An Essay about Mastering Retail Management

Mastering Retail Management: Hard Lessons Learned and Strategies for Success

This part of my life started when I accepted a seasonal position at Borders Books, Music, and Café at the Huebner Oaks shopping center in San Antonio, Texas—there is an REI in the location now. The holidays ended and I was asked to stay on as a full-time employee, and I accepted. I loved working at Borders. I was overseeing the Fiction/Literature section—my favorite genre—and I got discounts on books and music; the music department at Borders was fantastic. At the time the world was slowly making the shift from CDs to MP3, and the Zune and iPods were coming out and becoming popular. I was among the last to accept the changes of assailing technology and would hold fast to the quickly archaic machinery for at least another decade. I loved browsing the CD’s as much as the bookshelves and building my now worthless CD collection.

Meanwhile, I was beginning to envision my life, and the direction that I wanted it to go. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap between what I wanted and making my dreams a reality, still my mind was always consumed by the goal, to the point where even just thinking about it felt like an effort. Since I was eighteen, and it’s still equally true today, I have had that goal, although I have never been able to reconcile the means to get from here to there. Incidentally, I have made a bit of a career in retail, and in between the occasional divergent career paths, the vast majority of my experience has been selling books. So, while the back of my mind was constantly trying to manage the stable transition into writing, I had also made a goal of building a provisional career in retail management.

I managed a number of shops, both directly and indirectly (indirectly in the sense that I was doing the job without the title and the pay). I wanted to be a good manager, and so beyond the indirect management training I would receive from mentors, and the direct management training from the few corporate companies that I had worked and managed branches for, I was reading about management styles and strategies, putting them into practice, and actively developing the type of manager I wanted to be.

In theory, I should be a great manager, in practice however, I never really got the opportunity. The two most complicated and yet fortuitous opportunities that I would have proved to be incredibly challenging for me. In retrospect, I’ve learned that one of my problems is that regardless of the company that I might work for I take a vested interest in the progress and success of the company, and specifically the branch that I might be working for. I generally won’t apply for just any job. I’m not the type of person that finds work for works sake; I don’t understand the ideology, I have been very vocal about this—especially with the people I’m closest with in my life—it makes no sense to me whatsoever why a person, if their passion would otherwise lead them in a different direction, considering the jobs do exist if you really want them, as well as the means to create and develop a career if they don’t otherwise exist, would accept work in a field or an industry they care nothing about. People apply to and accept jobs that they don’t want, complain about the job, about being miserable, and then argue that life shouldn’t be wasted working. Well, what should life be wasted doing, if not pursuing and practicing the work that you’re most passionate about? That’s odd to me. Yes, it may be less difficult to simply accept another job than to develop your passion, but the alternative is not only misery but generations of people who don’t recognize the relationship between passion and work (as well as many other regrets and frustrations), and then end up hating work. Anyway, I care about the success and the failure of the company that I’m working for, and once I was managing, and personally responsible for the that success, it was really important to me to develop a business that was beneficial to the community the business served, the people that worked for the business, and for the company that might profit.

My first soul-crushing experience in management was when I was promoted from receiving manager of the Natural Grocers (Vitamin Cottage) in Fredericksburg, Texas, to the assistant store manager of the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico was a poorly run mess of a business, and it had been for years, and for so many years that everyone, many of which had worked there for quite a while, were comfortably stuck in their ways, and yet they were never short on complaints. How is it that people will aggressively fight change while simultaneously, and equally aggressively, demand change (beyond the physiological scope of our brain’s preference for familiarity)? Human behavior can be incredibly bizarre, and yet an aptitude toward conscious living will almost always counter that otherwise questionable behavior.

Not a single department at the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe was operating correctly, let alone efficiently, not one. Most of the employees, between their protests, spent their shifts in a sort of uncomfortable routine. They would, of course, manage to find the time to enjoy themselves, but the work that they were doing was enough only to keep the business running. Which is to say, that they stocked the shelves and would occasionally help customers; as long as there is a product and the people buy that product, theoretically the supply and demand system will continue to work. The Santa Fe branch of Natural Grocers could very easily be one of the highest performing stores in the company. It would be easy to manage that level of performance, and it wouldn’t have required much more work from the employees, they would have needed only to redirect the small amount of effort that they were already making.

