My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor

But loss prevention, I soon learned, was a one-way street.

In my old salaried, white-collar life, I had the luxury of setting my own schedule, taking extra personal time if I needed it. The “flexible 40” worked because, generally speaking, my employers usually got it back when I worked through a deadline, for example, or came in on weekends to finish a project. By contrast, in the retail world, employees usually have to swipe a time card just to have lunch.

One evening, I got a stern reprimand from Fratboy, the 27-year-old duty manager when I came back 10 minutes late from my 30-minute break. It seemed I’d lapsed into flexible-forty mode and inadvertently abandoned him on the shoe floor during an unexpected evening rush.

"I know it's not a big deal," he said. "Personally, I don't care.  But what kind of manager would I be if I didn't mention it to you?"

So noted, I told him, won’t happen again. Case closed.  

The next day, however, when I clocked in a few minutes after the start of my 3 p.m. shift, Stretch sidled up to me near the outerwear rack, arms folded.

"Do you wear a watch?" he asked.   

I thought it was a joke. Of course, I answered, waiting for the punch line.

"Well, Fratboy told me you came back late from your break last night. We can't have that."

Irritated by my tardiness, Stretch lectured me on time management, including an Orwellian principle found in retail: If you arrive on time for work, you’re already 10 minutes late. Showing up early is necessary, he said, so you can "get ready to hit the floor."

In that instant, I thought of my college football days, in full gear, psyching myself up for a game by blasting rap music into my headphones. Somehow, the metaphor didn’t translate to selling Nikes and yoga pants to suburbanites.  

I later realized Stretch was invoking the principle of "wage theft"—retailers expect employees to be in position ahead of time, making their life easier, even if the employees aren’t getting paid for coming in early. There’s even a website devoted to fighting the practice.

Another loss-prevention irony: trash duty.  

Under Sporting Goods Inc.’s protocol, two employees, preferably male, had to take the trash to the dumpster at closing time. One handled the trash; the other stood guard at the open loading-dock door. The refuse was tossed into a dumpster protected by both a built-in deadbolt with electronic keypad and a combination padlock.

Although the dumpster was in an access-only area with security patrols and cameras on every corner, the trash team was expected to stand watch—for thieves, it was implied, or armed intruders, or perhaps crossbow-wielding Visigoths on horseback. But as one of us carried and tossed the garbage, the other had no weapon more powerful than a shoe box.

I imagine the unstated objective was to send another subtle message about employee theft: Someone is always watching, even when you take out the trash.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Sporting Goods Inc.’s obsession with internal theft was the fate of a friendly 20-something who’d worked at the store for two years. Even the managers agreed the coworker I’ll call Ike was knowledgeable, loyal, and dependable, the sort of employee who’d check out the competition on his own time and report on what he saw. As such, he was in line to become assistant manager, a promotion that would add a few dollars to his paycheck and more responsibility to his life.

One afternoon, Ike didn’t show up for his shift. At the same time, the managers held a series of closed-door meetings away from the staff. Word spread like a virus: Ike had been fired for an unknown offense. The store managers refused to discuss it.  

Rumor became fact about a month later when Ike came to retrieve some of his things. He told me that, before he got keys to the store, the personnel office at the company’s headquarters did the requisite background check and—bad news—found an old larceny charge from when he was a teenager.

“They checked and said I didn’t report it on my application. That means I lied to them,” he explained, chuckling sadly at the irony. “So basically, I got fired because I got a promotion.”

* * *

I knew I had to leave Sporting Goods Inc. when I realized I was turning into the sort-of overeager employee who is way too emotionally invested in a crappy menial job that does its best to devalue him.

Having once supervised an 80-member news division of a major metropolitan newspaper, the first weeks on my new job triggered a self-esteem meltdown. Flygirl, a supervisor half my age with a high school diploma, critiqued my shirt folding. I fruitlessly searched the shoe stockroom for the right size and style for an impatient customer. I silently prayed no one who knew me would come in during my shift.

As the learning curve flattened, however, my past life faded over the horizon and I gave up looking for an on-ramp back to journalism. Starved for approval after so much rejection, I started to take a weird, internal pride in my crappy menial job, almost against my will.

I felt a thrill when Stretch gave me a high-five for taking an online order from a customer without screwing it up. I quietly exalted when I correctly diagnosed that a customer needed stability running shoes and not the neutral ones he wanted. I congratulated myself on my work ethic when, instead of taking an unpaid sick day, I pushed through a Saturday shift despite a wicked, can’t-breathe bronchial infection.

More than once, I fantasized that if I quit—if I quit?—Stretch would dangle before me the promotion that had been destined for Ike, begging me to stay.

Reality struck one afternoon, however, when a customer I’ll call Jan came in for running shoes. Silver-haired, intelligent, and charming, Jan told me she’d recently retired from the U.S. Treasury, where she’d helped oversee the 2008 financial bailout.

As I fitted her for shoes and checked her stride, we struck up a conversation about politics, finance, and the fact that not a single Wall Street banker had ended up in jail. Then, Jan hit me with a question I hadn’t considered in the months since I hustled my way into a job I didn’t want, had to have, and had come to accept.  

“So, Joe,” she asked, “What is it that you really do?”

I paused, slightly taken aback. I sell shoes, I told her. That’s my job.

“Yes, I understand,” she persisted. “But what do you really do?”

By that point, it was clear what she meant: Why are you here?  

Three months earlier, I would have anticipated the question, and had some vague answer handy. At that moment, though—unable to return to my chosen profession, unwilling to start thinking of an alternative—I mumbled something about being a writer, and let the subject drop.

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Joseph Williams is a writer and veteran political journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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