Saturday, September 30, 2006

Coworkers: Part 61 - Man Overboard

   At Sound Warehouse, we took reservations for upcoming New Releases. Rarely in Music, frequently in Video. Customers signed the list, we'd guarantee to hold their copy for one week. Blockbuster, on the other hand, insisted on preorders. Customers wanted to reserve a title, they had to pay for the privilege. While Blockbuster had not invented that practice, they certainly had perfected it. Loyal patrons were exposed to hard sell at rental locations. They were pressured to preorder upcoming flicks. Like humble sheep, they complied. Presale rates were very high at video stores. Music locations, on the other hand, weren't even close.
   OK, why did this matter?
   Presales were free money.
   Customers paid for movies which sometimes wouldn't be released for months. Meanwhile, Blockbuster drew interest on those deposits without actually having sold one unit. Pure profit. Free money. This was a win-win situation for ... Blockbuster.
   This had worked for their company for years. With Viacom calling the shots, however, they jumped for a new master. Viacom had acquired Blockbuster as a revenue generating cash cow, to buy Paramount Studios. Vertical integration was implemented. Presells focused on Paramount titles.
   The current Paramount box office smash.
   Titanic.
   Like half the planet, I had seen Titanic. Went on Super Bowl Sunday, to 7th Street Theater, and viewed it with several hundred very angry males. Most were working class, blue collar types who clearly wanted to be watching the gridiron finale, at home with a six pack, bag of chips, and barbeque burning down the back yard. Instead, wives or girlfriends had insisted today was "movie day."
   Frustrated guys vented their fury at the screen.
   When that sneaky iceberg pounced, cheers erupted. Passengers tumbled into freezing waters, theater goers let out rebel yells. Ship disappeared into the drink, "Die, motherfucker, die!"
   As a consequence, my perceptions of this film remained skewed. For me, Titanic would forever be a slasher flick.
   All locations were "encouraged" to presell this water logged masterpiece. Posters, counter sign ups, shelf talkers littered in the store. We took orders. Not enough, apparently. Music stores sucked. Accounting Honchos found music percentages uninspiring. We needed motivation. We needed help. Accounting notified Marketing. Those geniuses knew what we needed.
   Life vests.
   Music & Video locations alike received fluorescent orange life vests. Video clerks and front counter music cashiers snapped on those vivid reminders that the great boating accident was soon to hit video decks. Customers, dazzled by vests, would immediately crack their wallets and plunk down $20 for a guaranteed copy. Video outlet flunkies donned the orange without comment. Video staffs bought into the whole BB mindset, helped no doubt by their bb backbones.
   Vests at music locations, however, suffered. We began improvements. Drove fish hooks in them, and attached rubber worms. Next came savage gashes, repaired with duct tape. Finally, a shark was inserted into the fabric, reminding onlookers that the Titanic hadn't been a disaster for all. Humans, the other white meat.
   We wore our ghetto-ized vests, and then our presales ... sucked.
   Pat suggested the girls wear the vests, and only the vests. Pat, store princess, could be a bad influence on other females. For years, she had wanted to make "The Girls of Sound Warehouse" calendar. The chest vest was simply another example of naughty Pat. When she jokingly suggested this to a visiting female Blockbuster honcho, she was told, "Ours is a FAMILY friendly chain." Pat reminded her where families came from. Predictably, Blockbuster had no sense of humor. Too bad, this ploy would have generated free media buzz.   A handful of girls strode the backroom, wearing the vest, commando. Most declined. Two guys went complete commando.