I made an effort to implement a few changes in each department; for example, in the dairy department, no one was checking the dates on the product. It was my intention to get four or five people every week to congregate in the department, and then to go through a couple of bays per person weeding out not only the expired product, but also the product that was a few days out from expiring. This simple task—which every store should be doing anyway—would only take half-an-hour, maybe. Santa Fe would no longer be selling expired product, we would be able to keep up with the product that would be expiring soon, we would be able to separate and discount product nearing the expiration date, and that would improve the general aesthetic of the department, it would reduce our waste, it would keep money in the store, it would increase productivity, and it would make it easier for the department manager to effectively order for their department. On my watch, we started date checking, and did it, I don’t know, a small handful of times; but because productivity was so misplaced, I couldn’t sustain it. The biggest problem with the sustainability of the store was that the store manager was just as caught up in the bad routine as everyone else, and ultimately, he was doing little more than any one of the employees on the floor that were stocking and restocking the shelves. He couldn’t escape the cycle of inefficiency, and he was the only person in the store that the home office would allow to support that degree of viability.

My vision for the store was to have each employee doing a very specific set of tasks throughout the day, and no one employee would be limited to the same set of tasks every single day in order to 1.) eliminate burnout, and 2.) so they would continue to learn how to do different things. I wanted the process to become habitual so that everyone could do what they needed, to find the support they needed, and at the end of the day everything would get done, and so that we could turn that uncomfortable routine into a comfortable routine. At that point, the store gets more work done with less effort, and we would have collectively created the time to actually enjoy ourselves. Because when we don’t have to focus on what’s not getting done, and the complaints, and the problems, and when the process itself supplements the work, and that work becomes automatic (and perpetual), then we can spend time coming up with new ways to enjoy ourselves. That was my one and only objective going into work for Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My time there came to an end when the head of LP (Loss Prevention), started making company-wide changes, and started visiting the stores. Upon his visit to Santa Fe, he suspended our produce manager, who was probably one of our best performing managers at the time, I would have been more concerned with any other department manager. The store manager and I were put in positions to quit or be let go.

Essentially the company cleaned house, and apparently in exactly the same way that they have done for Santa Fe three or maybe four times in the last six or seven years. I spent my time at that store trying to build better habits so that the store might live up to its potential, although a lot of that time was wasted looking for support from either the store manager, the regional manager, and even the company’s executive manager of operations. My concerns, although usually acknowledged, went utterly disregarded, and I had lost my faith in Natural Grocers home office.

The experience took a surprisingly dramatic toll on me. Toward the end, and while on shift I would walk, defeatedly into my office, close and lock the door, and just f$&king lose it. If anyone at home office happened to be watching the cameras (and they were), they would see me walk inside the office and flail my arms wildly into the air, because that’s obviously the most professional way to address the frustration and stress of being without support from the people that would consistently go out of their way to promise their support. My stress level, after working at the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico for, I don’t know, maybe four months, was unchartable. Natural Grocers was a great company to work for, until somewhat recently, or you get into management, it’s beyond me why it is that the company cannot figure out how to treat their stores management teams decently. The shift that occurs once you’ve transitioned even from department manager to store manager, and the perception of, well primarily the HR department, but also operations, is absolutely remarkable. The experience was defeating, it was truly defeating; in part because I did really like the company.

