An Essay about Mastering Retail Management by James Bonner

A Journey of Disillusionment: My Experience with Natural Grocers (Part One of Two in the Management 101 Series)

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’s 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 was 18. I loved working at Borders. I oversaw the Fiction/Literature department—my favorite genre—and got discounts on books and music. The music department at Borders was among the last great music stores, believe it or not. At the time the world was slowly shifting from CDs to MP3, and Zune and iPods were coming out and becoming popular. I thought this new world was bittersweet. I bought an iPod but was weary of the changes in assailing technology and would hold fast to the quickly archaic machinery for at least another decade. I loved browsing the CDs as much as the bookshelves and building my now worthless CD collection.

Working at Borders helped me reimagine my life and the direction I thought I wanted it to go. Since I was young, 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. My parents were old school and couldn’t get past the idea that writing would never pay the bills. The seed was planted, somewhere in the recesses of my mind, the goal always consumed me, to such an extent that at no time did I feel like I wasn’t working toward it—it was exhausting. The last twenty years have been exhausting. Incidentally, I built a career in retail, and among the occasional divergent career paths, 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 several shops, both directly and indirectly (indirectly, in that I did the job without the title or the pay). I wanted to be a good manager, and beyond the indirect management training I would receive from mentors and books I was also intently focused on the corporate management training I received through the different companies I had worked 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 learned one of my problems is that regardless of the company I work for I tend to take a vested interest in the progress and success of the company. I generally won’t apply for just any job. I’m not the type of person who finds work for work's sake; I don’t understand the ideology. I have been very vocal about this. It doesn’t make sense to me why a person, who’s passionate about something other than the work they’re doing— considering the many avenues there are to pursue our passions, as well as the means to create and develop a career they don’t otherwise exist—would take a job in a field or an industry they care nothing about. People will accept a job they don’t want, complain about the job, and about being miserable, then argue that life shouldn’t be wasted working. That’s insane.

I’m not sure what we should be getting out of life if not the gratification of pursuing and practicing the work we’re most passionate about. It might be easier to accept another job than to develop our passion which often leads not only to misery but generations of people who don’t recognize the relationship between their passions and work (as well as many other regrets and frustrations), and then end up hating work. Regardless, I genuinely care about the success and the failure of the company I’m working for, once I was managing, and personally responsible for that success. It’s important, I think, to help develop a business that benefits the community, the company’s employees, and the company, especially if that company is independently owned (but that’s a luxury).

My experience in management was soul-crushing. That first soul-crushing management experience happened working for Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocers. My rise in the company was fairly meteoric, starting as a general employee with no real desire to be promoted. Through the beliefs and intentions of others, I was persuaded to move up in the company. I enjoyed the position of receiving manager at Natural Grocers in Fredericksburg, Texas. Everyone who knew me knew I wanted to return to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The opportunity presented itself in the form of the assistant manager of the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Natural Grocers in Santa Fe was a poorly run mess of a store, and it has been for years. For so many years everyone—many who had worked at the store for a while—was comfortably stuck in their ways, yet they were never short on complaints. I don’t understand why people fight for progress while simultaneously demanding change. Human behavior can be incredibly bizarre, yet an aptitude toward conscious living will almost always counter that otherwise questionable behavior.

Not one department at the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe was operating efficiently, let alone correctly, 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 their work was enough only to keep the business running. That is to say that my employees stocked the shelves (sometimes) and would occasionally help customers, as long as there was a product to buy and a customer to buy that product. Theoretically, the system of supply and demand should work. Santa Fe’s 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 they were already making to more specific and rational operations.

I wanted to implement a few changes in each department, the dairy department, for example, no one was date-checking. I wanted four to five employees every week to congregate in the department and check the dates of a couple of bays, per person, weeding out not only the expired products but also any product that was a few days from expiring. This simple task—which every store should be doing anyway—would only take half an hour, maybe less. The store wouldn’t be selling expired products anymore (side note, if you shop at the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, double check the dates of your dairy products). The store would keep up with the products that were expiring soon and would be able to separate and discount products nearing the expiration date. Simple.

