Friday, April 15, 2011

Tales from Retail

DAY 38 OF 46

Trevor Bannister passed away in Surrey, England yesterday. He died of a heart attack at the age of 76.

To most Americans, this news will come as neither a surprise nor a particularly interesting bit of information. In Britain, however, it's the #1 story on the BBC's website today.

Bannister's claim to fame came during his years playing the character Mr. Lucas on the 1970's BBC television sitcom, Are You Being Served?(AYBS). Just as America has its brand of situation comedies for TV, so does England, and AYBS has been one of their best-loved shows. Set in a grand London department store, oddly named Grace Brothers, this series centered on the lives and foibles of the staff in the gentlemen's and ladies' departments. Mr. Lucas (we're never made privy to his character's first name) worked as the junior salesman behind the mens' counter, under the irrepressibly flamboyant Mr. Humphries.

Contrasted with Mr. Humphries' veiled homosexual proclivities, Bannister's Mr. Lucas considered himself quite the ladies man and playboy of the store. Yet being the novice salesman, he clung onto his job usually by the skin of his teeth. His character was the one who questioned authority the most, marveled at the illogical ways retail sometimes works, and generally would prefer giving up a sale than giving up an opportunity to have fun.

British comedy has been described as an acquired taste, and indeed, not a lot of Americans find it laugh-out-loud funny. Most of the time, English humor comes not from blatant jokes or hilarious storylines, but from the intricate writing which draws viewers into each character's persona. British comedies tend to engage our desire to live the shows vicariously through their characters, and scripts are written not just to elicit laughter but to convey an almost familial poignancy.

Welcome to Jas. K. Wilson

But even though I'm personally saddened to hear that the man who played Mr. Lucas has died, that's not what I think about most as I reminisce about the show. Back when I was still in high school, I got a job at an upscale mens' store at the mall, and I worked there for over six years until I started grad school. Whenever I watch AYBS, I can't ignore how the show parallels my own real-life experiences in retail.

Although it had become part of a nationwide corporation, the store for which I worked, Jas. K. Wilson, retained distinct characteristics of back when it was a fine mens' haberdashery in downtown Dallas, just down the street from the flagship Neiman Marcus.

Our clothes were expensive, and we were known for our service and attention to detail. The styles of our clothes ranged from the old-fashioned to the moderately trendy, and we were never reprimanded for evidencing a bit of snobbery when prospective customers asked for something either too modern or too bourgeoisie. We were fond of joking with customers that "there's no such thing as a short-sleeved dress shirt." And I can even recall managers clucking that "the customer is always right, except when they're wrong."

So maybe now some of my readers have a better idea of where I've gotten my spurts of attitude.

This job was the first place I heard a black person call another black person by the n-word. As it happened, a wonderfully amiable fellow clerk caught another black woman shoplifting, and could barely conceal her contempt.

I myself helped catch a thief: a customer reported that purchases she had taken back to her car were stolen during a burglary of her car. Imagine my surprise when the next day, a bedraggled, greasy-haired white man brought the very same stolen merchandise back to the store for a refund! I managed to keep the guy engaged in conversation at the cashier's desk until the police arrived to arrest him. For my bit of derring-do, my boss at the time rewarded me with a company-paid breakfast at a local hotel.

That particular store manager proved to be one of three I had who were eventually caught embezzling from the company. But those incidents paled in comparison to the thievery which eventually brought down the store's parent corporation. From the scuttlebutt we heard, two of the corporation's top executives plundered the firm's bank accounts and then high-tailed it to the Caribbean. Within weeks, vendors stopped shipping goods, inventory started to run out, and staffing levels were cut. Finishing us off was the explosion of casual Friday attire, which wiped out the market for business suits, dress shirts, and ties which were our mainstay. It only took a matter of months before we were in bankruptcy.

Minding the Store

Back in the day, we store staffers were often treated like royalty. Each quarter, a fancy sales meeting would be held at a local country club or posh hotel. There used to be formal training sessions at headquarters in Dallas. We were not expected to clean the store or water the live plants - custodians and porters did all that.

Kind of like they did at Grace Brothers, the fictional store where Trevor Bannister's character worked. Only we didn't treat the porters as if they were social trash, like the staff at Grace Brothers did. On the other end of the employee spectrum, our company management could sometimes be as clueless as the management at Grace Brothers, however. One time, a local manager who didn't think were were "pushing enough goods" tried to demonstrate to us some proper selling techniques one busy Saturday. He left quietly around noontime, not having sold any more than any of the rest of us.

When I started working at Jas. K. Wilson, an elderly gentleman named Coy Garrison worked part-time, but never on Saturdays. Saturday evenings, he always brought his equally-elderly wife to one of the mall's restaurants for dinner, and then they'd stroll by the store, fingering toothpicks like a lot of older folks do here in Texas after a meal.

Coy didn't really sell very much; for one reason, he was practically deaf, and almost as blind. Yet he lent a certain stateliness to the place, kind of like some of the characters on AYBS did. He also had been in retail long enough to know a thing or two about it.

He used to like to encourage us younger salespeople with his philosophies of life. He'd hold court at one corner of the massive wood and glass counters near the front cash register, ignoring the customers walking by as he shared his insights. One of his favorites was that everybody should work at least one year in retail when they get out of school, before they go into whatever other career they might really want. Retail, according to Coy, provided one of the best venues for learning about human nature in all of its quirky, goofy glory.

And you know what? Coy was right. Maybe not about everybody working in retail like it was a military draft. But in retail, particularly in our store, here in moderately affluent Arlington, we really had the chance to witness a wide range of personalities, attitudes, and expectations, not only from customers, but from staff as well.

I learned to value personal experience over book knowledge. If you saw the amount of junk we were expected to sell that had been ordered by corporate buyers who'd never worked one day on a sales floor, you'd understand why I don't give a lot of credit to people just because they have an MBA after their name.

I learned that sometimes, you have to go along to get along. I had one manager who tried to banish me to the stockroom every chance he got. Eventually, I figured out that everybody in the store was aware of my situation, and my ability to tolerate it gave me a lot more credibility with them than it did my manager. Maybe it didn't put money in my pocket, but people respected me, and to me, that was worth something.

And I also learned how hard people have to work sometimes for not a lot of money. Juggling three customers with spouses who can't make up their minds and eventually selling them just a fraction of the clothes they tried on isn't a very delightful way of earning a few bucks an hour. But at least among the people with which I worked, it was mostly honest labor. Done mostly by people without college degrees who weren't built for digging ditches in Texas' summer heat.

These days, retail even at the highest level pales in comparison to the service we provided our customers just 15 years ago. So much has been lost as profit margins have evaporated and management has given up trying to appease an increasingly fickle customer base. A lot of people say they want quality, but few are willing to actually pay for it.

So... when I learned today that the actor who brought Mr. Lucas to life had died, I felt compelled to spend a moment and commiserate over my own days in retail. When I, too, was young and learning the ropes. And even still had a lot of hair, like Bannister did.

Instead of asking our customers, "are you being served?" however, we were taught to ask, "how may I help you?"

I suppose if we had asked the question with a British accent, we might have gotten more sales.

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