Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Coworkers: Part 46 - The Donut Bear

   The chain was swallowed whole by Blockbuster. Complete takeover. Stores were notified to anticipate visitors. Very Important Visitors. New Bromeroids, though that phrase had lost its cachet. All locations, including ours, would be inspected. Evaluated. Prepped before the conversion to the Blockbuster way of business.
   Resistance was futile.
   And the new Masters arrived. Actually, one.
   Big Bear.
   Greeted staff with an unsmiling, "You're fired."
   This was addressed to Dan. Big Bear, as he termed himself, was the Loss Prevention agent. He had chosen The Boss's day off to conduct his preliminary inspection. Classic retail behavior.
   "Ha ha, right," Dan couldn't tell if this guy was joking or was serious. He smiled, but it was a sickly grin.
   "Giving you fair warning," he stated flatly. "I have total authority to terminate anyone in the chain. Field level up to Regional."
   "I'll keep that in mind,"
Dan said.
   "Do that." He surveyed the Backroom, where I was working. Didn't look at either of us. "Clear your things ... you're fired."
   Dan and I looked at each other.
   "Just kidding." Big Bear walked towards the empty corner, past the dead shrink wrap unit.
   I already hated this man, I wanted to saunter away but couldn't. I'd be on his suspect list forever.
   "What are all these CD's?" he demanded.
   "Everything is organized," Dan answered cheerfully. "Defectives. Pulls and Recalls. Promos."
   "Why are they not secured?"
   "Locked up somewhere,"
specified Bear.
   "Customers never come back here," Dan laughed.
   "I'm not talking about customer theft. I'm talking about securing them from employees. Surely you don't trust your coworkers?"
   That was our initial encounter with the Blockbuster crime unit. Within a month we would realize this gent was not interested in protecting us from professional thieves, resolve banking errors, track hijacked shipments. Blockbuster only recognized one type of theft. Internal. Turned out they had a long and very troubled history of hiring boatloads of disgruntled employees who stole and stole and stole. Or, that was how Blockbuster perceived their valued associates.
   In five years at Sound Warehouse, I didn't even know if the chain had a Loss Prevention agent. We had our share of internal theft. Managers were expected to detect, identify, and fire sticky fingers. If not, if the shrink was too high, managers were released. Our store shrink was less than 1%, The Boss strived for .5%.
   Big Bear became a regular visitor. The dangerous intruder. Anytime someone went to the restroom, he pulled out his wristwatch. I gave him a skeptical side glance and he fired off, "You think this isn't my job? Well it is. If some goldbrick is stealing time."
   This was the same guy who suggested we install cameras in the bathroom. You couldn't pay me enough for that surveillance duty.
   While he was Blockbuster to the bone, he had no desire to office out of Dallas, let alone Garland. His residence was in Cowtown, so he wanted his office to be in Cowtown. Our little location suited his purposes, and had bonus points. Females Missy and Trina, he took a shine to. They were too pretty to be fired. Why, he even offered to share his donuts with those two.
   Oh, yes, donuts. Every time he strolled in, he cradled two dozen donuts. Then he devoured those two dozen donuts.
   Two boxes. Sticky flour, deep fried in oil, drenched with sugar. Twenty four. The ex-cop's breakfast special.
   I don't think I properly described Big Bear, now referred to as Donut Bear. Maybe I don't need to.
   Most of all, he desperately coveted the Stash Room, where employees locked their purses, jackets, and stashes of CD's and toys they planned to buy ... eventually. The room where Returns were stored and sorted.
   Employees didn't need that room, he argued. Employees ought to keep their purses and lunches in their cars. Returns should be stored in the office, or hallway. Stash Room would be Loss Prevention Command Base, complete with mini fridge he would requisite. It was an honor.
   I think that's what he said. Hard to understand a man who spoke with his mouth full of pastries. While your eye followed half chewed food bits that spilled past his jaw while he issued orders. When you watched wet food plop the carpet, knowing we had a rodent problem. Then he reeled you back, demanding, "Am I right? Am I right? Of course I'm right."
   There seemed no way to reason with the Donut Bear. Even the DM was subdued near him, knowing full well Bear would take full delight in firing. Bear loved firing, he reassured everyone. Every single visit, which had increased, he told someone, "You're fired." He no longer said he was joking. Sooner or later, he would mean it.
   Hopefully, everyone has dreams and plans in this world. Even bears have their dreams.
   Donut Bear's dreams of that Stash Room becoming his sexy Bear Cave crumbled a few weeks later. He'd forgotten our store was receiving a full remodel. Everything would be gutted. The Stash Room was not in the blueprint. Indeed, there were no rooms in the blueprint, only a tiny Backroom / Office.
   Bear fixed his eye on another store. Berry Street. Rob's store, lucky him.
   There was a Dunkin' Donuts right across the street from Berry.
   Anyway, Donut Bear was the first impression we had of the folks who now presided over us.
   More impressions were enroute.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Coworkers: Part 47 - Crew Shift