One happenstance in particular that always resonated with me, there were monthly conference calls—a small handful of calls during which different particulars were covered, financials, company updates, inspirational pep talks, and the like—this particular conference call was a monthly call led by our regional manager. During the few weeks leading up to the call, the company had been aggressively reminding the store management teams to use employee vacation time to make up for employee call outs. Toward the end of the call our regional manager reminded the twenty or so of us that had joined to make a habit of issuing that employee paid time off (PTO) toward those call outs, during that pay period. That policy was a hard pill for me to swallow. I rarely spoke up during those meetings, but I felt like I needed to speak up and to clarify, and so I politely interjected. Hey, there is something that I wanted to clarify; paid time off (PTO) is considered an employee benefit, is it not? Our regional responded, “Yes”. So, I continued, I’m having a hard time understanding how it’s ethical for us to take their earned PTO and apply it to the hours they called out without consulting our employees. And our regional responded, “the intention is to deter employees from calling out.” So, I responded, the assumption, then, that the company is making is that every time our employees call out, they’re just dodging work. I understand that it's the company’s intention to deter employees from calling out, but the reality is that, well, it doesn’t. People want instant gratification, it’s hardwired into our brains, and applying an employee’s PTO to call outs is in direct contrast with the company’s goal; they either know that their policy is bull$hit, and what they’re really after is to punish the employee, or they haven’t yet figured out that it would make far more sense for the employee to suffer the immediate financial distress of missing a day’s work, and for the paycheck to reflect that, than for the employee to lose PTO. In part too, because when that same employee does take vacation time, their PTO will likely have no effect whatsoever on the time they will take. Not only does using an employee’s vacation time in lieu of hours missed not deter the employee from calling out, but it is also unethical. My regional manager's response to all of this was, “that’s just the way it is.” One of the quickest ways to make your managers feel good about the work they’re doing is to respond to anything that he or she says, that’s just the way it is.

            After I left Natural Grocers, I took a couple of weeks to de-stress. I wouldn’t know then that it was going to take me considerably more time than a few weeks to work through my issues. Regardless, after a little bit of time I had gotten it in my head to get back to my retail roots. On top of that, for much of that last year in New Mexico I couldn’t stop thinking about Montana. One afternoon, I opened my laptop, and typed “Barnes & Noble,” in the search engine, scrolled down to the bottom of the page, clicked on Careers at B&N, then retail Jobs, and then typed “59718” (the zip code for Bozeman, Montana). I saw that Barnes & Noble in Bozeman just so happened to be hiring an assistant store manager. I applied for the position and the store’s regional manager called me the following day. Throughout the next week and a half, I interviewed with a small handful of people, and was offered the position. The regional manager and I had a few follow-up conversations, in regard mostly to my salary expectations. I was creating a budget, and looking for a place to live, and I explained to the regional manager that in order for me to make the move work, especially in the long run, and to afford living in (or around) Bozeman, that I would need to a salary of at least $56,000. There were a few verbal promises made, a long-distance handshake, and I accepted the job. I found a little two-bedroom house outside of Bozeman, rented a U-Haul, packed up my apartment, and started driving cross-country.  

I don’t know that I can express how excited I was to be making this transition, especially coming off of a hard-hitting defeat, still carrying a lot of that weight, and the weight from other previous, but fairly recent traumas. I felt renewed, as well as the opportunity for redemption, I felt like years of actively building this career while passively developing another might suddenly be flowering into a real living. Many of those past traumas were now working their way through me, up my spine, and were settling, relaxingly on my shoulders, and waiting for the go-ahead to fly away. Because I know books, and I was very comfortable in the atmosphere, returning to my roots as a manager was very promising, especially coming back to it with more experience and new resources. And I had worked for Barnes & Noble in the past, at two different stores, and one of which (the B&N at 86th & Lex on Manhattan’s Upper East Side) I helped to open.

My new regional manager at B&N was excited to have someone from the 86th & Lex store and was even friendly with my old store manager. I felt as if my new regional manager and I were starting off on the same page, and with a mutual understanding, and that was huge for me. All I could hope for now was to be working with a decent store manager. I didn’t know much about him, I had spoken to him once over the phone while I was in New Mexico, and he shared some of his previous experience as a manager with me. Dustin, the store manager, was new to the book industry. He had several years of store management experience with Staples, TJ Maxx, and Circuit City. Although he had limited experience with books, I was excited about his tenure in management. The book industry is specialized—the knowledge that comes with a few centuries of book titles and authors can be a minor prerequisite, but you can learn it. I was excited about the two of us working together.

