I walk with giants

A blog 28 years in the making….RETAIL…LOVE IT or just keep doing the job…either way you’re probably okay.

This month marks the twenty-eighth year that I’ve worked for the same company.  Mind you they’re not continuous years.  My first stint lasted fifteen years, eleven months when I left the company.  My second stint has lasted since May of 2005.  All in all….its been a good ride.  Some days are better than others…that’s probably true of any job.  The majority of my time has been in the position of middle-management, just important enough to be held accountable for many things but not everything.  It’s safe to say that no two days are the same.

Over the years there have been many changes in retail.  When I started back in June of 1985 whoever thought that customers would want our store to offer free wifi?  Or bottled water sold by the case?  Bud Light was only three years old.  We still took rolls of film and sent them off to a regional photo lab where they took two days to get processed.  Movie video rentals were something new to the business.  We had special weekend hours.   Who’d want to visit a store after 9 PM?  What’s a Super Target or WalMart Super Center?

The following is a list of what’s changed and what hasn’t.

Changed:

  • Customers.  They’re in a rush these days.  Plain and simple.  It doesn’t matter if it’s just a pack of smokes or cart full of groceries…they want to get in and out as fast as they can and they’re not concerned with letting you know if they’re not happy.  It’s a grittier age.
  • Employees.  It used to be that when I hired new employees you could count on one or two being exceptional, two or three being good and the rest being average.  Currently the attrition rate of new employees is alarming.  When I hire now I know that many will leave within a few months.  We’re not alone in this predicament.  It’s so very difficult to hire and keep employees.  I don’t know if it’s the economy, the low unemployment rate or the culture….but it’s hitting all facets of the job market.
  • Products.  There are so many different variety’s now.  Thousands!  Remember old plain Triscuit crackers?  There are dozens of different flavors now all vying for a place in your shopping cart and they’re not alone.  Multiple flavored Cheetos’, toothpastes, spaghetti sauces, paper towels in “select-a-size” and candies to name a few.  Remember when beer only came in quarts, six packs and twelve packs?  Now your favorite brew is available in practically any size package you could dream of.  Remember pink, blue and light green Charmin toilet paper in four roll packs?  Toilet paper used to be SCENTED.  (I miss the days of lightly scented pale green Charmin)  Gluten-free products, soy milks and range-free eggs?  Who would have thought that they’d be so popular?  Upside down bottles of ketchup for those who need ketchup two seconds faster than the rest of us…we have you covered.
  • Muzak.  We used to pipe in mindless elevator music to our stores.  Nowadays we have practically every genre available and we program it accordingly.  FYI…Hits of the 80’s is my fav.
  • Technology.  What industry hasn’t had seismic changes with the use of technology?  It’s used from everything from hiring, ordering, pricing, scheduling, e-mail, labor control etc. etc.  It’s mind-boggling to think how far we’ve come with its assistance.  I communicate with our employees more with texting and Facebook  than I do in speaking with them personally some days.  The old days of calling their home phone, via land line, and leaving a message then hoping that they’ll get back to me is ancient history.
  • Alcohol and lottery.  It wasn’t that big of a deal back in 1985 when we started selling it.  It is now.  Very, very big.    One of these days it wouldn’t surprise me if we sold medicinal marijuana.
  • Store hours.  Customers want to be able to purchase their products when its convenient for them.  We’ve changed as best as we can.  We used to have special Saturday hours 8-6, Sunday’s 9-5 and limited holiday hours. Holidays are for people who don’t typically work retail and food service.  I don’t mind it anymore.  Its just another day to work and serve our customers.
  • Competition.  I touched upon it earlier though the addition of WalMart and Super Target into the retail landscape has altered things forever.  Add technology into the mix where customers can use their smart phones to look up WalMart’s price then ask if we’ll honor it and it really gets interesting, or ordering it from Amazon and having it delivered.  Who would have thought this was possible.  It makes me wonder where we’ll be in ten years.