   Four people got hired during the transition. Kristi, Mandy, Mikey, and The Professor. I was directly responsible for two of them.
   During the last weeks of Sound Warehouse, I was in the Booth, working up a Classical order when this girl approached me. Typical Texas blonde, reminded me of Stephanie or Carey.
   "Are ya'll hiring?"
   I didn't hire, and The Boss was across the way in Cassettes. I could weed applicants quickly, however.
   "What do you listen to?" I asked.
   "I listen to all kinds of music," she replied.
   "Does that include Rap, Jazz, Classical, Techno?" I challenged.
   "Ha ha," she laughed, "no, I listen to Rock, but mostly Country."
   "Country?" She had my full attention.
   "Yeah. Most of my car presets are kinda/sorta on country stations. New stuff and oldies."
   "You walk over to that man," I pointed out The Boss. "You tell him you just spoke with me, you're looking for work, and ya'll listen to Country."
   The Boss spoke with her for less than five minutes. Kristi was hired on the spot. In our store, she was the final Sound Warehouse hire.

   After I returned from a trip, the store was bisected with black plastic. Demolition in the back was total. Backroom, Office, Money Room, Stash Room, bathrooms, all rubble. Many coworkers were stressed. The usual suspects, and most of the females. Whereas Stacey was indifferent, Pat, Trina and Missy vented on new girls Kristi and Mandy.
   This was beyond the usual territory cattiness. Sound Warehouse reeked of music snobbery, of which I was equally culpable. If you weren't knowledgeable you were shoved out the door. Kristi went to clubs ... Billy Bob's and country bars. Newer girl, Mandy, the first official Blockbuster hire, didn't club at all. In fact, Mandy knew shit about music. Her minuscule music quotient came from her boyfriend, and his was FM based knowledge. Six months behind the curve.
   The new girls weren't "cool" enough. Maneuverings and politics began. I immediately countered arguments and checked comments. Kristi and Mandy were accused of being too straight, ignorant of cutting edge, and wearing lame clothes. The latter was my favorite reason they were uncool since every employee now wore Blockbuster's blue and khaki attire. Whatever. The Bobsey Twins worked like freight trains. I loved these girls, and insisted they work Truck Day. I'd failed with Angela, but I was determined to shield this pair.

   "What do you think about this guy?" The Boss thrust a filled application form into my hands.
   I scanned it briefly. Looked to be written by a convict, using with his fingers.
   "For the Classical Room?" I asked.
   "I could continue running the Back Room and Classical like before."
   "That'd work for me. Unfortunately, Blockbuster wants someone in that room constantly during business hours. I need you running inventory."
   "Alright," I sighed. "I know this guy. He is an expert on Classical music. Knows more than I do, plus the two Classical Mikes combined."
   "Personality. Will he fit in? Over the years he's applied about five times, and five times I gave the job to someone else."
   "He will never fit in. If this was Sound Warehouse, employees would carve him up. Slowly. In his swank Mozart room he should be isolated, though being in there may lend the impression "special." That room, in my opinion, smacks of elitism."
   "My friend, that's not our call. Will he get along?" The Boss focused on answers.
   I shrugged. "He will annoy everyone, but he will work hard and he'll try to get along."
   "Good enough. On your recommendation, I'm hiring him as Classical manager."
   There. Guilty. I'm the one. Any colleague or customer who would ever have difficulties with The Professor could look at me, shake their head, and say, "Thanks, idiot."
   Worse, that night I had to inform Zelda I was no longer section chief. She was crushed. For five years, anytime someone asked what I did for a living I answered, "I'm in the music industry." If Zelda was within earshot, she'd immediately bolt over, grab my arm and add, "He's head of Classical," unweaving the fabrication.