   Store deck hands mispronounced titanic.
   Presales tanked.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Coworkers: Part 62 - Don't Tread On Me

   "I'm warning you, I'm not in the mood for this today."
   Ken bristled from the Listening Center, ramrod straight, eyes blazing.
   "Keeping Democracy safe with dummy target practice?" The Boss jibed.
   "Don't mess with me today," Ken repeated. 'This is not the day for your shit."
   "Why not, you only wing those body targets?"
The Boss continued.
   The Boss was a diehard, Berserkely survivor. Late 60's fires burned still. Stick it to the man! He retained an anti establishment, anti Military Industrial Complex attitude.
   Mind you, Blockbuster was "the man." Ours might have been a rebellious location, where the staff slowly, determinedly, shifted the style back to the Sound Warehouse era. Yet, we were part of a huge chain. We obeyed a dress code, new hires passed drug tests, mandatory layouts ensured one store resembled another. Corporate suits called the shots. Like it or not, all of us were ... The Man. Or worse, pawns.
   When possible, The Boss vented on military and authority types.
   A cruel irony existed. Many of the store ex coworkers had enlisted in the armed forces or had found employment with law enforcement. Like the parents of my generation, The Boss undoubtedly wondered where he had failed.
   Whenever any alumni, who had donned the uniform, visited Camp Bowie, The Boss heckled them. Joked about killing, riot control, prison camps, indoctrination, whatever popped in his brain. He couldn't help himself.
   Enlisted was not exclusive. Any government agency was fair game. "How much tax dollars have you spent on mind control this year?"
   Some souls never even worked for him. They were someone's boyfriend or girlfriend. They were marks, nevertheless.
   Ken was the convenient whipping boy. He was National Guard.
   Some members of the Guard were patriotic types, others wanted extra income. Ken worked two jobs and he did freelance writing, in addition to his National Guard activities. I suspected a need for cash.
   The Guard, the military, none of that disturbed me, nor most of the crew. I had been in ROTC for three years before realizing I was much too the wayward soul to follow. That was me, though. For others, OK. Besides, there was a chain of command. Above the military or law enforcement were political leaders. Elected by us. The mob. Responsibility always laid ... with us. We were The Man.
   Anyway, The Boss kept pouring it on Ken that morning. Ken had just spent a month on Guard maneuvers. Shooting babies. Women & bayonets. Blindly following orders.
   "Hey, you know what?" Ken muttered. "We're done."
   "Huh?"
   "Quit. Finished. I'm done working here."

   He untied his apron. Placed it on the counter. Clocked out, started walking.
   "Hey, c'mon, I was only -- "
   "Don't bother calling me for awhile, either."

   Marched out the door.
   The Boss turned to me, attempted more humor. I was already heading towards the schedule to see who we could phone for coverage.
   Ken returned ten days later for his check. He and The Boss remained close friends.
   He never worked in the store again.
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Saturday, September 9, 2006

