A Dillard’s Christmas

imagesAbout 13 years ago, I was let go from my job as the editor of a small newspaper in a small town. I don’t tell many people about it because it was particularly devastating to me, though looking back, it was a learning experience.

I was shocked and devastated at the time for several reasons. It was the first job from which I had been fired, but also the first job in which I was the top editor of a newspaper. It was also a grossly unfair firing, and I could have easily sued the paper and won. I was way to emotionally fragile to attempt it, but looking back, I should have.

I soon moved out of my duplex and moved back into my parents’ house. I have been unemployed a couple of times since due to layoffs and one thing I have learned about myself is that unemployment doesn’t suit me. I know, you’re thinking, “Duh. It’s not fun for anybody.” But my reaction is different. I’m completely unable to not work.

When I got fired from that job, I won my unemployment claim (the dick challenged it), so I had the pittance coming in from the state. But I still needed to work. Since it was only about six weeks before Christmas, I was able to secure holiday work at a nearby Dillard’s store. The way the unemployment system is set up, I have to report my earnings from any part-time work, so that sum is taken from my unemployment check, and I never bring in more than what the state has deemed appropriate. It’s a bad system that does not encourage people to work. Most people would say, “Screw that. I’m staying home.” But I couldn’t. I HAD to work. Had to have a purpose. Had to have a place to go so I didn’t feel like a loser. Also, I was living with my parents, so I had to get out of the house!

Times have changed. Being unemployed no longer means you’re a loser. Just a person who gets shat upon by the economy, big business and The Man. But this was 13 years ago. I was still young, newspapers were going strong and here I was … chucked out like yesterday’s news.

I began my Dillard’s journey as a gift-wrapper. I wasn’t sure how well I could do it, considering that department stores wrap their gifts beautifully, and mine usually look like a toddler did it. But I didn’t tell anyone that.

The gift-wrap table was in the Customer Service area. There was a big metal table with large rolls of wrapping paper, scissors, tape and cloth bows. The trick to wrapping gifts “The Dillard’s Way” is to crease the edges. You wrap it up like anyone else would, then you pinch the edges of the box and run your fingers down the sides. If you try this at home and it doesn’t work, it’s because you’re probably using cheap wrapping paper. I’m not judging. But if you want it to be beautiful, you’ve got to get the fancy stuff.

Then you use double-sided tape, so that the tape marks don’t show. I still do this. On the edge of the paper, you fold it under and tape it down with the double-sided tape so you don’t get a jagged edge. See, you’ll learn stuff on this blog!

Anyway, I got pretty good at it. As I got better, they let me move up to customer service when there weren’t any gifts to wrap. This is where it gets good.

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I learned that People are insane. There’s no denying that in real life, but it becomes painfully obvious when you work in retail. We dealt with customers who were returning things, and that is never fun. People are pissed, usually because we wouldn’t take their sweater/socks/nose-hair trimmer back. Dillard’s had a pretty standard return policy. It had to have some form of tag on it or receipt, be within 90 days of purchase (I think) and it had to have something called a POP label. The POP label is a yellow bar-coded tag that stored info from every purchase.

When a customer bought something, we scanned the bar code on the tag, then we added a POP label and scanned it. It kept track of the transaction (date, store, credit card vs. cash purchase, etc.) So when the customer returned it, we scanned both, and we could see that he or she actually purchased the item, and we could take it back. The POP label is also a theft-prevention device.

I never knew how prevalent shoplifting was until I worked in retail. It never occurred to me to steal from a store — partially because of guilt, but also fear of getting caught. Or maybe I had good parents who instilled in me some mighty ethics. But I learned that soooooo many people don’t think the way I do.

Thieves would steal items off the rack that had a POP label on the tag, then try to return the item for the cash. What they didn’t understand, is that once that item is returned, the POP label is useless until we scan it again for another purchase. I can’t tell you how many times I had these arguments with “customers”:

Customer: I found this ball gown in the trunk of my boyfriend’s car, and as you can see, this is NOT my size! I want to return this because the bastard was obviously cheating on me, and I want the cash!

Me: Yes, ma’am, I’d be glad to take that from you.

(Scan the item and the POP label — register says no purchase)

Me: I’m sorry ma’am, but I can’t take it back

Customer: WHY? It has a POP label on it! (They know about POP labels.)

Me: Yes, but that POP label has been deactivated.

Customer: What does that mean?

Me: It means it’s been returned and hasn’t been purchased since. Therefore, we can’t do a return.

Customer: (Looking shocked) Are you saying he STOLE IT?

Me: I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that it hasn’t been purchased, and so I can’t take it back.

Customer: Call your manager.

Me: OK …

The manager never took it back. It was an obvious theft. Funny, though, I had several women try to tell me a similar story about their man cheating on them and them returning the dress they found in his car, or hidden in his closet, etc. If they all knew the scam, I’m not sure why they didn’t know that it wouldn’t work.

We also used to have customers who would try to return clothes they had bought at Bacon’s, a defunct department store in Louisville that everybody loved, including me. They had these amazing Midnight Madness sales. But Bacon’s had been bought out by Dillard’s in 1998, three years before I started working there. But people still thought they could return Bacon’s stuff because Bacon’s always took returns. Always. People would return stuff 10 years old to Bacon’s, and Bacon’s never batted an eye.