What hasn’t changed:

  • Customers.  I love ’em.  They could’ve chosen any store to shop at and they chose us. Many have become unofficial friends of mine.  I’ve hired them or their kids when they’ve needed jobs.  I’ve hugged them when their husbands pass, or draw a funny picture of myself and sent it along with them to give to their wife at the nursing home.  I’ve given rides to some who’s cars won’t start in our parking lot.  I’ve listened as they’ve poured out their concerns about cancers,  sicknesses or a loved one in the hospital…and I’m not alone. I work with folks who, like me, have stayed with the same company and same store for decades.  If a customer has a problem they know that they can visit with one of us and we’ll do our best to make it right.  Customers still appreciate good service and good value.
  • Employees.  I walk with giants.  At 28 years of service I’m one of the rookies when it comes to time spent with our company at our store.  There are three with over 40 years of service and many more with over 30.  Do we all get along?  No.  Most brothers and sisters don’t…but when the chips are down bet your ass we’ve got each others backs.  I love ’em. Another thing that hasn’t changed with the years, hiring teenagers for their first job.  Some are serious, others goofy.  Many have pushed my buttons through the years, but I’ll tell you one thing…this old dog has his eventual day in the sun.  That wise-cracking teenager from 1996 is now thirty-seven, married with three little ones.  I see him occasionally and we chuckle about how he used to act.  “I was your worst employee” he states.  “No…but you had your moments” I reply.  The passage of time helps us to see more clearly what kind of person they really are.  I don’t regret hiring any of them.  Its part of the journey.  I’m very proud of them and how far they’ve come and what they’ve accomplished.  I hope they all know that.
  • Promotions.  I’ve been promoted.  I’ve had various title changes.  I’ve had ten bosses.  The more things change the more it stays the same.  Hustle.  Take care of the customers. Take care of the employees.  Honesty.  Integrity.  Value.  Safety.  I can’t please everyone, but I try hard too.  Have fun.  Laugh.  Two words.  Rowdy Rich.
  • Weather.  Customers hear the word “snow” and we get very busy. Other companies close for snow days.  We stay open.  Nuff said.
  • Products changing.  They come.  They go.  Never a dull moment.  Viagra.  Body wash.  Flavored Ritz crackers.  Seasonally flavored coffee creamers.  K-cups. Sports drinks like Gatorade/PowerAde. Sodas in every shape and flavor. AXE body spray. The demise of English Leather cologne (probably not a bad thing….) and many others.

I’ve been blessed to have worked with thousands of people through the years.  Thousands.  I’ve also been blessed to have been able to work for a forward-thinking, cutting-edge, socially-minded company that has given me good pay, health insurance and a great store that attracts the people of our community.  Several years ago I had a customer who had just moved into our town.  I learned what her name was and I used it when I saw her.  She asked me why I did that.  I replied “I make it a point to learn who’s putting food on my family’s table.”  She liked that analogy because its true in its basic sense.  As we get bigger, leaner and busier I pray that I never forget that.

In the beginning of my career I had a head-full of beautiful brown wavy hair. Nowadays…not so much.

Twenty-eight years in the rearview mirror.  Its been a great ride.  I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next!

Take care and God bless.

R

My dirty secret…so comfortable

Spring time

Much like the famous migrating swallows who every March return to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano from their winters in Argentina, I too migrate.  I migrate to the Men’s departments of several large department stores, but not to build mud nests and lay eggs (I’m so over that phase of my life….) but to fortify my work wardrobe with a fresh arsenal of fresh ties, new snazzy shirts and black slacks that haven’t been snagged or frayed from use.  Titillating read so far, heh?  Stay with me now.

My career choice was retail management.  I wasn’t smart enough for many white collar jobs.  Accountant?  Forget about it.  Loan officer at a bank?  Couldn’t do it.  NASA rocket scientist?  Not smart enough AND I look too cool to pull off the whole “nerdy slide rule” thing without raising eyebrows.  I’m not mechanically inclined.  Don’t get me wrong…I can DO outdoorsy stuff and work in the garage, but anything much more than that and I may as well make an appointment at the walk-in medical clinic for forty-five minutes after I began said project. “Hello?  Nurse Marlene?  Rich Ripley here.  Connie wants me to hang a bird feeder on one of our oak trees.  Can you clear an examination room from 10 to 11 o’clock this morning?  Get the x-ray machine warmed up and make sure that you have plenty of gauze, iodine, two feet of thread and a couplea good stitching needles on hand.  I’m feeling really good about getting this bird feeder thing done quickly.”

