The Seeker

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A 21" Receipt (cont.) / Blue Light Special

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The kind folks in customer service for K-Mart never called me, as they promised they would after I took the time to fill out their survey at I specified that I could be reached after 8PM; somebody from Biloxi, Mississippi tried to call me late the next afternoon. I wonder if it was them. If you’re reading this and want to take the survey and see if they call you- go ahead. I’d be glad to hear what they have to say.

As I mentioned previously, I have long-standing resentment towards K-Mart that goes back to a horrid summer I spent working there. I used the experience early on at Northwestern in workshops as I was earning my chops as a writer. Since this recent episode with K-Mart makes for a natural transition into that story, I’m going to serialize that story here for the next few weeks. Spoiler alert: K-Mart wasn’t the only problem in the summer of 1988.


Blue Light Special

K-Mart debuts on the north side of Angola, Indiana in the spring of 1988. The powers that be plow under the x-rated drive-in theatre next to the Putt-Putt; a new shopping center is erected in its place. When it goes up, K-Mart goes with it. For Angola, it’s a giant step away from being a snoozing rural town and towards becoming the type of place that can contend with other faceless industry-driven towns in the Corn Belt. When the K-Mart doors yawn to welcome a glut of eager consumers, it represents the capstone in the growth Angola experienced throughout a decade that saw its first stoplight, its first McDonald’s, and its first Pizza Hut. I’m not concerned with the betterment of the town in June of that year because I’m busy graduating high school and interested in making more money than I do mowing grass. I need to pad my wallet before I leave for college late in August–so I turn to our brand new shining beacon of commercialism and prosperity.
I complete the job application and discover than the negotiations to land a job at K-Mart are much more intricate than I suspected. Phyllis, the Personnel Manager, eventually offers me a job despite my demand for Thursdays off to mow lawns, and I accept it at $3.10 per hour. I’m an “01,” which means I will sweep, mop, unload trucks, set up and take down displays, take big items out to cars, and do whatever other menial tasks need to be done. That’s all okay by me since it sounds like I’ll be doing something different each day.
I manipulate my mowing schedule so I can be at K-Mart on a Thursday to get oriented. I’m oriented along with Bonnie, a girl who was in the Special Education class I aided throughout my senior year. When we are seated in the breakroom to fill out paperwork, Phyllis whispers to three or four of us to help Bonnie out with her paperwork. When we look at her, she mouths the word “Slow,” jabs her thumb in Bonnie’s direction, and leaves.
Once my paperwork is complete, I’m put to work in the stockroom to help price items coming off delivery trucks. The employees range from the very young like me to seasoned retail workers in their thirties and forties to a few senior citizens. The women wear mostly pants; a few wear dresses. The men wear slacks and shirts with ties, as per K-Mart regulations. Some appear to be modeling fashions right off the K-Mart clothing racks, like plain-front polyester slacks, or short-sleeve polo shirts with a tie. All wear nametags pinned to their shirts that declare in an arc of red text across the top: “Thank You for shopping K-Mart!” Names embossed on plastic strips underscore the red text. I remember Phyllis’ caution: “You get fined a quarter every time you don’t have your nametag.” I wonder if anybody ever gave them $20 up front just so they wouldn’t have to wear it; I wonder, too, if anybody was ever so petty as to record when a nametag wasn’t worn.
It’s the first time in my life I’ve been thrown into a large group of people to work towards completing a big task. I’m apprehensive about not knowing anybody in the stockroom and decide the best way to make new friends is to crack as many jokes as I can. I start with the worst puns I can muster as products roll by on the conveyor: “This will keep K-Mart Head and Shoulders above the competition… Aquanet? Isn’t that what you use to catch a fish?… Similac? What exactly is it lacking?” Sheri, a brown-haired woman in a blue vest with a belt full of pricing guns and markers, rolls her eyes and mutters, “This one with the jokes,” as if tired of me already. Nobody else along the main conveyor and the aisles that branch off it says anything. They keep their eyes on the products rolling past, periodically snatching a few to mark prices.
The next day, I get my first real taste of K-Mart life at the store meeting held every Friday at seven o’clock in the morning. You’re supposed to show up for it even if you’re not scheduled to work. The idea is for the store manager to rally the troops so we feel a sense of community, which I guess is supposed to translate to happier workers, greater productivity, and eventually an outstanding store environment for consumers. Management’s idea of fostering the sense of community means stuffing us with donuts. Each table has several waxed cardboard boxes stuffed with long johns, French crullers, and glazed donut holes. The donuts mights as well be magnets that pull in every woman in the store that makes my 175-pound frame look puny. I can’t get a seat anywhere or squeeze between any of them. Another 01 in my predicament mutters that they are The Donut Mafia.
Not only am I without donut, but I’m also one of the few employees not smoking. Most have a cigarette resting in an ashtray, bobbing between their lips as they talk, or clenched between their index and middle fingers. Some are engaged in a mezmerizing juggling act in which three items receive equal attention: they munch their last bits of donut as they snuff their cigarettes in an overflowing ashtray as they swallow the last tepid drops of their coffee.
I don’t hear a thing the manager tells us. I exit the meeting smelling like smoke, and I can’t shake the smell the rest of the day.
Over the next few weeks, I discover that the smell of smoke lingers much longer than the sense of community after the Friday meetings. By then, I have come to know about 85 percent of the employees and realize I have very little in common with most of them. They have mostly divided themselves into two groups. One claims to work at K-Mart because they lost their jobs at a local factory and need something until they can get on at a different local factory. The other group has decided K-Mart is the career opportunity they’ve been waiting for all their life. I don’t belong in either group, but my intention to leave for college in a few months thrusts me in the former. I don’t like being labeled, but at least my group members aren’t delusional about doing all they can to make the Angola K-Mart a store the likes of which will make the community and corporation proud. How the other group will do that isn’t clear to me, nor is the reward they will receive if they succeed. It seems unlikely that any of the regular employees will be rewarded financially, and I don’t think any of them will be writing their pen pals or commenting in interviews with The Steuben Republican about the tremendous amount of pride they feel in regard to their commercial utopia. Yet there are so many in that other group who are eerily gung-ho.

