The cameras fed into a bank of monitors in the managers' office. The video feed was usually observed by a "loss prevention officer," formerly known as a store detective. In our case it was usually a young, tattooed brother I’ll call Flex, who was built like an NFL linebacker and dressed in hip-hop style: baggy jeans, flat-brimmed baseball cap, T-shirt.
When things were slow, which was often, Flex would stroll around the sales floor, browsing the merchandise, chatting up the sales crew. I often mused that his presence in our workplace perhaps had a secondary purpose: subtly reminding Sporting Goods Inc.’s employees that the loss prevention officer could probably chase you down and pulverize you if necessary.
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.