I had hardly finished my first week at the B&N in Bozeman and it was already clear to me that there was nothing here to be excited about. Dustin was, well, he was a f$&king joke is what he was. He loved talking about how great he was, and regardless of how aware I might be that people that behave that way are generally compensating for low self-esteem, I still find the behavior repulsive, there is a limit to how far we should take our egoism, and he went well beyond that after my first couple of shifts. He also really enjoyed asking me to do something, and then grilling me about why I did the thing he told me to do, after I did the thing that he told me to do. Dude, you f$&king told me too! There is a path that a number of people will take to work their way through those retail ranks, and you can tell a distinct difference between those managers that are both great at the job and want to be there, and those that take this path. You can spot the path in a person’s experience: to work for a company for long enough to gain solid experience in the industry, and then apply for a promotion within the company, but at a different location, which might offer both the promotion and a clean slate; and then after a spell, to leave that company, and apply for the same position with different company; only to follow that same path with the new company; if you make a habit of the practice, within a few years, you might be a store manager, a very ineffective, awful, and degenerate store manager, still you’ll be a store manager. And you may even get lucky, and fast track your way toward management, if you’re willing to accept a management position with a company that is in the process of going out of business, like, I don’t know, Circuit City (a lot of their managers jumped ship when they were told they were going bankrupt, still Circuit City needed managers to manage those stores during the transition). Dustin spent far more time peacocking and establishing his dominance, than he did any degree of actual management. That store needed to rebuild and needed a solid team in order to do that, and yet he couldn’t get past his need to be in charge. The guy put more effort into making my days as difficult as possible than he ever did in developing our employees or ensuring the store operated smoothly, and that store was not operating smoothly.

On top of that, we had a small handful of employees who were actually doing their job, in a way that would benefit them, our customers, and the store. The rest of our employees, um, well, each had the most unusual ethics and objectivity that I have ever experienced working with or managing a human being—they were good people, young, and they needed direction. Most of our employees would clock in, and then give themselves a project, regardless of what the priorities were for the day. Their projects were often as dramatic as to completely rearrange an entire section, a section that not only did not need to be rearranged, but that would also make shopping the section difficult and confusing for both our customers and the other employees. For example, one of our employees arbitrarily decided to remove all the YA mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy books from the YA section, and gave them their own sections. The change may seem reasonable, but B&N has no index whatsoever for YA mystery, sci-fi, or fantasy titles. As far as B&N’s universal cataloguing system was concerned those sections didn’t exist. And also, because there is no universal catalogue, for that employee to decide which books to pull from and which to leave was, again, completely arbitrary. There were enough employees doing a degree of this behavior that I wondered if I was losing my mind. An example of other odd behaviors, when customers would find the customer service desk, and ask whoever was behind the counter questions, “Do you have… [such and such]” to which my employees would ask something along the lines of, “Is that a YA book?” And If the customer said, “No, … [adult fiction,]” our employee would say, “Oh, I’m in charge of the YA section, I don’t know.” And then just walk away. Not only is there not one person in charge of any one section, but that has to be the worst customer service I have ever seen. I was standing right next to one employee in particular that said that, and I was taken aback, my brain had to reboot. I think a part of what made that so difficult to comprehend was that she was speaking so nonchalantly, and with enough confidence for me to wonder if she actually believed she handled that interaction the right way. Nearly two-thirds of our employees were doing something to the effect of the same thing. The rest of our employees were hiding in corners reading. Meanwhile, the store manager was walking around clueless, looking for opportunities to talk about himself.

Oh right, and there’s this thing that I was waiting to mention. My first week on the job, I learned that not a single one of the promises made by my regional manager over the phone, and while I was still in New Mexico, was going to be met. I would be making nearly ten thousand dollars a year less than what we agreed upon; I had been told that I was going to be a salaried employee (I came to find out that not a single assistant manager employed by B&N is salaried, they are all hourly employees, he could easily have told me that), and the number of hours I would be promised were subject to the same decreases as even our part-time employees, and B&N was consistently reducing hours for their hourly employees. Of course, that regional manager would only remain in our region for another four or five months, the company was splitting regions, and creating a new one, and our new regional manager had recently been promoted from store manager to regional manager. And in regard to her, I have never worked for a more incompetent regional manager anywhere in my life. I would have preferred working under the one that lied about my salary to get me to take the position. Communicating with our new regional was impossible, she would genuinely stop listening when she wasn’t talking. For example, Dustin had asked me one afternoon to move the philosophy section from near the end of religion to the end of theatre/plays. I told him that was a terrible idea, and that it would cause me physical pain to do that, but because he asked me to, I would make the change. I mentioned that to Cammie, our new regional manager, and I don’t remember her immediate response, but I very clearly remember her grilling me, one afternoon when she came to visit the store, “Why is philosophy at the end of theatre/plays?!”

