Today, I went to Sears NY for the first time in almost a decade. I wanted to use up whatever Shop Your Way Rewards points I had left before the store closed for good.

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that Sears’ bras were always on clearance because even though Kohl’s, Macy’s and J.C. Penney sell the same ones, no one wants to associate Sears with undergarments. Although the Intimates’ clearance section is no longer stuffed with merchandise the way it had been when I worked there, the prices have become absurdly low. A particular bra currently sold at Macy’s and J.C. Penney for $42 cost me $2.99 at Sears. If you need to stock up on female foundation garments, go to Sears while the getting’s good.

Pleased with my Intimates purchase, I decided to look around whatever the Misses department is officially called. (At Macy’s, it’s “Ready to Wear”.) I had picked up some cute clothes at Sears in the past; I loved the Apostrophe brand. Apostrophe must have become Metaphor at some point, or else Metaphor replaced Apostrophe. Either way, the dominant brand for younger women at Sears is now Simply Styled, which is the company’s attempt at fast fashion. Most of the Simply Styled tops on the sales floor were too low-cut for me to wear to work, but I tried on four or five that weren’t. Their quality wasn’t great but they looked pretty on their hangers and each one cost $12. Each one also looked terrible on me. They ran small, with no stretch to their scratchy fabrics. They also were cut in such a way that created a weird boxiness in the shoulders. Later I went to Target and bought three tops that were more flattering; the subtotal was $20. Poor Sears is trying so hard and still can’t get it right.

I didn’t browse the rest of the store. There may be some great deals in the handbags section but I don’t need one right now. Back when I worked at Sears, I made price tags for the Accessories department and through that, I found a red Relic purse that earned me a lot of compliments. I was loyal to the Relic brand until I bought a used Coach bag for $30 on eBay four years ago. (The purse is probably fake; it has an authentic serial number but it doesn’t have the trademark “Coach” ornament on the front. Either way, it’s very well made. Bravo to the counterfeiter.) I’m the type to own a single purse and use it until it’s beaten to death, so while I recommend scouring the handbags section based on my prior experience, I don’t know if it’s worth it.

The store looked great. The floors were clean and all the merchandise was perfectly in place. Every surface shone. It was exactly how a store should look, and that was the saddest thing about it. Macy’s may be in financial decline, but its rummage bin-like sales floor proves that people still shop there. We live in an age where a store’s scaled-down displays and perfectly folded fabrics mean only an elite few can afford to shop there. As the word “elite” has never been associated with Sears, its minimalism was clearly unintentional.

When I brought my purchases to the checkout, I mentioned to the cashier in conversation that I used to work there. That’s when she recognized me. She looked familiar, but I didn’t recognize her name. I felt guilty about it until she said I had changed a lot. I wear my hair the same way I did then, I dress the same and I’ve haven’t gained weight, so that could only mean I’ve noticeably aged in the last decade. Maybe I misheard her. Maybe she only said that to make me think she remembered me. Either way, the reality is that I am 10 years older than I was when I worked there. So is she. We’ve all changed in some way. I have to admit that even though I knew Sears wasn’t doing well back in 2007, I didn’t think its changes would be so dramatic.







How To Use Coupons

The coupon is one of the all-time best marketing strategies. It brings customers into a store, attracts them to certain products, saves them some money, then inspires them to spend the money the coupon saved them (or more) on other merchandise. Customers feel like they got away with something. Everyone wins.

That is, everyone wins unless the fine print needs to be examined. Coupons look great on the outside. Save 30%! The potential customer gets excited and goes to the store. She or he brings an item and a coupon to the register expecting to save 30%, but it turns out that the savings are 10%. The cashier then informs the customer that the 30% in large print on the coupon has “up to” printed in small letters next to it. Nine times out of 10, the customer buys the item anyway.

That ratio gets smaller when exclusions apply. The cashier explains that certain items and certain brands don’t take coupons. Every cashier at the Macy’s where I worked scanned the coupon anyway, both to prove the policy to the customer and on the off chance that the coupon does work. Now, depending on the department, customers go through with the purchase about five to seven times out of 10. Usually, they’re also buying something else that does take coupons, so it’s not a big deal. It depends on how familiar the customer is with the store’s coupon policy. The regulars don’t mind. If you’re not a regular, it can be frustrating. Cashiers understand this.

Here are some other things you should know about coupons.

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The T.J. Maxx Effect

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

— Psalm 118:22 (KJV)

To everything, there is a season. To merchandise, there is a time to be full-price, a time to go on clearance and a time to go into the penny stock bin.

In retail, an item can no longer be sold after it’s been out of season for a certain amount of time. Essentially, it’s expired. Sears refers to this as being “zeroed out” because the item rings up as $0.00 at the register. Macy’s calls the items “penny stock” because each one rings up as $0.01. (For the purpose of this article, I’ll just call the merchandise “expired”.) Expired merchandise has its own purgatorial bin in each department’s stockroom. I’d figured it was sent back to the manufacturer from there, but I learned from one of my Macy’s co-workers that the bins are where expired merchandise waits to be thrown into a landfill, recycled, donated or sold to off-price retailers like T.J. Maxx, Daffy’s and Ross.

