I’m one of the managers of a small drug/grocery store. 27+ years in the books. I’m neck deep in middle management stuff every day. Interviewing, hiring, scheduling, reports, checking cooler temps, building displays, planning for the next holiday, watching labor costs, counting money, talking to customers, ordering, selling stuff, talking with co-workers, unplugging the toilets in the women’s restroom, picking up litter in the parking lot and doing other desirable and fulfilling things. Some tasks are important requiring confidentiality and years of training while the loins share do not. (see “picking up litter in the parking lot” and “unplugging toilets above”…)
Recently a young employee asked me “what do you do?” I replied with my standard “I try to keep as many folks happy at once.” She didn’t buy it “No…really…what?” Geez…she kind of got me on that, what did I really do? I started out the next day jotting down some of the things that fill up my day. Most of it trivial, very mundane stuff. Like most jobs the devil is in the details. Take care of the little things correctly everyday and they won’t (on average) bite you in the rump.
While compiling the list I wrote down things that I do not like about my job. Mind you, I enjoy the vast majority of what I do, though these things drive me crazy. They are as follows in no particular order:
- Snow storms. Customers think that grocers love large surges of shoppers prior to the arrival of a storm. We don’t. Give us a steady stream of customers buying stuff every day. Selling two days worth of bread, milk and everything else not nailed down in eight hours is hard on us. We can’t plan for it. Grocers love to plan.
- Alarms in the middle of the night. Meeting the police outside of our store at 2 AM when an alarm is going off really, and I mean really, throws off my sleep for the night.
- Pickles, spaghetti sauce and canned goods. They’re all really heavy to stock. A few cases aren’t so bad. Try unloading fifty of them and you’ll see my point.
- Power outages. Have you ever tried to keep your ice cream frozen when your power goes out? Try it in a store when you have thousands of dollars worth of perishable items. The powers out and the clock is ticking.
- “The customer is always right”. That saying was coined in 1909 by a businessman in London. Things. Have. Changed. 99.99% of the people that I’ve had the pleasure of caring for through the decades have been absolutely great. They’ve put food on my families table, paid for our medical insurance, home and other bills. The other .01% are idiots. In those 27+ years I’ve only told one person that we were unable to meet his needs and that he’d be better served at one of our competitors. His jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe it. He’d been giving us hell each and every day for years. I simply gave him permission to move on. He was gone for a month, then came back to us a much tamer tiger.
That other 99.99%, where do I begin? They’re our “regulars”. They come in every age and size. From the business folks who dress nicely and smell good to the haggard addicted who show up early for their breakfast beer, hand shaking as they pour their loose change onto the countertop then disappearing until they need another. It’s the homeless who borrow a couple of bucks from a longtime employee for food. It’s the little old ladies who come in three times a week and ask a million questions before telling us “I don’t know what I’d do without you here to help”. It’s the old guys who buy their lotto tickets, beer and newspaper who tell you about the rainstorm that moved through at 3 in the morning…they were wide awake while the rest of us slept. It’s the children of our customers, wide-eyed and innocent, scampering through the aisles. I tell them that I’ll hire them when they turn sixteen and they run off. “I’LL PAY YOU IN ICE CREAM SANDWICHES!!” I holler as their parents and I laugh. It’s those folks looking for a meal solution at 3 in the afternoon. “We sell a lot of taco fixings this time of day. Quick and easy. Everyone loves tacos” I reply. (not once has anyone brought a taco back to me….). It’s the lady looking to buy a bottle of wine for a friend’s birthday and I up sell the gift bag to go with it. It’s the pharmacy calling and letting us know that they have a prescription to be delivered to a nursing home for a sick resident, and us getting it to them in ten minutes. Its our employees sending a get well or sympathy card to a long time customer who needs to know that just because we haven’t seen them in a while that we haven’t forgotten them. Its trying to program the Muzak so that everyone’s favorite is playing sometime during the day. Its unloading semi