Sunday, January 10, 2010

Highs and Lowes

During the summer and over winter break in 2009, I worked at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse for a combined four months as a customer service associate in their seasonal department. Though I am still a Lowe's employee on leave, it is unlikely I'll work there again. Thus, I think it is appropriate now to reflect on some memorable moments and share what I learned while working at Lowe's.

Work List (for those who have not worked in retail)
During the week, with few customers present: restock shelves, pull products to front of shelves, turn products facing forward, move products to new locations, put away returned products, replace missing/faded price tags, sweep floors, dust displays, take out trash, put cardboard in bailer, etc.
During the weekend, with many customers present: greet customers, direct them to a product, help them get a product down with a ladder or help them lift a heavy product, answer departmental phone calls, check a price, make recommendations, etc.

And when all these tasks were complete, the managers would invent some more for no other purpose than to keep us busy.

The seasonal department was half indoors and half outdoors, and I mostly worked indoors. Some of the products I sold were: lawn mowers, chain saws, axes, rakes, tarps, grills, fire pits, space heaters, fans, air conditioners, patio furniture, hoses, pesticides, fertilizers, potting soil, plants, grass seed, bird feeders, etc. My favorite part of the department was the back wall, where we kept the bird seed. Several birds had flown in through the automatic glass doors, and
made themselves at home up in the warehouse rafters and around the bird seed. Seeing these birds living in Lowe's each day would make me smile, but they made it difficult to sell, for instance, a soiled patio set.

One evening, while loading a shiny new grill into a man's vehicle, I learned that birds live right outside Lowe's, too. When the man's head turned away for just a moment, a bird dropped a wet one on the metal cover--Splat! A second later, the man, who wore glasses that magnified the size of his eyes, turned his head back. But, luckily, I had already wiped the astonishment from my face and the shit splatter from the metal using the assembly sheet (Lowe's assembles grills for free) that had been taped to the front. Phew.

Red vest
Most customers have the misconception that, just because someone wears a red vest with Lowe's printed on it, they not only know where every product is in the entire warehouse, they also have owned each product before and know exactly how well it works. Since, of course, I had never owned the products I sold, I simply had to pretend. In the beginning, I tried honesty, and would kindly tell the customer, "I don't know." Then they would reply, "OK, then get me someone who DOES know." And it sure didn't help that I was probably the youngest-looking person working at the store. For example, a muscular man with gelled hair asked me if we had the "smoking coals" that his grill manual recommended. Thinking about the things we had on the shelves and what past customers had said, I replied sort of shakily "I think they mean woodchips." The man waved me away with his hand and found an older associate who said, "Oh, they're talking about woodchips." And the man was happy.

My youth, which could not be changed, and lack of brash confidence set me back. So, I had no choice but to learn to be a confident pretender, because more customers preferred confident misinformation over meek honesty. But most of the time answers were written directly on the box or in the manual inside the box. And, over time, you remember a lot of these answers. Also, some customers were glad to offer some feedback, good and bad, about products they had already bought and owned. One strange man even whispered in my ear about the possibility of a massive potato famine in New England, like the one that conquered the Irish some years back, and declared that the fungicide held in his hand would save all the potatoes from extinction. On the other hand, a woman railed me personally (not Lowe's) for selling "poisons!" that would contaminate community well water.

It's more important than confidence. I think the majority of adults appreciate manners and politeness more than any other aspect of customer service, speed and product knowledge included. Once I cheerfully greeted an elderly man who was looking at some garden gloves. We talked for about a minute, then he asked if we carried a specific item--we didn't. Then the old man asked me, "Can I shake your hand?" So I shook his hand. I didn't really help him all that much, so the only thing I can think of is that the handshake was simply about kindness.

Another time an overweight man was browsing patio furniture. I greeted him, asked if I could help with anything. After a few words (he was a retired Rutgers University professor who lived in my neighborhood), he shyly asked if we sold any chairs that could support over 300 lbs. Together, we examined the chairs out on display, and found one that listed the proper weight capacity. The man was very appreciative and said he'd call the store later after he spoke with his wife. He called that night and ordered the patio chairs. Again, kindness trumps all.

