This week I worked 12-hour shifts as a stocker in a local store and I loved it.
When my temp agency e-mailed me last week about the opportunity, I only hesitated for a moment. Would I be able to lift and carry 50 pounds? Could I handle the long shifts? But the pay-off and the total hours superseded my doubts. I accepted and was ecstatic!
The store was on the West side of town– about a 22 minute drive.
My shifts started at 10 a.m. Sunday, 8 a.m. Monday and 7 a.m. Tuesday- Thursday.
It was so different from any work experience I’ve had prior– usually I’m a fastidious note-taker when training in a new job. But this was just five days and it was mostly labor rather than mental work. There were no computers, no cash register screens to learn.
So I just asked where I could be helpful and I was paired up with a veteran by the manager. I just followed her directions and kept up her fast pace. We started by putting together rolling containers, which were all together in the back room. They needed to be opened, then fitted with a cardboard piece at the bottom to help pack them. They were wheeled either inside the store to be loaded with products or outside to the pod.
Some roll containers were already packed and needed to be unloaded onto the long shelves spanning the aisles, called gondolas. But first, we had to pack up the existing products to move them and make room for the re-set.
It’s very active work– I was pushing the empty roll containers, reaching above and using my shoulders. Or I was pulling them backwards, since that was easiest for me if it was loaded. Then there is squatting to pick up boxes, using step-ladders to reach the shelves if needed. Twisting and moving. Carrying the totes and boxes and products.
I was paired with Rebecca. She was about my height with red hair she wore in a long ponytail with two hair ties. She was in her 60’s as she told me later. She was mostly serious but I also patient and encouraging. I respected her hustle. We worked as a team for most of the assignment.
Rebecca knew exactly where different categories of products were in the store and how much to put in the gray plastic boxes called totes. In the past I would have asked if we could pack more inside them but I just accepted her decision. When she asked for more totes, I got them. They closed with two flaps that had a jigsaw interlocking system. When were out of totes we moved on to assembling cardboard boxes with tape and labeling them. I liked the simplicity.
We also were cleaning the metal shelving on the gondolas and removing the shelves. Sweeping the floors and collecting all the debris and dust. Most of them wore soft gloves to protect their hands and give them a better grip. Everyone wore casual t-shirts and jeans, with some type of sneaker. Some wore masks. I started out wearing mine but quickly discovered it was too hot and put mine away. I wore it if I was cleaning with fumes or sweeping with a lot of dust, however.
Some shelf units were kept intact and put onto the roll containers, so that we could load up products in the same order and transfer to the new displays, as dictated by the plan-o-grams, visual maps of exactly where every product should be placed as well as how it the shelving or display should be assembled.
The shifts dragged a bit at first, but our manager was good about giving us breaks on time. They would say exactly what time to be back, which I appreciated. Each day we had a full hour and two fifteen minute breaks. I started off bringing a Bento box packed, and it sufficed the first day. But the rest of the week I craved more protein, and ended up getting fast food from the nearby establishments.
I wasn’t sure how that would fare with my Diabetes, but surprisingly I didn’t spike. I even had iced coffee, some soda, and a Snickers bar– which I have avoided since December when I was diagnosed. I’ve followed the rules and majorly overhauled my eating habits. My doctor was impressed at my first A1C visit in March. It seems that I’m healthy enough and obedient enough that my Diabetes has mostly reversed. I will make a second A1C appointment this month and he said if the result was similar again to the 5.4 I got the first time, we can cut my meds in half!
There was a core traveling team who only do re-sets– each week they are in a different state. They work two weeks on, one week off. They were always moving- each person seemed to have a preferred task that they had mastered. They functioned together well and were welcoming and patient in showing me how to assist them. They were affectionate and clearly very close– like a family. I heard them saying “Mom” often– and I think they meant Rebecca. She was very maternal and encouraging.
On my last day, I over-slept and woke up in a panic. My alarm hadn’t gone off. I called my temp agency and she confirmed I could still go in. When I arrived no one gave me any grief, even the manager and the man from corporate. They just greeted me as normal and I got to work. I thought for sure I’d be let go. But maybe they understood what a hard transition it is to suddenly work 12 hour days. Especially since due to COVID-19 I have not been working at my store job for about a month. I have been doing my best to write news articles, but that was only income. I missed leaving the apartment every day. I missed the self-esteem that comes with putting in a hard day’s work.
I’m fascinated to find that people have so many negative stereotypes about retail workers, namely that they are un-skilled, low-class people. But I was treated with more respect and trained more thoroughly in this job than any other I have experienced. It’s equal parts labor and mental work– there are many steps to completing a successful re-set.
Once the gondolas are in place and the shelving is assembled again, the plastic strips have to be taken off, then new ones applied. Each strip has has a track where a paper strip is inserted, spaced the perfect distance for the incoming products and where they will fit on the shelf. The displays have to be put together with peg boards, with metal hangers strategically placed in the right peg hole so everything is spaced to fit. Then the products need to be transferred. Pushers are installed on some displays, for things like canned beverages, shaving cream, cologne, deodorant, etc.
On my last day I got to help install the pushers. By then I was picking things up quicker, working faster and with more energy. It was satisfying to snap them into place on the plastic tracks. As we worked side by side, I got to know my co-workers. They were relaxed, yet focused.
My biggest take-away from this retail experience is the value of team work. It felt incredible to be collaborating with others on almost every task. There were so many things on our agenda, there was no other way to achieve them but in sync.
Also, the entire time I was working, I was never worried about COVID-19. The job was a respite of normality where people were just hustling and I was too busy to obsess over what the news might be or my own risk being around these people. I felt safe and got through the week without any symptoms. Three days later, I’m still healthy.
People think all retail workers do is punch a cash register or fold clothes. But there is so much unseen work that is behind all that you take for granted when you enter any store.
Having done that work myself, I am humbled. I will never again idly take a item for my cart and then leave it somewhere random if I change my mind. I’ll consider with more thought if I really can afford or need it first. And if I notice I need to wait on that purchase, I will turn around and put it back myself.
Matching up products with the stickers is more difficult than you’d imagine. The names on the stickers don’t always correspond with the brand label. If that doesn’t work, then you look at numbers. Each allotted product on a shelf specifies how many spots on the shelf that product should occupy, and how many of those items are in the package. Everything needs to match.
I got super frustrated when doing one of my last tasks– unloading the paper plates from a packed roll container and then several boxes. There were so many small variations in the packaging and the types of plates. Luckily I had someone helping me– it was like a game of memory once you got a few figured out. The chief thing I needed help with was the top shelf and placing the overstock even above that. We helped each other but didn’t chat. It was a companionable, productive silence.
And I’ll never forget the girl who tried to dissuade me– “Paper plates are confusing,” she warned me. “You should do something else.” She’s at least 15 years younger than me– a bit uncouth, dressed sloppy and with a loud a mouth. She snapped at me another time when I asked her if I could help her. “Ask a manager, ask someone else,” she retorted.
I knew better than to trust her. And honestly, paper plates are very light compared to a lot of other products that would be heavy to lift. How did I know she didn’t want that job for herself? I wasn’t going to let her convince me I couldn’t handle this.
“I’ll figure it out,” I said, and proceeded.
And I did. We got everything in it’s place and then moved on to toilet paper.
It was a good way to end the shift. I stood up for myself and proved her wrong.
I’m proud of myself for embracing this assignment. I’ll happily accept another like it if I’m so blessed! I checked in with the manager and he said I’m definitely rehirable!
So I learned the job, adjusted to the hours, and completed the work to satisfaction.
I learned that I can do more than I expected. I just need to be willing.