   Since Kristi was Sound Warehouse, she dodged the mandatory drug test. Mandy, The Professor and Mikey passed easily, lowering in-house esteem even further.
   Mikey on the other hand ...
   Mikey's head was shaved.
   He provided hair samples, nevertheless.
   Everyone took note.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Customers: Part 12 - Poopdeck

  "Hey, you!"
  "What?" Oh, fuck me, I thought.
  I hadn't been paying attention. I was writing groups for D Catalogue bin cards. Blockbuster gave us thousands of nice, new bin cards, but we carried so many obscure and local groups that we had to print hundreds more. Usually Mandy, Kristi, or Sarah did these, but it was Saturday and I could either work on bin cards or help Krause in Classical.
  Bin cards.
  So I was engrossed. Didn't see Poopdeck totter into the store. I didn't have a sense of smell, so there went that early warning system. I wasn't deaf, though, I should have heard him.
  Poopdeck was ten feet and closing.
  "What do you need?" I asked, coldly.
  "What? I bought an album of pirate songs here awhile ago."
  "No. You bought an Errol Flynn soundtrack. Sea Hawks, I think. It wasn't a recording of authentic 17th Century pirates."
  "What? Where do you keep your sailor songs and sea shanties?"
  "We don't stock crap like that!"
  Poopdeck always demanded shit like this. Pirate music, sea man tunes. That's half the reason Dan and Rob nicknamed him Poopdeck. Why couldn't he just reenlist in the Navy? Fall overboard.
  "Well, how do you know if you don't bother looking?"
  "Because I check everything in. Yes, everything." I swept my hand in a broad arc across the store. "Every single item that comes into the store, checked in, priced, entered into the database. Me. I'm the one accountable for inventory. And ... I ain't checked in no pirate ballads, no Marine Corps hymns, no lusty mermaid songs. Or do you want Octopus's Garden?"
  "Then ... who do I see about ordering what I want?"
  "Do you want to talk to Dan?"
  Swear to God, Dan, on the other side of the store, heard his name, looked over, recognized Poopdeck, hurried out the store.
  Typical. Lucky bastard.
  Poopdeck and I were getting louder with every exchange. He was hearing impaired. Working those below deck boilers, or cleaning his ears out with a screwdriver. Customers glanced our way, curious about the ruckus. Once they took in the full glory of Poopdeck in his bespattered raiment, they shielded their eyes. Then wondered why I abused such an individual.

  Years earlier, when I saw Pepe attack Gnarly, I figured she was the meanest, most insensitive person.
  I worked one register, Sweeney the other. There were two lines. Friday night.
  "Excuse me! Can I get to the front? I have a cab."
  Big guy, really big guy, hulking. By his wailing tone, I knew he had been shortchanged in brain cells. I motioned for him to cut line.
  "Oh, no, you don't. Gnarly, you don't ever cut in line like this," Pepe loudly chastised him. "Do you understand me?"
  "But I have a cab!" he wailed.
  "You have no such thing!"
  How rude. Here was a guy, clearly with some mental challenges, and she was publicly scolding him.
  "I'm in a really big hurry."
  "Then you can just hurry yourself right out the door. But you're not cutting in front of all these people."
  "What if my cab leaves without me?" he insisted.
  "Then I'll take you home myself," Pepe answered. "Or ... " she pointed to Video, "your parents can take you."
  Later, I realized Gnarly exaggerated his deficiency to interrupt conversations, jump lines, give incorrect change. What were once special indulgences, he now accepted as permanent advantages. Plus, he used his intimidating size. I learned. Pepe had been completely justified.

  So, I'm dealing with this half deaf, nautically obsessed, old fart weirdo. Poopdeck shouted loudly. The other half of that Poopdeck moniker? He always wore a sailors cap. Not a U S Navy cap. No, a British tar's cap. Aarrr. And it was actually Poopdeck Pappy, though most of us abbreviated it. That day, he wore bib overalls, with the remnants of some shirt underneath. Everything from chin to zipper was terribly, permanently soiled. Grease, pizza, paint, mustard, unidentifiable discharges. He now stood six inches from me. Barking. Still deaf.
  Of course, no rescue posse was forthcoming. Somewhere, a cluster of coworkers were laughing. Wisely hidden.
" ... I mean, I've seen these. You know, at the base."
  Christ. Why don't you shop at the base that stocks pirate music?
  Maybe I should dump him onto The Professor?
  Ahh, that would be cruel.
  Suddenly ...
  "Hey! Follow me."
  Led Poopdeck into the Rock stacks. Procal Harum. Flipped through titles. There it was. Placed A Salty Dog in his grubby hands.
  "Well, now you're talking." He glanced at the track listings, but kept returning to that cover of a happy British tar inside a life preserver.
 "Is this good?" he asked.
  "Considered a classic," I replied truthfully.
  Poopdeck paid and departed. Maybe next time he'd ambush someone else.
  There was always that next time.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Coworkers: Part 48 - The Concept

