On Retail Experiences

I have an account at DailyKos, the progressive online community, though I’ve very rarely used it in the past six or seven years. Maybe I’ll post a diary once a year, maybe I’ll log in and make a comment on a post that interests me.

Maybe.

This morning I saw a diary entitled “Confessions of a Retail Worker: $8/hr is generous sez higher-up. Intrigued by the title, I clicked through. It told a tale I found familiar — someone was working the retail life, and they were underpaid and unappreciated. Having spent many years in the retail trenches, I know both.

(I should note for the record, though, that retail is not the only job sector where employees are underpaid and unappreciated. It happens in every job field.)

So I posted a comment, giving another perspective. Here is what I wrote…

Until five years ago, I was a store manager for EB Games and GameStop in the Raleigh, North Carolina area.

As an EB Games manager, we were entrusted with a lot of power. We had our guidelines about where things had to go in the store, we had a payroll budget, we had sales goals, but beyond that, we got to do things pretty much as we saw fit. EB Games, basically, allowed creative thinking.

Eighteen months before I left the company, we were bought out by GameStop. We were told for months that this wouldn’t have any effect; we weren’t to think of this as a buyout/winner-loser situation, we were to think of it as a merging and blending of the two cultures.

September approached, and I started doing interviews for my Christmas season hires, and I’d settled on three really good candidates. Raleigh isn’t that expensive a place to live, but it’s a growing place, and there’s a lot of competition for good workers, so I knew all along that I’d never get away with paying minimum wage, because someone else, someone with social skills, would be able to go somewhere else and get more. The manager over at Crabtree paid about $2.50 over minimum, I paid closer to $1.50, sometimes $2.00 over minimum. My part-timers only worked about 8 to 12 hours a week; they were usually high school or college kids who had other interests and concerns.

Even though we weren’t technically part of GameStop at that point (the government’s approval didn’t come until February, as I recall), GameStop started meddling with EB’s culture. And as we were gearing up for Christmas hiring, the edict came down that, per GameStop, we had a wage scale for part-timers. The maximum that we could pay was 23 cents over the federal minimum wage, unless the store was in a state with a higher state minimum wage in which case the maximum was the state’s minimum wage. (The only way an employee could get that maximum, by the way, was if they had a PhD and spoke three languages. We had a chart with 11 questions, we had to document the answers, and we had to submit the completed chart with the new hire paperwork.)

This disrupted all of my Christmas hiring plans.

I understood GameStop’s view — lots of young people want to work with video games because they love the product — but I thought it was a short-sighted view. What a company pays (and is willing to pay) says a lot about how a company values its employees. The kind of person I would want to hire could just as easily get a better paying job at Barnes & Noble, which is why I was willing to pay more. GameStop took that away, because GameStop believed that no employee was valuable and that every employee could be replaced. (As I would learn once the merger was complete, even the manager wasn’t valuable. A GameStop manager is, basically, a well-paid part-timer, with many responsibilities but no rewards. Even our ability to write a store schedule was taken away, as the schedule was written for us in Texas, and we simply wrote in the employee names when it arrived.) GameStop’s managers couldn’t understand why EB stores had significantly less turnover; as an EB manager, I couldn’t understand why GameStop’s culture of employee turnover had been encouraged and allowed to endure.

I valued my employees. I know a lot of EB managers valued their employees. Everyone that works in a store, especially a little store that has maybe six employees, is in the boat together. You become a team, and you all pull your weight.

Not every company — and not every manager — feels that way, though. Sometimes it’s the person. But I think, more often than not, it’s the culture. And that’s really unfortunate.

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