Date-checking improves the general aesthetic of the department, reduces waste, keeps money in the store, increases productivity, and makes it easier for the department manager to order effectively for the 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 problem in maintaining the sustainability of the store was the store manager. He was caught up in the same bad routine as everyone else, and ultimately, he was doing little more than any of our general employees. The general employees we hired to stock and restock the shelves, help customers, and work the registers. 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 specific set of tasks throughout the day, and no one employee would be limited to the same set of tasks every single day to 1.) eliminate burnout, and 2.) 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, at the end of the day everything would get done, and 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 enjoy ourselves. When we don’t have to focus on what’s not getting done, remedy complaints and problems, and when the process supplements the work—work that becomes automatic (and perpetual)—we can spend time inventing ways to enjoy ourselves. This paragraph outlines my only objective going into work for Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I scheduled one-on-one meetings with department managers, we tried to outline weaknesses and problem areas in their departments; I introduced daily assignment expectations for every employee (including department managers), I worked with individual employees to help them sketch their daily objectives to prioritize their time, I highlighted emphasized tasks that should take precedence on certain days, I trained employees to see the store as a whole and not as individual departments so they could spot areas that might need immediate attention depending on the needs of the hour and the shift. I was met with opposition from all but the new employees every step of the way, including the store manager, the regional manager, both area managers (the regional managers’ bosses), and the executive vice president.

I stopped working for Natural Grocers after the new head of LP (Loss Prevention), started making company-wide changes and visiting stores. After visiting Santa Fe, he suspended our produce manager, who was genuinely our best-performing manager, on a technicality. I was more concerned about the performance of literally every other department manager. The head of loss prevention forced the company to put the store manager and me in the position to either quit or be fired. I was open with the company about the needs of Santa Fe, and the areas the store struggled in, and I offered suggestions (based on the hours I dedicated to working in the store), not only did the company not heed any of my proposals but they swept the problems under the rug. I lost complete faith in the leadership of Natural Grocers.

Essentially, Natural Grocers cleaned house, apparently the way 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, a lot of that time was wasted looking for support from the store manager, the regional manager, or even the company’s executive manager of operations. My concerns, although usually acknowledged, were utterly disregarded. I worked for Natural Grocers for more than three years. With indifference, I grew to value and appreciate the company and its overall mission of providing affordable, healthy food alternatives to areas where healthy food was otherwise inaccessible.

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 the 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 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 fairly recently, or when you accepted a management position, it’s beyond me why the company cannot figure out how to treat their store management teams decently. There is a perception shift through the lens of the Human Resources department when an employee transitions from department manager to store manager. It’s understood that the management team, specifically the store and assistant store managers, should take responsibility for their store; the human resources department at Natural Grocers acts as a puppet master for their management puppets. My experience managing the Natural Grocers in Santa Fe, New Mexico was truly defeating; in part because until that point, I genuinely whole-heartedly supported the company’s efforts.

One example of our regional managers' indifference that always resonated with me, is we had these 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 example is of a monthly call led by our regional manager. In the few weeks leading to the call, the company spent considerable resources reminding the different store management teams to involuntarily use earned employee vacation time to make up for employee callouts. So, for example, if an employee called out for a shift, Natural Grocers made it mandatory for us, the store managers, to apply that employees earned paid time off hours to the hours missed due to the call-out.

At the end of the call, our regional manager reminded the twenty or so of us in conference to make a habit of issuing that employee paid time off (PTO) toward those callouts, during that pay period. That policy was a hard pill for me to swallow. I rarely spoke during these meetings, however, on this occasion I felt compelled to address that ‘policy.’

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, instead of calling out for legit reasons. I don’t understand how we can punish our employees for having lives.” Our regional said, “It’s not a punishment.” “How is stealing our employees' earned PTO hours due to call-outs, not a punishment?” His response was, “It’s just the way it is.”

In my opinion—I believe—that it was the intention of Natural Grocers, when implementing this policy, to deter employees from calling out. But the reality is that it doesn’t keep employees from calling out. People want instant gratification; it’s hardwired into our brains. Applying employee PTO to call-outs regardless of intent is ultimately a punishment, and nothing else. It would make more sense for the employee calling out to suffer the immediate financial distress of missing that day’s work and for the paycheck to reflect that than it does for the employee to lose PTO. In part because people will take vacation time, regardless of whether they have the PTO to cover it. Not only does applying for an employee's vacation time not deter an employee from calling out, but it is also unethical. This policy is an underhanded way for Natural Grocers to insinuate how little trust they have in their employees. Also, for a regional manager to respond to a store manager with a legitimate question of ethics with, “It’s just the way it is,” is so deprecatory it’s remarkable.

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