Memoir: “Retail Hell” by Freeman Hall

Okay, so, I know I said the next book I was going to finish would be Breaking Dawn, but guys — I tried, okay? I mean, I saw the movie, and then got through the Part I Movie portion of the book, but dudes, Part II? Is fucking boring.

And I couldn’t exactly bring Breaking Dawn to work to read on my lunch break, because look, if Brad and John are teasing me for never seeing Pulp Fiction and Fargo and Caddyshack, can you imagine the ration I’d get if they caught me reading about sparkling vampires? So that caused me to pick up The Maltese Falcon, but that got boring too, and more importantly, work became … let’s use the term “crazy” to stand for so much more than I can get into in this space, and I needed to know that I wasn’t the only one feeling these feelings.

Enter a book I had purchased on a whim over two years ago, which (of course) was currently holding up one of the piles of books on top of another pile of books in a bookcase. Thankfully, no piles collapsed during the reading of this title: Retail Hell, by Freeman Hall.

Dear Freeman: You and I are kindred spirits. If you ever visit Maine, I would love to buy you a margarita.

Freeman’s memoir (of sorts) is about his time at The Big Fancy, a high-class department store in Burbank known for its superior customer service. (Hm, where have I heard that phrase before?) He is the first male salesman in the Handbag department, and he still believes that the only reason he was hired for Handbags is because he’s gay (and there are no openings in the Menswear section). He bonds quickly with three women — Cammie, Marci and Jules — and also has to deal with the three Sales Demons, one of whom he tenderly refers to as ‘Douche,’ mainly because she steals sales out from under his nose.

The book is a series of scenes from his life as a handbag salesman, and in those scenes we meet a variety of characters, including the Shoposaurus Carnotaurus (a heavy spender who devours everything in sight, but ends up being extremely loyal to her salesperson), the Picky Bitch, and the Nasty-Ass Thief.

The Nasty-Ass Thief is actually a character I’m quite familiar with. Being someone who is currently mid-level management in a local-yet-internationally-known retailer with a history of superior customer service and a stellar return policy, we see Nasty-Ass Thieves all the time. [Note: they are certainly not Nasty Ass-Thieves.] We may not get people trying to return extremely expensive handbags, but I’ve authorized many a return without a receipt that puts over $500 on a gift card. And of course, they always try to get cash back first:

A woman wearing a dirty Mickey Mouse sweatshirt appears at the counter with a $3,000 Marc Jacobs handbag stuffed into a plastic grocery bag. She wants to return it and get her cash back. [vii-viii]

Then there’s this quote about the type of people Freeman experienced as being shoplifters:

Like handbags, Nasty-Ass Thieves come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are men, women, teenagers, children, white, Black, Asian, Latino, Russian, Middle Eastern, European, and yes, even Alien. They are fat, skinny, young, old, gay, straight, ritzy, trashy, pretty, ugly, poor, and yes, even Warren Buffet rich. [123]

This line made me think of our old shoplifting video we used to show in orientation, which would make me giggle every damn time. I can’t find the transcript I made of it (and thankfully, it wasn’t unique to our business), but essentially, the narrator said something like everybody steals but then only singled out teenagers, drug addicts, and rich people. But the best was the final line: “Old people steal lots of things!” That last one is a direct quote — there is nothing that could make me forget that line.

There are also the — *shudder* — evil Sale Monsters. We will be dealing with that at my place of business in a little over a week, and I am already sick to my stomach thinking about it. There’s the idiots who can’t read:

I then spent ten minutes explaining to a woman that 25% off an original price does not mean an additional 25% off. The women kept arguing saying “But that would mean it’s an additional 25% off!” Finally I went all Sale Hell Bitch on her: “Does it say ‘additional’ on the sign? NO! They are NOT an additional percentage off. THEY ARE 25 PERCENT OFF ORIGINAL! THAT’S IT!”

Then, for the millionth time, a woman came up to me and asked, “Why isn’t everything on sale?”

I bitched back at her, “Because life isn’t fair.” [197]

And then there are the vindictive bitches who must have it i wants it i needs itwhen they could live without it five minutes ago, but that’s since changed since someone else wants it now:

From experience, I knew what was going to happen next. You see, whenever there is only one left of something on sale, and two women suddenly start eyeing it for whatever reason, the one that picks it up first wins. And even though the winner may not really want it, if she’s a bitch, she’ll buy it out of spite, just to keep the other one from having it. It’s a common occurrence in the Handbag Jungle. [201]

I could get into all the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad customers that I’ve had to deal with on a daily basis, and how they sometimes intersect with the incredibly stupid, sometimes to the point of illiteracy customers, but I’m … don’t want to. It’s not important. What is important is that, while reading it, I realized I am not alone in my complete irritation at the general populace.

But really, the one place I truly felt that Freeman and I are the same person, only he lives in Burbank and I in Maine, and also, he is a boy and I am a girl and both of us like boys, is when he talks about the stupid-ass things (stupid ass-things? [I could get fired for that]) upper management does to try and make our lives as Retail Slaves better (so they think), but ends up making our lives complete Hell.