Written by seeker70

August 19, 2009 at 1:50 am

Posted in K-Mart

A 21" Receipt

with one comment

I may never understand how the world of retail works. I’m not saddened by that thought– I have very little idea how the worlds of business and finance work and am still a pretty happy person. But retail, at least I’ve worked in that world. I count 4 summers of shelf-stocking from age 17-21 as some of the worst, stupidest, thankless, meaningless work I’ve ever done. It started badly, too, at a brand-new K-Mart in my hometown where I worked 21 years ago. Part of me is still mad about how horrible the experience was. And still, I don’t understand how the world of retail works and how some stores even stay open.
Maybe that anger from my K-Mart experience in the summer of 1988 was working on me at some subconscious level Tuesday when I stopped by the Super K-Mart in Round Lake to buy a bag of flour. First, Super K-Mart is a misnomer. There’s not much Super about the K-Mart corporation, other than the level of ignorance of K-Mart suits who once decided to place 2 Super K-Marts within 5 miles of each other near where I lived in Mt. Prospect, IL. One of stores closed a year after I arrived, but not after I experienced an episode around the holidays in 1999 that has come to define what K-Mart is to me as a consumer. I was there to buy my girlfriend what she most wanted for Christmas: a GameBoy. I was in line behind about 7 people. It was 5 o’clock on a weekday afternoon in the thick of the shopping season, and none of us in line seemed in a good mood. 3 people stacked up behind me as soon as I queued. There was but one register open, and the cashier at one point called “Price check, Snickers… Price check, Snickers.” I’ve never been so close to a possible mob action in my adult life as I was then. The K-Mart corporation hit the skids shortly after that, and that store in particular was closed. I thought about that GameBoy episode every time I drove past that pit of despair for two years and how much money was pissed away because of poor planning, market oversaturation, poor employee training, and whatever other idiocy went into the K-Mart collapse.

It doesn’t seem K-Mart has learned too much in the last ten years, even though they’ve been bought out by Sears since then. I walked past one of the stockboys yesterday in the parking lot (we were known as “01s” when I was thanking people for shopping at the particular K-Mart where I worked). He was barely out of the store and already had his iPod blaring loud enough for me to hear what was coming through his headphones as he prepared to gather carts. I didn’t know which was more ignorant: rending yourself deaf to traffic in a busy parking lot (especially when cars are driving all over at every oblique angle imaginable), or not enforcing some sort of store policy against rendering yourself deaf in a busy parking lot while executing store duties.

To the right of the front doors, around a small corner and behind a concrete pillar, several younger employees were puffing on cigarettes. One had untucked his regulation K-Mart shirt; the wrinkly lower half hung almost to his knees. Collectively, they looked sullen and angry. I was thankful I wouldn’t need help from any of them as I was shopping for my one item. Their disposition would have been unpleasant enough; the stink of cigarettes would have made things unbearable. And I wondered if they were even of age to smoke.

