Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Behind the Bolts

Disclaimer: This is not an article. This is a blog post. I had an opportunity to communicate with someone who could help me understand some things about how big box fabric shops work, and I decided to share that information with my readers. If I had written this for a publication, I would have gathered more sources and contacted the company for comment. I did not do this because I trusted my readers to know the difference between what is essentially an opinion piece and real investigative journalism.  However, if you read through the comments (and there's a lot of them), I believe you'll see that while the experience of my interviewee is not universal, it definitely seems common.

We all go there. It’s usually convenient; sometimes it’s the only place nearby to get that certain thing we need to finish (or start) a project. Sometimes the coupon does make the price pretty attractive. So, we go. And then we bitch about it after. Naturally, I’m talking about Jo-Ann Fabrics, the retail chain we all love to hate. There is one just minutes from my house—I could walk there on a nice day—and I have purchased tons of thread and batting and pillow forms and elastic and other things I really wanted to buy without ordering online or traveling many extra miles to my LQS to purchase. And on occasion, when I have made these trips, I have walked in, found what I needed, paid for it and walked out. Other times? Not so much.

 When people discuss Jo-Ann Fabrics, they tend to have two main complaints: you can’t find anyone to help you, and, if you do, they are cranky. Recently, I posted this photo on Instagram with the caption: “Hello? Helloooo! I just wanna buy one thing. It’ll only take a minute, I swear! Hello?”

 It just so happened that one of my Instagram followers was an assistant manager at a Jo-Ann Fabrics store, and she responded, “That’s what happens when they don’t let us have the coverage we need and want cashiers to do more and more further away from the registers. This happens on a default basis in my store, despite desperately trying to prevent it.” I asked her if she’d be willing to talk with me some more about working at Jo-Ann’s and the policies they have in place for employees, in order to get a better sense of what makes our experiences there so universally bad, and just who is responsible. And she agreed.

I worked many years in retail (though almost always for small business owners) and so I know how difficult the work can be, and how company rules can create insurmountable problems for both the shopper and the retail employee. It seemed to me that there is a general assumption that shopping at Jo-Ann’s is so bad because they probably don’t pay well and so can’t keep enough employees on hand or can’t keep good employees very long. What I learned is more complex than that, and truly opened my eyes to some of the realities of big chain business practices and how that affects both consumers and employees.

 For obvious reasons, my interviewee preferred to remain anonymous, so we’ll call her Employee X. Employee X has worked at Jo-Ann’s for 9 months and she is an assistant store manager. She was hired on in this position and works full-time. She is one of five full-time employees (four managers and one full-time worker) and she tells me that most stores have this many full-time employees. Her store also has 18 part-time workers, and part-time means they each work less than 28 hours per week. However, she says, a store might have more if the sales volume for that particular location warrants it. Her store is one of the large ones with custom framing and classes, so it has more employees than a store that doesn’t.

 If Employee X is working the opening shift, she arrives before the store opens and, among other tasks, walks the floor doing what is called a “daily store tour,” where a list is made of all the things that need to be done such as dusting, straightening displays, and cleaning up the stuff customers spill and leave on the floor just before closing the night before. Each of these tasks has to be ranked in importance and then assigned to an employee along with an estimate of how long each task should take. The list “gets added to as the day goes on, and can often span a few pages,” she says. After that, the manager on duty opens the registers, counts money, and does the daily deposit. The beginning of the day is also when any price changes are made, which usually happens twice a week.

 The management team has a LOT to do, and each manager may be a “lead” for a different aspect of running the store. There is the operations lead, who handles “audit(s) and charitable donations/discard, among other things.” The merchandise lead has to make sure all the displays are set up the way the diagrams (called planograms) sent to them from the corporate office dictate. Employee X says that whoever designs the planograms (she imagines his name is Roger) is on crack because there is always something wrong with the diagrams, which might not be evident until you are halfway through and you have to start over. There is also a store lead, and a freight coordinator (who handles unloading the truck, organizing the stock room, and stocking the store) plus another full-time person devoted to stocking. “Some stores have a full-time framing specialist; some have a full-time cashier—it all depends on their need and their volume.” The store lead, Employee X tells me, has, among other tasks, the job of “making sure we make payroll.” “Making payroll” is a phrase that crops up often in my emails with Employee X, and so eventually, I ask her to explain—and this is where things get really interesting.

 Each store has a fiscal week, and those weeks each have budget goals, both daily and weekly. The goals are determined by the corporate office and are a prediction based upon the previous year’s sales and an estimation of the cost to run and staff the store. Each daily goal added together gives the weekly goal, and a portion of the weekly goal goes toward payroll. So if the prediction is that the store will make X amount of money in that week, then a portion of that money is allowed to be used for payroll. “Every morning we do a calculation ((sales this week x scheduled selling hours) / earned hourly wage) to tell us how many staffing hours we have used. The summary tells us how many hours we have used vs. the calculation of how many hours we have earned.”

 So, if you have ever wondered why Jo-Ann’s doesn’t just staff every store with someone always at the register and someone always at the cutting counter and someone always available to help you find stuff (or multiple someones in any or all these places), this is why. Each store is only allotted a certain amount of money that can be spent each week on payroll, but the number of things that have to be done in a given day doesn’t also go down if the payroll budget goes down, nor does the budget for payroll increase if there is more that comes up to be done. On top of this, the payroll budget is somewhat tied to store performance, but is an esoteric calculation that is based on older sales numbers, not recent ones. So a store could have a suddenly busy season, but not get more payroll hours to use.