Coworkers: Part 64 - My Darling Boy

   "My darling boy, please come over here and tell me what that divine cologne is."
   Chris dropped his face in his hands and began laughing.
   "Oh, that smile, I could swoon," I gushed louder.
   Joe approached. "You and Chico need a little alone time?"
   "I'd have to stand in line, Dude," I joked and headed towards the front. Joe would pick up where I left off and torment Chris. Such were the pitfalls of being cute and working with bastards.
   A trio of otherwise competent coworkers became distracted lizz-bots when Chris worked. Angela and Sarah flirted shamelessly, dropping innuendo, adjusting their tops, bringing small gifts. If either drank too much caffeine they soared off the scale. Competition heightened the friendly rivalry. Female customers behaved likewise. Chris grinned and confirmed pulling girls had always been super easy. If he honored offers, he was discreet about it.
   The bonus hat trick was Payton. Book manager.
   Books were the latest stupefying business maneuver, courtesy of Blockbuster. We were a music store, not a book store. What were HQ penguins thinking? Trying to compete with national booksellers? Could they be any more obvious? Or half hearted? The section was minuscule, eight rows of bestsellers. Four months on, over 90% of stores reported flat or negative profits.
   Our location, however, was one of the shining exceptions.
   Because of Payton.
   He hired on directly from Barnes & Noble, where he had been frustrated with their insane, chain of command, management hierarchy. Every store was layered with bureaucracy. Job satisfaction seemed a nonexistent fantasy.
   Still, Payton knew book retail. The Boss gave him free rein in the section. Payton arranged his own end-caps, tweaked the layout, constantly rotated stock. Helped also, that our book nook went in just after nearby Taylor's Books went out of business. For customers on our side of town, who didn't want to deal with cross city commute, we were perfect.
   Payton knew books, and he knew what he liked. He liked Chris. No one as good looking as Chris could possibly be straight.
   He suggested they go out for drinks, mentioned movie theaters, weekend parties. A new and exciting scene beckoned. Fun music! At our store, the type of "fun music" only I played, and got razzed for doing so. Girlpop and mindless dance.
   Chris became plastic duck in the shooting arcade. Ditzy store females chasing the love. Payton, offering the love. Joe, Stacey, me, a couple other guys, lobbing rocks.
   "So, you going clubbing tonight with Pay-Load?" Joe heckled.
   "Mmm, he buy you that cologne, darling boy?"
   Payton frequently referred to Chris as his darling boy.
   "Shut up, you don't even have a sense of smell."
   "Mmm, smells like ... Love."
   "If all them ladies find out about you and Pay-Load ... "
   Angela and Sarah already knew about Payton's fixation. Neither of them worried for a heartbeat. They thought it the funniest thing ever.
   Then ... the Psycho Gurls.
   Quick definition for this pair, large & in-charge. Not fat, but they'd never refused extra fries in their lives. Seventeen, maybe fourteen, hard to gauge what age they were. These nymphs were pushy and aggressive. They had no social check switch, and their behavior was completely out of control. Chris was their bigger than life play doll, whom they yanked off the rack and played medical exam.
   Psycho Gurls worked as a team. Cornered Chris in the back Budget corner. Grabbed, held, squeezed for a hug, a kiss, or something more saucy. He tried to slip away, they gripped his hand and slipped it to party town. Adolescent boys often nursed the nympho fantasy. Psycho Gurls were Nymphos from Hell. He fled once to the customer's restroom, where they all but broke the door down.
   In-store girls cooled their Chris flame, undoubtedly fearing the Psycho Gurls would noisily bite their heads off. Payton redirected his attention to Sonnorson, a sullen, brooding, new hire, and blew Chris the farewell kiss.
   Psycho Gurls never bought anything. Pat finally kicked them out of the store. Stacey kicked them out, then banned them. The Boss banned them, threatened to summon the police. No effect. They were insane, crazy, underage jail bait.
   One afternoon, they quit coming in. In fact, they never came in again.
   Space aliens must have teleported them away.
   Anyway, the store became quieter for a period. A handful of employees missed the Psycho Gurls. A few even placed crank phone calls to Chris impersonating the Psycho Gurls, but those employees weren't so nice.
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Saturday, September 2, 2006

Customers: Part 14 - In Store‏ / Tejano All Stars

   Two months earlier, our store held a simulcast with a leading Christian radio station. No groups, no performances, but foot traffic was steady. The radio announcers insistently encouraged guests to, "Take a look at those prices!"
   Visitors browsed Christian and Gospel, but they also guiltily trawled Rap and Rock, as well. Temptation, Devil's mischief. Most of those people were first timers, they normally bought music at specialized bookstores. I wondered how those bookstore owners and employees felt, knowing the radio station they'd supported for years now urged their clients to shop elsewhere.
   Probably how music stores felt after the local newspaper gushed loudly when that chain bookseller, with token music racks, opened their local branch.
   We enjoyed a spike in Christian pop sales, and margins increased, but we couldn't hold those people. Even if we were playing George Strait or Elvis Presley, they didn't like it. If we were playing Rock or Rap, they flinched like we'd offered sandwiches with tequila soaked jerky, marijuana leaves, and minced sheets from the good book.
   This came after a year of inactivity from Corporate marketing Einsteins. Christian radio was their first step towards re-launching in-store events.
   Next, big thinkers at Corporate cast their net towards another demographic.
   The Latin market.
   We were scheduled for a Tejano meet 'n greet. Six leading performers, including Ram Herrera, Mazz, Los Musicales, Shelly Lares, were coming to Camp Bowie.
   The front of the store was reconfigured, with tables flanking the front windows. The DC dropped five brick packs for each artist. Musicians were coming to autograph CD's, we would sell CD's. Corporate offered zero guidance, so The Boss told me to sale price the lot. Face it, we wanted to sell product. Bought a cooler, bags of ice, several cases of soft drinks and corn chips. Undoubtedly the same crap those poor bastards ate at every event, but again, we received no guidance. Scheduled extra help for that afternoon, hired four cops for three hours. Braced ourselves for the approaching mob.

