a relatively slow day and I was just organising sections of shoes and prepping clearance. During one of my regular walkthroughs of the department, I noticed a woman browsing the clearance boots. She was younger and wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt. Quite casual looking. I paid her no mind and went on with my business at the other end of the department. After a few minutes, I finish my work and go back over to see if she is still there. She is, still browsing. I stick around to see if she needs any assistance. After a minute or two she tries on a pair of boots. She then proceeds to put her old shoes into the box and tries to leave with the boots on. I see this and quickly tell her to stop. She turns around and looks at me with a polite but, annoyed expression on her face and says: “What’s wrong?” I ask her if she was going to put the boots back and she replies with: “What do you mean? These are mine.” Somewhat baffled by her sheer gall to say that, I mention how I saw her put her old shoes in the box and walk away. She was also wearing the rather dressy looking boots over her sweatpants. This made it pretty obvious that she was trying to steal them. After mentioning that fact, she starts to look a bit worried. I tell her that if she just goes and puts the boots back, I will not mention it to management and she can leave freely. She complies with no real fuss. I did not see her back in the store after that.
These stories are not by a longshot the entirety of the experiences I had in retail. I could fill a small book with all the little quirks and workplace drama I saw. I leave those things out because I do not believe those things are all too interesting or worth reading about. If I feel compelled, I may write more down and post them. Depends on how I feel about this. I may come back with new ones due to the tragic fact that one must work to make a living and retail is always hiring.