Here’s the problem with that last option.

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Identity Crisis, Part 3: The Two Faces of Sears

In Judann Pollack’s AdAge article, “Dear Sears, It’s Time To Hang Up Your Toughskins”, she reminisces about Sears’ halcyon days in the 1970s and suggests that the brand lost its relevance when the “Softer Side of Sears” ad campaign began. (Although she says it began in 1983, it was really 1993.) The “softer side” is a play on “softlines”, which is retail-speak for clothes, accessories, and housewares. For Sears, that’s basically anything that’s not Craftsman or Kenmore. The campaign started in 1993 to help the brand reclaim its former fashion glory. It was a big success.

Let’s fast-forward a bit.

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Identity Crisis, Part 2: Macy’s Class Struggle

One of the best thing about working at Macy’s was its flexibility. I could swap shifts or pick up extras through the internal website. The Handbags department always had open shifts. Fifteen minutes into my first experience there, I learned why.

I’ll call her Lana. She was the department manager. She was a tall, impeccably dressed women in early seventies who seemed to think she worked at a different store.

In a way, she was. Handbags included all women’s accessories, but it had a section specifically for designer merchandise, mainly Michael Kors and Coach. Lana ruled this little island and never left it. Every detail had to be just so; every rule had to be followed to the letter. If the clutches were not constantly arranged from darks to lights or if I didn’t tie a security tether with an aesthetically pleasing knot, she reprimanded me quietly but sternly. Playing The Devil Wears Prada for eight hours sometimes took as much energy as my actual job did. The customers didn’t fare much better. Lana was a very knowledgeable saleswoman, but she was often dismissive too.

Lana personified everything wrong with Macy’s relatively recent upscale aspirations. Her perfectionism and snooty attitude would work on Fifth Avenue, but not in a middle-class mall. Likewise, the $500 Coach purses don’t fit in with the $25 Karen Scott cat sweaters being sold a few feet away.

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The Department Store Identity Crisis, Part 1

Department stores’ decline has been blamed largely on consumers’ growing preference for online shopping, namely at Amazon.com. I can’t argue with that. I’m one of those consumers. Even before the Internet, I was never crazy about shopping. I only do it when I need something. Once I buy it, I’m ready to go home.

Of course, not everyone who prefers online shopping is an introvert like me. The Internet offers customers all just about anything they could want from anywhere in the world. Online shopping saves time and effort spent traveling from store to store. It eliminates waiting in long checkout lines. It’s easy and it’s fast.

However, online shopping and in-person shopping aren’t mutually exclusive. Customers still like brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe they like to see the products, touch them and try them on before deciding whether or not to buy them. Maybe they don’t have time to wait for shipping. Maybe they simply like the experience. They like the hunt and the bonding that comes with it. Shopping is more than just a transaction.

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What Makes Cashiers “Associates”

Most stores refer to their cashiers as “sales associates” or “retail associates”. I use the term “cashier” here because those names sound vague and a little pompous. They border on “sandwich artist” territory. Besides, half of a sales associate’s job does fall under the definition of “cashier”. As for the rest, I’d say 25% is customer service. Selling store credit cards and reward cards made up 5% of the job at Sears; at Macy’s it was more like 0.5%. Then there’s that other 20-24.5% that many shoppers don’t know about.

A common customer complaint at Sears and Macy’s was that she or he had to search to find an available cashier. Thing is, store managers do not want their cashiers to stand behind the registers and wait for customers to come. They want to get the most for their money like everyone else, so cashiers have additional duties which require leaving the register.

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Training Videos: Our Forgotten Cultural Treasures

I love me some employee training videos. Not many things can manage to be boring, funny, surreal, informative and inaccurate all at the same time, but training videos pull it off every time. And time only increases these qualities. Except for the “informative” part. That becomes less about instruction and more about historical context.

I started at Macy’s six years after I left Sears NC. The world had changed since then, but when it came to training videos, I knew what to expect. A careful mix of different ethnicities. Chaste examples of sexual harassment, like that of the male Sam’s Club employee who circulated a “Does this make my butt look big?” cartoon in the break room. Careless workers who slip on wet floors and fall off ladders but never get hurt. The same videos were probably used for 15 years, but Macy’s must have updated its collection just before I was hired.

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What’s The Damage?

This is a story about two kinds of people: the people who buy and the people who help them get what they want.

The Things People Want, a 1948 sales training video

The American department store, once a shining symbol of 20th-century ambition and enterprise, is facing an uncertain future. Yesterday, Sears flat-out admitted that “substantial doubt exists related to the Company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” Earlier this month, Macy’s put out a press release about the sale of its historic Minneapolis property and it tried desperately to give the news a positive spin. J.C. Penney isn’t doing so well either. These are institutions that seemed timeless, but now their time is scarce.

I’ve had a few retail jobs. I had summer jobs at Marshall’s and Sam’s Club. From 2007 to 2008, I was a cashier and later a price tag maker merchandising associate at a Sears in New York. In 2010, I was a cashier at a Sears in North Carolina. I just ended a five-month seasonal gig at Macy’s. (They no longer wanted part-time hourly employees.) Now I’m behind the register at another store.

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