During my tenure at Lowe's, I was able to pantomime to a man who could not speak, read a label to a blind man, and lift an air conditioner for a one-armed man. None of them asked for my help until I offered kindly.

Lowe's plays music to enhance its shoppers' experience, but more importantly, to put them in the mood to buy more things. A while back, I learned from a friend studying social psychology and economics that when people are sad, they tend to spend more money. Consequently, the Lowe's music selection consists of polished poppy downers. And the worst part is that there are only about 25 of them that stay on repeat. And a few, like Tom Petty's Freefallin' or R.E.M.'s Imitation of Life, are not the Tom Petty or R.E.M versions! Instead, it's a mellow, slowed down cover sung by a poor pop singer. Not every song is completely terrible though, since Lowe's must also target new homeowners, the young crowd. So, here and there, you get a surprise tune by Wilco or the Fleet Foxes, but it is rare.

Also, Lowe's might be ignoring the fact that their employees also hear the store music, and sad songs may not exactly help their productivity.

Tough customers
An axiom in the US is that The Customer is Always Right. Customers know this truth and often abuse it to get their way. For example, a man bought a $600+ snow thrower before the recent pre-Xmas snow storm, only to return it the next week in perfect condition to get his money back. His excuse was that the snow chute wouldn't turn, but we checked and it turned perfectly fine. But Lowe's took the snow thrower back anyway. That's Lowe's policy. It's about maintaining a positive long-term relationship with its customers instead of winning a short-term battle and permanently losing a customer(to Home Depot).

Besides the customer being in the position of power, helping customers was also difficult due to poor communication. Customers often would not know the name of, or would be unable to describe, the item they were seeking. Some would come unprepared without a model number or the old part they were replacing. And the worst part is that customers would accuse us, the service associates, of providing poor service based on the communication breakdowns that they created. Since this particular Lowe's is located in a diverse section of New Jersey, english was the second language for a lot of customers. For example, an asian man asked if the engine covering of a certain lawn mower was "marrow." He meant metal. This type of communication lapse was hard to overcome as well.

Some customers don't think before they ask. My favorite: "Do you keep your indoor plants indoors?"

Rich and Poor
Something I like about Lowe's is that it caters to the whole range of incomes. Even though some people have more money or less money than others, they all have home improvement projects, which puts them on even ground. Two recent examples: 1) After the big snow storm before Xmas, there was a rain storm that melted the snow and subsequently flooded everyone's basement. As a result, we sold a lot of sump pumps that day. Anyway, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate (I recognized him because he lives in our town and I used to be friends with his son) came in asking for a sump pump. For some reason, it pleased me to know that a potential governor's basement floods, too, just like everyone else, and that he sought out a sump pump himself at his local Lowe's. 2) I worked Xmas eve, and a very young couple was interested in a low-end grill. The urgency with which they scoped the best grill deals indicated to me that this would be the centerpiece of their Christmas. Once they picked out a grill, I found it for them on the shelf in a box. The lady was on the brink of tears because she wanted the grill assembled for her family to see on Christmas morning. At their request, I rummaged around the grill assembly room looking for an extra, already assembled grill of the model they wanted. I found one, a little banged up, but good enough, and wheeled it down to them. Not caring that the grill was not in mint condition, they cried joyful tears and wished me the happiest holiday. Bottom line is, Lowe's is for everyone.

Yes, working at Lowe's was not the most intellectually stimulating job, but I still learned a lot of things that I would not have learned otherwise. And you can't really complain about the lax dress code (jeans and a shirt with a red vest over the top), the interesting interactions with a range of different people, the physical exercise of being on your feet all day lifting things, and working outdoors (occasionally).

No one is "above" any job, no matter how educated you are. And, especially in these poor economic times, I am damn grateful I had the opportunity to work at Lowe's.