   The vans failed to show as scheduled. Their jet arrived late. Or they'd gotten lost. Or they'd stopped for lunch. Or something else. Back in the day, it would have been the dog ate my gym shorts. Grade school excuses.
   Pat loaded Selena into the player, I added Mana. We cranked the volume and played that music until the Tejano All-Stars arrived.
   Stacey snaked the crowd into DVD's, through Soul, Rap,.Latin, out from Soundtracks, over to the other side of the store. The crowd was tremendous and more poured in. Within an hour the store was packed. The crowd was massive and impatient. Many had skipped work, others dragged the kids out of daycare. When the Tejano All-Stars finally arrived, everyone surged to the front. Order was lost.
   Mandy switched music to tunes from our guests, punched "spiral," and away we went.
   I had volunteered to man register backup. All those masses of folks wanting to buy CD's for autographs, don't you know. Sales were dismal. No, sales were nonexistent. Fans offered their own discs to autograph, old vinyl, napkins. Any flyers laying about were snatched up. A yellow legal pad disappeared. Girls rolled up their tops and asked for belly signatures. Or turned tail and offered cheeks. Point was, customers weren't buying. Registers were silent.
   Told my counter colleague to ring or holler if she needed backup. Then went to help Stacey, she was having a time.
   The crowd wasn't purchasing, and wasn't moving. Shelves were emptying, though. Sections were bare. No alarms had triggered, however. People had grabbed merchandise, studied pictures, set it down. Where ever. They were bored. Product was strewn on the floor, kicked under bins. DVD's looked like they had been swiped by Hurricane Claudette.
   Up front, massed against the tables, the scene packed dense. No one budged. Fans got their autographs, shook hands, told a singer how their life had altered because of that, "Baby, I love you, baby," chorus.
   Then they stood there, immobile. Or milled around ... waiting. For what? To join the band, get invited to the after party, get married.
   "Baby, I love you, baby."
   Didn't know, didn't care. Move out, guys.
   We tried to be polite at first. Asked guests to depart or step aside. Instead we got tossed the ignorance plea. "No sey ... No hablar Ingles ... No savvy, lo siento." So many, many individuals had arrived, asking if this was the place, where was the line, were there TV cameras? Now, tragedy struck, as once bi-lingual talkers forgot English nouns and verbs in the overwhelming excitement. Luckily for them, John was completely fluent, others of us knew a smattering of words, and none of us were sympathetic. Walking up with a uniformed policeman speeded departures.
   None of the musical dignitaries spoke with store employees or District reps. Worse, people in line grumbled that Shelly Lares wasn't Shelly Lares. She was a fake. The woman wore sunglasses and never removed them. Maybe she'd walked into a door. She also never spoke to a single fan. Signed the napkins or scratch paper without comment, without a smile.
   One by one, guest stars stood up, waved goodbye, strolled away with companions. None of the persistent groupies were invited to the after party.
   District honchos eagerly demanded a quick inventory. We had received thirty bricks of product. Thirty CD's per brick. 900 CD's.
   We'd sold 17.
   Nothing had been stolen. No one even wanted to steal the discs.
   That was our first ... and, as it turned out, last ... major in-store meet and greet during the Blockbuster era.
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