 Employee X says the corporate office “cares about payroll over everything.” Each store is pressured to come in “under payroll,” which means that they have to try and use fewer staffing hours than they have the budget for. And when I say “pressured,” I mean that they might get “written up” when they fail. Getting “written up” is another phrase that Employee X uses a lot, because apparently it’s a tool that is used a lot. Getting written up is a black mark on your record that can quickly add up to getting fired, so naturally everyone tries to avoid it. But that isn’t always easy at JoAnn’s.

 Because each store has to try to come “under payroll,” and thus keep staffing very lean, and because each staff member has a list of tasks that have to be done each day, it often happens that the staff on duty, and particularly management, has more to do than can reasonably be completed in one day. Jo-Ann’s doesn’t want to keep someone at the register all the time, because she could be doing one of hundreds of other things that need doing when there are no customers. Problem is, she has to get those things done by the end of her shift, or risk getting written up. Work overtime to get them done? No, because then the store would not make payroll. Clock out and do it on your own time? Nope—you can get written up or even fired for that. Employee X tells me she often goes with no breaks or meals for an entire day because of this, signing something called a “meal period exception” to keep corporate butts covered.

So, when you walk into a Jo-Ann’s and there’s no one at the register or at the cutting counter, it’s not because the person assigned to those places is lounging on the fleece bolts and taking a snooze. She has a long list of tasks to get done, and when there is no one at the register, she has to be working on them and they might not be located anywhere near the check-out. If you need help finding some particular item, and the person you ask doesn’t seem interested in guiding you to the correct area and discussing the relative merits of item A and item B with you, her shift may be almost over and she hasn’t been able to finish what she has to do and she’s worried about being written up. It doesn’t take being written up too many times before one is fired, and that’s a specter that hangs over everyone’s heads, even more so recently.

 A few weeks after working on this article with Employee X, she informed me that she had quit. Recently, corporate had started implementing something called “coaching documents,” which, she told me, “are basically mini write-ups to document when you talked with a team member about not using the right procedure to sell the item of the day, or ask for coupons, or sell tote bags (which is our new thing, and they’re awful), and I’m not about that. It goes against basically every study about productivity and behavior change. You don’t get real, genuine change by having your employees feel scared to not do it or get written up; you get change by making them feel empowered to do better and focusing on positives and building them up.” She had already decided to leave, but told her boss she refused to implement these changes for her last two weeks. Her health was suffering from the schedule and from never getting meal breaks, and she’s looking forward to getting her system back in order.

 It is very easy to assume that the way most businesses hope to attract and retain customers is through a policy of superior customer service (combined with competitive prices and selection), and that when the service we think we are owed is not forthcoming it must somehow be the result of employees just not caring enough to do their jobs properly. But that is not always the case, and especially when we are talking about very large, national chain stores. The daily and weekly tasks and goals that each store must meet preclude the employees spending a great deal of time with customers. When employees are skipping meals in order to complete their daily tasks, they simply aren’t allowed the luxury of taking time with customers. It’s not necessarily an issue of someone with a bad attitude who doesn’t “get” customer service. It is an issue of how large retail chains keep costs down in order to also keep prices low, while still maintaining expected profit levels.

 Add to this a chain-wide system of “write-ups” that document each time you fail to do something you are expected to do. Imagine having so many things to accomplish, and no way to add time or people to get them done, plus being worried that you’ll get written up for not finishing them. Or for forgetting to ask for coupons. Or for not using the right language to sell a tote bag. On an empty stomach.

 The takeaway I hope you get from all this is that Jo-Ann’s simply isn’t set up to be the place you go in order to interact with employees and get tons of advice and hand holding. And that it isn’t necessarily because the people there don’t want to help you, but because the staffing and payroll system prevents them from spending the time to do so. And demanding that they do when you go won’t change anything, but may end up getting someone written up. “Asking us to plan, design, sketch out, or otherwise be involved in your project is well beyond what we get paid to do, and can actually get us in trouble,” says Employee X.

 I believe there is a place in the quilting and sewing world for stores like Jo-Ann’s alongside independently owned shops (and yes, I prefer to shop with independents whenever possible). I have had a lot of quilters tell me that were it not for the cheap fabrics and thread they can get there, they would not be able to quilt at all. Sometimes, there simply isn’t a local independent shop close enough. However, we need to stop thinking of Jo-Ann’s as a place that should function exactly like those independent shops, just on a larger, and cheaper, scale. They don’t. And it isn’t necessarily the fault of the people on the sales floor.

 That’s not to say that I don’t believe places such as Jo-Ann’s can’t or shouldn’t change, only that the people on the sales floor are not the ones who can directly change it. If you think a large, corporately owned chain needs to change, you need to let the higher-ups know, not the workers. Write them. Don’t tie your comments to a particular store or employee, because that could result in unintended consequences for them, but let the big wigs know that the system as is stands makes customers angry and employees miserable.

WRITER'S NOTE: For what it's worth, I do understand that this is not the story for every single employee in every single store. I am happy to hear from anyone who enjoys shopping or working there, and I have approved every single comment I have received that tells the good side of things. I may even contact some of those people to get their side of the story for a follow-up post. If you wish to tell me about how well your store is staffed and run, please do so, but not while insulting the people who have not been as lucky as you or implying that they must be lying. Read through all the comments and you'll see too many corroborating stories for that to be the case.


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