Anyway…my whole work clothes thing is nice.  I wear good-looking clothes and nice shoes which don’t always look so good when I get home…but the customers and my coworkers seem to appreciate my efforts.  Dress shirts…I have around 28.  I can only wear one at a time.  Ties…over 30.  Same deal as the shirts.  Actually…I have more ties than that.  I can’t stand to part with them, I mean…we’ve been through so much.  A good shirt/tie will last me two years.  A great one, three to four years.  Most of my ties are great.  They’ve been worn through:

  • countless trucks being unloaded in all kinds of weather (our dock is outside).  Blizzard?  Back up it…get it done.  Thunderstorm?  I ain’t made of sugar…I won’t melt.
  • Miles and miles of walking around the store.  MILES
  • Consultations, hiring’s, schedule writings, orientations, meetings, trainings, buying shows, interacting with customers/employees and multiple crisis’…and all the time they’ve hung with me.  I can’t just leave them behind.  After a while…I just donate them.

Then there’s my Dad’s ties.  They’re funky colors and dare I say….retro.  I’m keeping those suckers!  I even put one or two into the Ripley Fashion Rotation every month, they appreciate it and I enjoy having them around.

I ain’t no rooster

So I used to wear my umpire and basketball referee warm-ups to the gym when I worked out, meaning I was dressed pretty much in black from chest to toe.  I didn’t like the idea of spending money for different colored clothes when I was just going to be sweating in them.  That is until I saw another guy…dressed completely all in black working out like I was. Two words.  Dork Alert!  As if I don’t already fight the whole “Duke of Dorkdom” thing with my goofy grin, bald spot and shrill laugh (my mother says that it sounds “intoxicating”) so I certainty don’t need to “pile it on” by doing something so blatantly idiotic.  Sooo…..I went out and bought some new work out shorts, socks and shirts.  I had a dizzying array of fabulously brilliant colors to choose from, many of which would likely been seen from outer space.  Blaze orange shorts?  Why the hell not?!  Hot lime green socks?  Only if they make me run faster….which they most certainly will!!  Nuclear yellow dry-fit work out shirt?  Why not?  The whole ensemble would make me look like a tie-dyed rooster strutting across the work out floor….minus the hens.  For the record I stuck with red and blue shorts that are six inches too long.  Apparently when we’re finally invaded by gangly legged aliens we’ll already have plenty of flamboyantly colored shorts to go around for them.

My secret…brace yourselves…

So my last stop on this clothes shopping craze was Men’s Warehouse.  I was hoping to score a few more ties (my addiction) and dress shirts…but found a pair of jeans.  Now let me say this…since turning 45 (give or take a few years) finding blue jeans that easily fit me and looked good has been a rare event.  If they’re comfortable…they’re too big.  If they look good on me…then they’re too tight to sit down in.  (I’m vain…okay?  Deal with it).  My waist is somewhere in the nether region of thirty-five inches.  Blue jeans skip the odd numbers and either punish you for growing old and fat and entice you to wear the lesser number or swim in the larger number and cinch your belt up two more notches. (First world problemsAm I right or am I right?) So I tried on a different brand of jeans and VIOLA!!  A FREAKIN’ THIRTY-FOUR WAS TOO BIG!!  I tried a thirty-three and it fit well, was comfortable and still had room in the front for me to gorge myself with food and still be comfortable in them.  Their secret?  (let’s be discreet now…I’m beggin’ ya.  I’m not real proud of this….but) The fabric is 84% cotton, 16% (wait for it….) POLYESTER.  Ugh.  There.  I said it….and they feel great.  You can’t even tell without looking at the label (hidden in the inside crotch…thank goodness).  Anywho…that’s who I am now.  A middle-aged man wearing polyester blue-jeans.  Deal with itI’m so comfortable.

May God have mercy on my soul.

Thanks for coming along.

R

 

Leo

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.  HaveChanged.  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.

one simple act

Leo’s hook

Thanks for reading.  God bless.

R