When we refused to take a return, like when the item was past 90 days of purchase, or something was wrong with it, like it was missing tags or a receipt, etc., often we heard, “Well, Bacon’s would have taken it back!” So many times we wanted to yell back, “Well that’s why Bacon’s went out of business!” But we couldn’t. Them’s fighting words in Louisville. Bacon’s was the shopper’s Holy Land.

As it drew closer to Christmas, the gift wrap got busier. We kept a sign up that said, “Wait for gift wrap is 15 minutes.” Or “45 minutes.” Or “2 hours.” It was such an easy job. I loved sitting back there and just wrapping gifts without a care in the world. I was fast, and I got my wrapping done as speedily as possible, and I was fine with that. Some of the ladies back there were slower, but that was OK because we had the sign to protect us!

I remember one day, just a couple of days before Christmas, the gifts were piling up and one of the girls kinda started freaking out. “Oh my God! We’re NEVER going to get this stuff done!” I just looked at her and laughed.

“You’ve obviously never worked at a newspaper.”

She didn’t know what I meant, but newspaper deadline pressure is about the strongest pressure there is, at least where there are no lives at stake. Like maybe open heart surgery. Getting some holiday gifts wrapped is nothing like missing a deadline, in which there is hell to pay.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We have the sign saying it’s going to be two hours. We’ll be fine.” And we were. Everybody seemed to understand that it was close to Christmas, and they expected to have to wait. There were people who changed their minds because they didn’t have time, but I don’t remember anyone raising hell about us taking too long.

After Christmas, they kept me on as a salesperson in women’s clothing. I was thrilled that they thought so highly of me, but I knew they’d eventually see the failure I would be. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a hard worker. I will bust my butt on the floor, cleaning, straightening, doing markdowns, hashing jeans (hashing means organizing them in cubbies — it’s kind of a bitch, but I was good at it). I would have been a great stock person. But at sales, I wasn’t so talented.

At Dillard’s, we didn’t make commissions on our sales, but every three months, they looked at our numbers and either raised or lowered our hourly pay based on sales. Ugh. Mine got lowered.

Why? Well, I can’t lie, and I’m not pushy. If you don’t want the shirt, I’m not going to push you to buy it. I’m broke, too, so I understand not wanting to buy more than you need.

One day I was working in the Dillard’s Woman department, which is department store code for plus sizes. I wear plus sizes, so I don’t care. Fat girls need cute clothes, too! I was standing there talking to another employee, since we were really slow at the time. A woman came over and was looking at clothes.

Me: Hello. Looking for anything special?

Woman: Just looking for clothes for my daughter. She’s a size 4.

Me: Well, this is the plus size department, so you won’t find any 4s here. Try in the Misses department.

Woman: You know, it’s just so hard to find a size 4! She just looks and looks everywhere and can’t find a size 4.

Me: Uh huh.

Woman: Every time I’m at a store I try to find clothes for her, but it’s just so hard to find a size 4!

(You could tell she was VERY proud of the fact that her daughter was a wee size 4.)

After she walked off, I whispered to my co-worker, “Can’t find a size 4? Tell that bitch to eat some pie!”

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Then we had the “bottom-feeders.” Every few months, we had a huge sale, where things got marked way down. We had customers who only came out for these sales. I shouldn’t call them that because I enjoy a good sale as much as the next person. But they always wanted more of a discount. “This has a missing button. Can you take some more off the price?” Ma’am, the missing button is the reason it’s marked down. “But, but, but …” Argh!

I also learned that people have no respect for things that they don’t own. In the dressing rooms, I always found clothes wadded up into a ball on the floor, walked on, sweated on, probably spit on or worse. People would try things on and they would rip. Instead of apologizing or asking for help, they just crumbled it up and dropped it in a corner.

Or they would try on jeans that had an anti-theft tag on them, the kind that squirted ink if you tried to remove it. And they did. And it did. Ink-stained jeans all over the dressing room floor. I don’t know. Maybe I was just raised better than that.

I now find myself arranging clothes on the racks in department stores, putting them in the proper size, gliding shoulders back onto hangers, turning hangers around the proper direction. I’ve been busted before, and I say, sheepishly, “Sorry. I used to work in retail.” They laugh and give me a knowing look. I think they appreciate the effort.

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Most people there were nice, even though some thought they were special. Once I mentioned to a woman who worked in jewelry, “I really like that necklace!” She replied, “Oh yes, I like costume jewelry, too.” I know. You’re such a rich bitch that you sell earrings at Dillard’s. Please, get over yourself.

It was tough to get used to using a time clock and getting into trouble if you’re a few minutes late. In newspapers, you just show up and if you’re a bit late or a bit early, nobody bats an eye because you’re probably going to end up staying past your time to go home anyway. I learned that standing on your feet all day in dressy clothes sucks. But it does make you lose weight. You can’t sit at a desk all day and eat, so you drop pounds whether you want to or not. It was a nice side-effect.

I eventually got a job at a newspaper and life got back to “normal.” But I wouldn’t rule out a job in retail again. The experience actually gave me a bit of freedom. When things get tough in the newspaper business, I can say, “Fuck it. I’ll go back to Dillard’s where I don’t have to put up with this bullshit.” Even if I never do, it makes it easier to know it’s a possibility.

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