trucks filled with groceries outside in the rain, heat and snow. It’s being a red-ass one moment, a counselor the next. Its shoveling snow several times a day during a storm. Its listening to a co-worker tearfully pour out their hurt while you lend a sympathetic ear. Its working nights, weekends and holidays. It’s discretion when I’m told of something confidential. Its restraint when I’m upset. Its screwing up, then learning from that mistake. Its being flexible. Its getting to know your customers names and likes. Its knowing who puts bread on your table and gas in your tank. Its working hard. Its leading. Its showing our crew the example to be followed. Its setting the bar in attainable steps. Its teaching, equipping and enabling our staff to do better than before. Its damned rewarding when it all works out and comes together. Its measuring a situation then handling it well, sometimes being the hammer while most of the time being a patient negotiator. Its going to a meeting that I don’t want to attend and running into other longtime employees, reminiscing over coffee breaks and a meal…and learning something new at that darned meeting. Its being the face of the company that I work for in the neighborhood that we’re planted in. It’s lightening the mood by doing my Deputy Barney Fife imitation. It’s razzing the customers and enjoying a light moment, they’ll never be ignored when I’m on duty. Its hiring someone as a high school kid and still being their friend twenty years later when they’re raising their own families. It’s answering tough questions honestly. Its doing the right thing when no ones looking. Its taking a chance on a teenager and giving them their first job then standing with them in all of their mistakes. Its giving a senior citizen their last job and wishing that I had met them sooner. Its constantly learning new things. Its being held accountable when things don’t go right. Its taking responsibility. Its exhausting every day. Its being polite when a customer is treating me like an idiot. Its doing the best that I can do even when I don’t feel like being the best.
Why do I do this? Simply put…our customers can go to ten different stores within ten minutes of our location and get essentially the same thing at prices close to ours. We need sales. Sales drive profits. Profits keep the lights on and employees paid. The challenges are real with an economic impact that trickles down to our employees who want to buy cars, pay rent/child support, purchase homes, go on vacations or retire. It all matters.
Several years ago, shortly after we opened at our current location, an elderly man chewed my ass for not having a coat hook in the men’s restroom. “Where’s a guy supposed to hang his coat when he’s using the toilet?!” this man snapped at me. I replied with something less than what the irritated man wanted to hear and he kept at me, shaking his bony, crooked finger in my face, calling our company “damned idiots” for planning a store without a coat hook in the men’s room. Within a few days we installed a coat hook in the men’s restroom AND every time I saw the old grouch I ducked down an aisle or into the back room. One ass-chewing from the old geezer was enough for me until one day he waved me over before I could duck and cover. I apprehensively approached him, sure that I was in store for another barrage of haranguing. He held out his hand for me to shake, a smile graced his wrinkled face “My names Leo. I see that you’ve been avoiding me.” I half-lied “oh…I’ve just been busy”. “Well I wanted to thank you for installing the coat hook”. Leo and I became friends. He was in poor health and declined from there. A few months later I was in the pharmacy when man came to pick up Leo’s medications. I inquired about Leo to the mans surprise. “How do you know Leo?” the man asked. I answered “He chewed me out one day real good.” “Sounds like Leo. He’s tough to handle, says what’s on his mind” was the man’s response. The man was Leo’s nephew, taking Leo his medications. Leo had since been moved to a nursing home and shortly thereafter passed away. Every time that I see that coat hook I think of Leo and how simple it was to make him happy and keep a customer. Now when a customer gets after me about a perceived injustice I listen to them. If they’re that upset about it then it deserves my attention. Leo taught me that.
In short…that’s what I do. I try to keep as many folks happy in one day as possible. I’m not alone in this quest. I’m a tiny gear in a massive machine that tries to keep the “Leo’s” of the world happier. Honestly, I fail at it more times than I succeed. Maybe after another 27 years of this I’ll finally get it right.
Thanks for reading. God bless.