I quickly found the bag of flour I was looking for and headed to the checkout lanes. There were 4 open, including the nearest express lane. Each lane was at least 4 customers deep, and I had no sooner settled in my spot (again, about 7 people back) than I heard a woman 3 lanes over lament what seems to be the perpetual situation at the Round Lake Super K-Mart: “This place is always like this. They don’t never open up more lanes. I swear I don’t know why I shop here.”

I stood for 4 minutes without moving. The man at the front of the line was counting pennies, and the cashier appeared to be ringing and reringing items and counting change. There were audible sighs from people who had been standing too long in what was supposed to be the fastest check-out lane in the store. The man in front of me was examining the ingredients of an energy drink, and I quipped that I should probably just shoplift this bag of flour, the logic being that I’d be out of jail in the same amount of time I’d be through this line. There were still 6 people in front of me.

Half-way through the line (3 minutes later), the 01 from the parking lot burst through the front door with a rolling stack of carts. It appeared that he had been on the asphalt long enough to pick up a sunburn, and he was sweating enough for me to see perspiration marks on his shirt.

I finally made it to the front of the line. By that time, I had picked a Thingamajig off the candy gauntlet you have to run before you reach the cashier (it struck me as curious that when I read the ingredients on the label that Thingamajig was almost identical to Whatchamacallit and both were Hershey’s products, but hey– maybe some of K-Mart’s executive twits were hired by Hershey’s to do their marketing and product development). So I had two items for purchase; a total of $4.25. I handed over a $10 bill, got my change, and then had to wait for the longest receipt I have ever received in my life to snake its way out of the cash register. I even thought that very thing: Jesus Christ, this has to be the longest receipt I’ve ever received in my life. I estimated that it was two feet long. It seemed long enough to rival the paperwork I signed for the condo I bought 3 years ago. Hell, I’ve bought used cars that had less paperwork than that bag of flour and Whatchamacallit knock-off.

Why the hell would I need 2 feet of receipt? What was so important about my two items that I needed the retail version of War and Peace in my plastic bag as I walked to my car? The actual length of the receipt was 21″. I measured it when I got home.

The first 7″ detail the K-Mart location, my purchase, the receipt number, and a reminder of how long I have to return my items. The last 7″ of the receipt are a coupon for 3 free 70-count themebooks. The coupon is followed by a 170-word paragraph about the terms and limitation of the purchase, should I decide I need those 3 free 70-count themebooks (it turns out I don’t). Who reads that crap, and why does it need to be printed on the receipt when it can be posted in the store and online? And who understands all that? The thing was written at an 8th grade reading level (most newspapers are at the 5th grade level). Why does K-Mart need to waste so much per customer? I’m curious about the cost of the receipt per customer and how much K-Mart is again pissing away. And I only bought 2 items!

But here’s where it gets ridiculous: The 7″ between the details of my purchase and the coupon remind me that “the bluelight is back this Saturday!” (I’ve already cleared my calendar and can’t wait to gobble up the bargains… hopefully those will include bulk-quantities of Thingamajig). They did a fine job of wasting ink on the receipt, too, by printing out 7 thick stripes of black ink, minus the white areas where the special message in printed, for a white-on-black effect. Below the special announcement, I am being urged to log-on to to fill out a survey about my experience. I do, hoping that I can get answers to some of my questions.

The first question of the survey asked me how satisfied I was with my experience. I rated it a 3 out of 10. I gave the same rating for how likely I am to shop there again in the next 6 months and how likely I am to recommend it to a friend. Truthfully, I hardly ever shop there anyhow because it’s nowhere near my condo, only near a Panera I sometimes go to when I’m writing. But they don’t ask about that.

They ask me to check any amount of 18 reasons for my dissatisfaction with my experience. The first two were ringers: “Check out handled in an efficient manner,” and “Amount of time you had to wait in line to check out.” It strikes me that the first statement should say “inefficient” instead of “effecient” since most people don’t get pissed about efficiency. But maybe the survey designers were distracted by the striking similarities between Thingamajig and Whatchamacallit.

I rated the store highly in other areas, like cleanliness and product availability, but not in cashier efficiency. Later on, they asked me if I shopped in the grocery section. It seems they wouldn’t have to ask that since I entered my receipt number and they can likely see exactly what I purchased. I checked “yes” regardless.

I finally signed off by leaving my phone number so they can contact me (they promised to do so within 48 hours).

To be continued…

Written by seeker70

August 4, 2009 at 5:33 pm

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