            Seven or eight months after I started managing the B&N in Bozeman, Dustin sat me down one late morning, and leaning over the edge of his chair, with his hands clasped, he explained to me that he was leaving, and that his last day would be a week from that moment. Dustin had accepted a store manager position at a Petco in Florida (remember that thing I mentioned about the path that some people take…). The B&N store manager position would be open, and I spent that entire week thinking about whether I wanted to apply for the position. At that point, applying for the position was the only thing that made sense, from a professional standpoint I had to apply. I started interviewing for the position, and had progressed through three of the five different interviews required, and then one afternoon Cammie called the store, and spent five minutes berating me. My mistake, well, there are two sets of reports, they were both redundant, and at that point, because of computers, were attended to only to attend to them. And so, I was far more focused on building and developing our employees, providing operational training, and keeping the sales floor moving forward. I made a strong effort to speak up during that call with Cammie, at that point she was flat out yelling at me over the phone. I was floored; her behavior was beyond inappropriate, on top of being absurd. In response, I withdrew my application for store manager, and considered working—and admittedly with less drive—in that same assistant manager role. But, considering everything that Barnes & Noble had done for me—or to me, rather—I was inspired further to give my notice. I gave thirty days’ notice, only a couple of weeks after the lecture from my regional manager. The company that Barnes & Noble is today was developed by a pair of brothers, Len and Steve Reggio—Len Reggio had a hand in designing the store at 86th & Lex that I helped to open—there I met both he and his brother Steve. In 2019, B&N was sold to Elliot Investments out of the U.K. and chaired by James Daunt. They are ruining Barnes & Noble.

It’s amazing to me how scripted and mechanical a person can be, and completely lacking in organic, human behavior. I consistently ran into this behavior, and it was a driving issue with both Natural Grocers and B&N. My regional managers, at both NG and B&N, were playing a role, that role was to respond to boxes checked and unchecked on a report left on their desks in front of them, and that’s it. There was nothing human, and nothing cognizant about their actions, and in Cammie’s case, her attitude. Worse even, their frustrations were due to the fact that I was unwilling to behave in the same way. My focus was to develop people, because it’s them that do the job, and there was a great deal of development that needed to occur if the stores were going to improve. The thing is that although they should never have spoken to me the way that they did, favoring productivity and belittling human ingenuity is a huge problem in today’s workforce. Well actually, twenty or thirty years ago it was a problem, now that belittling behavior is a predominant standard, and that’s a different problem altogether; passion and ingenuity are critical in the workforce. Both B&N and NG, against all odds, have become a part of the problem. I had been conditioned to work for the sake of working for my entire life, and that’s a big problem, one of our greatest problems surrounding our ideology of work. The fact that people work is not, and has never been a problem, the problems peak with our own unwillingness to pursue, diligently, our passions, and it’s our passions that inspire our work.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I applied to and interviewed for a number of jobs, not one of which I actually wanted, and yet because I was conditioned to believe that the work I did was out of necessity and not drive, I was under the impression that because I left one job I needed to be applying for another job. It was so automatic; my actions weren’t conscious. I made myself conscious of my actions, and decided to reinvent myself, and the way that I would think about work. I figured out how to make it possible for me to pursue my passion. I took a part-time job at a famous, historic hotel that, because of my employment, allowed me to live in the hotel, where I would be working a few hours a night, a few days a week. I would be able to devote most of my time toward creating and developing an inspired career. The only prerequisite to turning your passions into a career is getting to know yourself, and being uncomfortably honest with yourself, so that you might be able to outline the path beneath your feet. I’m nearly forty; we feel like we get stuck living a life, and that we’re supposed to accept the conditions of our past choices. We believe that those choices frame and will continue to frame the course of our lives. We can make new choices in order to consciously influence the course. It will demand creativity, sacrifice, and your time; most of all it will demand that you learn to enjoy the process, and not the payoff. 

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