For instance, the schedule. Speaking as a leader, I am not allowed to limit my availability. Which is fine — I completely understand that. As a leader, I need to be able to be there at any time of day to see the entire team. But what that can also mean is that, this is the schedule I worked for pretty much all of November until I finally went to my boss and asked him sweetly, “Do you hate me? Or, at least, the idea of a sleep cycle?”:

Every week my schedule felt like a vomit-inducing thrill ride at Magic Mountain amusement park, except that I was anything but amused. I’d open, then close, then open, then work a mid-shift (11-8), then open, then close. [87]

And, like Freeman, I’ve had to work the more-than-six-days-in-a-row-to-get-a-day-off routine as well:

You see, in order for me to end up with three days off in a row, I had to work eight days in a row. During those eight days of opening, then closing, opening, then closing, and opening, then closing, without a day off, all the normal living shit that needed to be done didn’t get done. I’m talking about laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, haircut and color, tanning, and exercising. [182]
And BELIEVE ME, when this happened? I kept my fucking mouth shut and ran like hell:

In the world of retail, having two days off in a row is unheard of. Three days is like a vacation. So when the General accidentally gave me a Saturday, Sunday, and Monday off because the schedule overlapped into the next week and she wasn’t paying attention, I took it and ran like I’d been awarded a Get Out of Jail Free card. [181]

Every retail store, regardless of square footage or importance, has an employee entrance. I’ve always compared my place of business to Disney World: there’s a separate employee entrance and a Habi-trail hidden from the customers’ view, so we can go all over the store without people seeing us; when we’re on the sales floor, we are on stage in a (sometimes) completely different persona, and also, our lines are very long and our rides suck sometimes. And occasionally, there are mascots walking around. Now, my employee entrance is up a small stairway, and it’s not that inconvenient. Freeman’s is an eight-flight walk-up with no chance of elevator. He calls it Mount Fancy. And one day, his corporate bosses decided to brighten up the employees’ hike up Mount Fancy by turning it into the lamer version of Studio 54, except with only three disco songs and a single disco ball, twirling unsightly and sadly on level 3. Climbing eight flights of stairs with Donna Summers’ “Hot Stuff” blasting was enough to drive Freeman crazy:

I endured the Mount Fancy three-song disco for almost a month before I snapped. I just couldn’t take any more celebrating YMCA hot stuff. Disco Death Star had to be destroyed. I tried to reach the player, but the bastards had thought of everything. The shelf was just high enough so the volume slider and off-button couldn’t be reached.

Was that done on purpose? Did they know we would get irritated by this? I became even more irritated by the thought of their preparing for our irritation. [211]

And then there’s the morning rallies, wherein we pump up the selling force to hit our goals, create an experience for our customers, sell the credit card, and have a good day! I notoriously made a seasoned rep nearly piss his pants from laughing when, one stellar, sleep-deprived morning, my rally speech consisted of, and I quote: “… make budget, sellthe credit card, blah blah blah, be awesome!” But I have to admit, my rallies are nothing like the ones Freeman attends:

“THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, PEOPLE!” she gloated into the mike, with an oversized, eerie cartoon grin, “DOESN’T IT FEEL GREAT! DON’T YOU JUST LOVE SMILING?” [78]

Of course, all I want to say after that is I just like to smile, smiling’s my favorite!

One thing Freeman deals with which, luckily, I don’t, is that if someone returns a handbag he sold, he loses out on some of his commission. And when his boss warns him that he’s not making his sales goal and he replies it’s because of the high return rate, his boss just tells him to sell more. He almost hits the roof:

What next sale? Hello. We are closing! It is the last day of the pay period and Greasy’s $2,000 return is about to make my sales a negative number for the day.

I feel like a hooker who gave a ten-hour blow job and was beat up and robbed by the john, just to have the police officer who witnessed it all say, “Oh well, better luck on the next blow job.” [8]

Here’s how I described my job at one point:

“I feel that They meet me at the employee entrance with a shovel. When I open the door, They beat me repeatedly about the head, shoulders, and my upper body with the shovel. And when I’m bloodied, bruised and battered, They hand me the shovel and tell me to dig a hole with said shovel. Then They ask me to climb inside that hole, take the shovel away from me, and instruct me to pull myself out of that hole.”

It doesn’t matter who the ‘They’ in that situation is/are. It could be customers, it could be employees, co-workers, bosses, or a combination of all of the above. Regardless, when I crawl out to my car, I am a battered woman.

And it always amazes me when I get stopped on the sales floor, clearly outfitted in the dress code, wearing the sales walkie and carrying forty pairs of pants from the fitting room, and I get stopped by a customer and asked — well — :

And like the cherry on top of a shit sundae, a new customer forces her way up to the counter and shouts in my face:

“Excuse me, do you work here?”

I look like an octopus at the Aquarium of Insanity. How can she even ask me that? [viii]

I usually respond, “No, they just gave me the nametag and the outfit to raise my self-esteem. But when that failed, they gave me a job instead.”

Another thing that ties me to Freeman is that he maintains a job in retail to support his career: writing. I lie to myself and say that that’s what I’m doing — sacrificing sleep to stay up until the wee hours of the morning, banging out a thousand words a night (on a good night), working towards finishing a novel that, deep down, I’m afraid that only I will read. But I keep at it, because, as the joker said to the [Nasty Ass-] thief, there must be some kind of way outta here.

Grade for Retail Hell: 4 stars

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