   Suppose you threw a party, and nobody attended.
   You held an election, and nobody voted.
   Or you built yourself a national record chain, and nobody bought.
   Blockbuster had purchased a half dozen music store chains including Turtles, Record Bar, Tracks, Music Plus, Super Club, and us. They did not completely understand the music business model. Blockbuster was accustomed to patrons walking in, shopping, departing with arms full. Clients entered to rent something, anything. They'd rent 3-4 films, buy overpriced candy, microwave popcorn, and leave. Rental customers did not exit empty handed.
   Music stores were different.
   A sizable percentage of customers came to shop. Not buy, shop. Browse. Loiter. Money did not always change hands. Patrons chatted with staff, perused inventory, tweaked mental wish lists for their collections. Many suffered the proverbial "champagne taste - beer budget" syndrome. Most of us were patient, understanding. Like them, we were poor, too.
   Our new owners suffered a hissy fit. What was wrong with these customers? Visitors were supposed to spend money! They marched in, thank you very much, marched out an hour later. Nothing! Used up store air conditioning, wasted payroll man-hours in non profitable jabber, tracked dust on fixtures (Blockbuster may have known damned little about music, but one thing they did know was dust. Every single visit, every BB flunky zeroed in on dust.).
   "There must be a solution," a red headed minion stressed. "We need to force people to buy. Well, not force, convince. They are here to spend their money. We're not a social agency. Music stores were acquired to boost profits."
   She babbled on and on to The Boss or any handy assistant. Many of us had been in takeover situations before. New masters were always arrogant know-it-alls. Our new bullies, no matter how friendly, were cast to type.
   "Make sure all listening posts are working. If people hear it, they'll buy it. Remember your new slogan, The Power To Hear It All. You should post that phrase everywhere so employees don't forget. If clients don't know what they want, simply tell them what they want. Put something in their hands, suggest chart toppers, walk them to the registers so they feel compelled to buy."
   Hard sell.
   Customers hated this shit. We quickly discovered customers also hated Blockbuster. The video chain was a controlling monopoly, engaged in movie censorship, and practiced predatory pricing. Worst of all, Blockbuster had deliberately killed our own rental section. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn't. Yet customers were convinced.
   There was the strong suspicion we had been acquired originally because we were kicking their rental ass. Sound Warehouse rentals had been 99¢ and 49¢ per night. Business was dynamite. Two registers ran full bore from 5:00 on. Friday or Saturday, three registers. Video was a crowded, happy madhouse.
   After the takeover, rental prices were improved to $3.99 nightly. Our location lost over 90% of our rental customer base within one week. Movies with questionable ratings were purged. Oddball titles, not in their database, were eliminated. As prices exploded skywards, Video became funeral parlor sleepy.
   Faithful customers departed in droves. Even Henry and Martha, in their 80's, who had been with us for over a decade, discovered the grocery store next to us. Rentals there, $1.00 per night.
   Blockbuster never intended to keep rental at the music locations.
   "That is not in the overall concept. When people want movies, you're supposed to send them to the video locations. If they want music, we send them to you. Synergy. This will be profitable for everyone."
   Our store was remodeled. Sans video section. Rental stock was liquidated. I phoned friends at the public library, they filled several shopping carts with our old titles. The library, by the way, charged nothing for renting videos.
   Blockbuster's great concept. Synergy? Video locations began stocking compact discs. "We gotcha covered, teammate."
   Oh ... yes ... almost forgot about that second prong of their great concept.
   The master plan.
   The mighty powers at Blockbuster planned to establish download stations in music stores. Customers could download albums or singles from a remote database and make copies in-store. Artwork and booklets would either be printed separately or mailed to them. That aspect remained murky.
   An intriguing concept.
   Blockbuster assumed, however, all the music labels would be agreeable to this. They assumed music labels would fall into line and kowtow to all powerful Blockbuster, just as movie studios had.
   All assumptions, even Boardroom assumptions, contain the same first three letters.
   The designers assumed wrongly.
   Record labels categorically refused, threatened legal proceedings if Blockbuster tried to launch their plan. Their grand presumption, on which they begun their music retail buying binge, came to nothing. They would have to compete in the marketplace on equal footing with competitors. They would have to entice disgruntled customers back into stores and convince them to buy, if they were to recover the millions invested.
   Grand schemes by suits, carried out by scattered trench rats.
   For myself, that was the first time I heard the word downloading.
   Pandora's box.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Coworkers: Part 49 - GUEST

