Monday, May 5, 2008

The Wal-Mart Diaries

By popular demand...


When asked about life in my hometown, I usually reply with a series of praise about the scenery, the atmosphere, the people. However, I generally qualify this with a statement of "But you have to leave at some point, unless you want to continue working the same job you did when you were a teenager."

Because, when I was a teenager, I worked at Wal-Mart.

It is a little odd that there was even a Wal-Mart in my home town. This was the town that managed to keep out the mighty McDonald's by virtue of grassroots petitions and local paper headlines declaring the evils of corporations (it should be noted that other paper headlines included "Main Street Oak Tree to Be Cut Down: Locals Enraged"). Ever since its arrival in its 1990s take-over of North America, Wal-Mart has been pretty much a constant source of controversy in our town, from its underselling of local businesses to its desire to sprawl across the underdeveloped portions of the waterfront.

However, another quality of small town life is its lack of employment; as such, Wal-Mart became popular for the minimum wage crowd. Thus, despite my hippie sensibilities, I ended joining the ranks of the big-box employees for one summer.

What did I learn in my 4-months wearing a blue vest?
  • Wal-Mart can't decide if they want to seem prestigious or all-accepting. This is the only way I can explain the fact that I had to go through three interview portions (including a questionnaire about my responses to employment related moral dilemmas-- "A co-worker confides in you that he has been smoking marijuana on his work break. What do you do?") to get the job, yet they still seemed to hire absolutely anyone (from the purple-haired to the retired many years prior) with few standards. Seriously, some of the people I worked with were the least socially skilled individuals on the planet, making me wonder how they even managed a 15-minute interview.
  • Another sign they took themselves too seriously? Managers were forbidden from socializing with employees. I remember a poor 20-something assistant manager who moved from a major city to take over an open position. He worked really long hours, but was disallowed from even going for coffee with anyone from work. I remember actually having an honest conversation with the guy the day I quit about how ridiculously lonely such rules left him. It's Wal-Mart, people, not a law firm.

  • Working in the toy department had its pros and cons. Pro? Being able to wear a crown and boa while working with no one blinking an eye. Con? The second you turn a corner, your three hours of work cleaning the action figures aisle will be destroyed.
  • Despite my prior glamourizing of the infamous Wal-Mart greeter position as the easiest job of the planet, it is also the most boring and the most humiliating. People will humour a 70-year old woman accosting them with stickers and salutations, but their responses to a teenager tend to be more characterized by pity and disdain.
  • Some people took their job way too seriously. They would only speak about the company and Sam Walton in the most glowing of terms. They would frantically call out any break of protocol. They would lead the morning exercises (which included finger stretches) and the Wal-Mart cheer with utter gusto.

  • Ah, yes, the Wal-Mart cheer. Contrary to what you may have hoped, it is not an urban legend. Those of us lucky enough to open the store got to shout and gesture along to "Give me a W!"
  •  The second best part? "Who's number one? Our customer, always!" 
  • The best part? "Give me a squiggly!" (for your information, squiggly represented the dash-mark, and was accompanied by this odd wiggle-dip.)
  • The day I wore a skirt to work was inevitably the day they sprung on me that I would unexpectedly be left to cover the garden department, and thus would have to haul 20 bags of manure into the back of someone's truck.
  • On the same note, they seemingly never had enough people working on one day, meaning I would be covering literally up to eight departments at once while getting paged to run a till. Also, you were only trained for the department you *officially* worked at, meaning the customers looking at barbecues probably knew more than I did when I was called to help them.
  • The customer's-always-right mantra gets rather tiresome in a hurry, especially when people would literally try to start bargaining with me or would return nasty, stained apparel without a receipt-- and the management would appease them. It was then that the customer would shoot me a nasty glare, as though I was purposely trying to screw them over by being willing to haggle with them over the price of an electric scooter.
  • Kids getting excited about new shipments of Lego or Hot Wheels is cute. Grown men? Not so much. In fact, we had one man who would be waiting outside the doors before opening every weekend to raid the Hot Wheels section. Whenever someone new was hired in the department, he would scam them by telling them that the department manager promised him he could look through the new shipment box that morning-- which was a complete lie and would leave you with an utter mess of itty-bitty trucks strewn about the aisle.
Not to mention Wal-Mart radio is sheer torture-- a medley of non-offensive soft rock favourites and irritating repetitive jingles-- including one set to the tune of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" that chanted "Roll back, roll back, roll back some prices for me, for me!"

Oh, the memories....

33 comments:

Ant said...

Dear lord. This is the human face of corporate Americana. And it's goddam ugly (though I did laugh my way through this...)

I witnessed similar early-morning exercises in a Sky centre just north of Edinburgh once (I was there helping fix servers and wotnot on my work experience) and it was a bit mental.

The loaded questions is just hilarious. The grown man playing with toys less so - some psychological case studies for you perhaps?