   Blockbuster honchos began devising new stunts to lure reluctant shoppers back into their music division. Bosses were genuinely startled by the eroding foot traffic. In the video realm, they had enjoyed a de facto monopoly. Music retail, on the other hand, was fiercely competitive. As our store knew, all too well, even booksellers had entered a crowded market. There were many mall chains, mom 'n pop shops, big box stores like ours, mail order clubs, and Wal Mart.
   Many long time Regulars quit shopping because they simply disliked Blockbuster. Their corporate arrogance coupled with their routine censorship alienated many. Blockbuster launched a predictable strategy to get folks, and their wallets, back into their stores.
   Stage One: Advertise. Catch phrase, The Power To Hear It All. Every week, there were glossy TV commercials of happy listeners previewing any CD they wanted at those newfangled Listening Centers at their nearby Blockbuster Music. This was partially successful. We did enjoy new customers. Only they didn't stay. Nine times out of ten, they asked to hear a CD then either didn't like it, or had to think about it. Meaning, they went elsewhere to buy. Tellingly enough, the commercials were all video based. There was nothing created for the radio market. Which was where music was broadcast.
   Stage Two: Bribery. Bonus Boxes. With any purchase, customers received a bonus box with goodies inside. Three fun sized candy bars, pack of microwave popcorn, and a stuffed doll. There was an ongoing fad for Beanie Baby dolls. I personally knew -- I had friends, actual friends, who based their retirement strategy on building a Beanie Baby collection. Future was mapped out brighter than the sun. A couple of thousand dollars invested in "highly collectible" dolls, would steeply increase in value until the lucky owners could buy Manhattan.
   I confided to my friends, that for the price of a CD single, they could get a bonus box with dollie.
   Then I was dismissively told, ours were not genuine Beanie Babies. Ours were Coca Cola dollies. How fussy. Still, we gave away thousands of bonus boxes, several missing the microwave popcorn that mysteriously exploded in our Backroom. How many of those new visitors who walked out with bonus boxes became steady Regulars?
   How many fingers do you have on one hand?
   Subtract four.
   Stage Three: Indoctrination. Also known as employee motivation. Or simply, GUEST.
   The GUEST system had been used in restaurants for years. This was customer service shorthand. Greet (the client) - Understand (what they want) - Explain or Explore (what they want instead) - Suggest (additional purchases) - Thank them.
   Blockbuster sent us peppy, snazzy videos to watch.
   "Hello, madam, how are you today?" asked a perky male employee.
   "Thank you so much for asking!" replied the 30'ish lady customer.
   "How can I help you today?"
   "I came in to buy a Barney video for my youngest,"
she said.
   "We have a full line of Barney," explained the employee. "This one is my favorite," and he placed the video in the customer's hand.
   "Oh, you're so helpful. I love shopping here," gushed satisfied client.
   "While you're here, if you have other children, you might want to get something for them as well. Preempt arguments," suggested the clerk.
   "You're right! I better get some videos for the boys as well."
   "How about these two action films,"
clerk placed two more videos in customer's hands. "Very popular. With plots that offer lifelong lessons."
   "Whatever would I do without you?"
customer beamed.
   "Well, what about something for yourself? You look like you'd enjoy a good exercise video." He loaded a workout video onto her stack.
   "I guess I could lose a little weight. And this looks so fun! Oh! I forgot my husband! What would he like?"
   "Just the thing."
Male employee gently slid a Playboy on top of the pile. "This guarantees smiles all week. The art direction is exceptional."
   "All this came to only $143.00? Ooh, candy bar! No wonder this is my favorite store. Thank you so much."
   "No ... please ... I thank you."

   There wasn't a single music item in the story, but the concept was the same. Greet - Understand - Explain - Suggest - Thank. Customers were like steel ducks in a shooting gallery. All we had to do was greet 'em, pile product in their hands, thank 'em before the exit door whacked their backside.
   "Any questions?" The Boss asked a disgruntled squad of us, after ejecting the video.
   "It never works like that," Kristi argued.
   The Boss sighed. "That's how the Corporate people want it to operate."
   "I place stuff in folks' hands, they place it right back on the shelf."
   "We need to try this, alright?"
   "It's only music. Not like we're peddling skin, you know?"
   "Then GUEST would mean Get Undressed - Excite - Satisfy - Take their money."
   "I'd shop here!"
John added.
   The Backroom went silent. All of us filed out to the Floor.
   The GUEST program never really delivered as promised. We were tested on what the GUEST letters stood for all the time.
   Kristi's version was the one most employees recited.