The Duke said...

I thought that Wal-Mart cheer was just "march of the volunteers" sang in English.

twentysomethingandclueless said...

Great post, never knew what really goes on behind the scenes at wal-mart...!

I love the last note you made about the music, lol.

Confused said...

Wow, and I thought McDonald's was bad! But I'm not sure you could get people to do weird cheers here in Switzerland, there's probably a law against it ;-)
However I do end up stinking of fries every time I go to work, so I think it probably works out even... I really need a new job!

lspoon said...

I've always wondered what's it's like behind the cheer of WalMart though I must say I'm not surprised. I am however surprised you managed to come out relatively unscathed! :)

Tina Vaziri said...

Too funny, and creepy about that guy and the toys.

Arielle said...

I've added this post to the many reasons I'm oh so glad I never worked in retail. Good lord that sounds painful.

PrincessB said...

Wow..you just convinced me to never take a job there no matter how desperate I get.

Crushed said...

We don't have Walmart here, though we do have similar.

I worked at a hotel at that age- it was good fun in retrospect.

The customer is always right idea was one I always struggled with, expecially when he is drunk and insists on showing his genitalia when what you actually asked to see was his key as proof he was a resident.

Deutlich said...

I firmly believe that jobs of that nature build character in us.

I've had positions at places ranging from Rack Room Shoes to Burger King to Starbucks.

Horrible memories, in all reality - but I wouldn't trade them for anything.

benjibopper said...

i used to work at an Esso, me and several of my friends. they screwed us on paycheques, we stole from them relentlessly. I worked the overnight. Good times.

Chelsea Talks Smack said...

wow man......

Eve said...

Yikes!

Wait -- morning exercises?

Eve said...

Were they like this: http://youtube.com/watch?v=y4kzO1DN2qg&feature=related

lissa said...

yikes. sounds just as terrible as i thought working at walmart would be. makes me want to post a piece about my oh too many years in the restaurant business.

rs27 said...

I'm running to Walmart right now to hand in an application. Thats my kind of place.

EF said...

These memories are a hoot! I feel so priveleged to know what goes on there before the doors open!

Katelin said...

Oh man, it's like Real World: Wal-Mart, crazy.

the frog princess said...

Ohmigoodnessgraciousme...

Thank you for this little look behind the scenes. You've made me oh-so-grateful that the Big W never made it to my town until I was out of high school... or I probably would have worked there too :)

Sheila said...

Holy crap! If working for a big-box-mart doesn't break you nothing will!

The county I live in is small (165,000) and yet we have three Wal-Mart super centers and they want to build another one. Three is more than enough, thank you very much!

Larissa said...

My husband also worked at Wal-Mart. He did it during high school, and worked in the customer service.

All Mod Cons said...

Do me a favour, grab me an application and post it over. I want to get a head start for when I arrive. Toy section? Fantastic!

Crashdummie said...

Ah, so that’s the infamous Wal-Mart cheer.. go figure :p

Jess said...

Wow, this post makes me so glad that my teenage retail work experience was limited to a mom and pop toy store with no garden department and no cheer.

Yoda said...

Wal-Mart cheer? I thought it was more of a grumble!

Maxie said...

I wish this job had a chant! that would be awesome... I guess not so awesome when involves walmart though. But still pretty interesting.

NamesAreHardToPick said...

I could so not agree more: the whole "the customer is always right" was always annoying and still is. It sadly carries over anywhere I work. I never knew working at Walmart would have been like that, but it does amaze me that your town could keep out McDonald's, but yet not Walmart ... simply amazing.

Nilsa S. said...

Have you ever read the book, Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America? Your memories point to a specific section in this book. It was an interesting read.

Alexa said...

oh lord. i worked retail for 5 years on and off, not at walmart but at the gap, i don't think it quite the same but i totally get this post.

the gap greeter?!? BORING!

chasinglibby said...

oh. my. god. i couldn't ever work at walmart. even worse than the toys? THE SHOES. that department is a trainwreck. totally and completely, by the end of the day. i feel so so soooo bad for the employees who have to sort it all out!

Working Girl Two said...

oh man! my town was like that growing up too. mcdonald's actually got in though but on the condition that the mcdonald's was not allowed to look like a typical mcdonald's. the town had a really expensive architect come in and build the thing to look like a barn and they banned a drive through (too classless). they had a walk-through instead. absolutely insane. my home town is nuts. i agree.

Half-Past Kissin' Time said...

My brother-in-law is a Walmart manager, and I'll be seeing him this weekend. I'll have to ask him about that manager thing; I did not know that.

Thanks for popping in today. I know you are out of your mind busy, so I appreciate your taking the time :)

Stephanie said...

What a great little insight into the wonderful world of Wal-Mart. And the cheer?! Was there punishment for non-participation?