Friday, January 27, 2006

Under Pressure

As I said in the last post, cashiering is not an easy job and in truth is a fairly stressful one. However, the stress that surrounds the position often comes from other places, or more specifically, other people. To understand what I mean I must start by outlining my understanding of the nature of the beast. In short, WAL-MART is a moneymaking machine whose primary objective is to create large profits. The recipe for success that they have struck on is genius in its simplicity: sell a high volume of merchandise by setting low prices. In order for this to work WAL-MART must keep its overhead as low as possible, in other words, minimize every expense as much as possible. The result? WAL-MART is incredibly cheap. I cannot overstate this point. The example I liked to give was how I need pens to do my job as a cashier. WAL-MART does not provide pens. Therefore, every month I need to go out and buy a pack of pens. I don’t share this story because I care about buying the pens (although it is kind of outrageous), rather it is because it is the perfect example of how the company squeezes the last penny out of anyone around it. Governments, suppliers, customers, employees are all fair game.

One of the biggest expenses for any company is payroll, and as a result WAL-MART is consistently understaffed. It isn’t for lack of labor; personnel had a stack of applications on file not to mention the many part-time employees like myself who needed more hours. Instead, this is a concerted effort to make the individual stores do more with less. And when they are successful they are rewarded with even less than less, no doubt due to the simplistic logic that if they could run Customer Service Desk with 3 people, why not see if they can run it with 2? Employees are constantly given more and more duties, a clearly unsustainable strategy that puts increasing pressure on the employees. For example, WAL-MART never has enough cashiers for the volume of traffic. This is not an accident. The company intentionally keeps its lines just long enough to save money but not lose too many customers. This doesn’t always work and customers do get angry, taking their frustration out on the employees. Again, everyone loses but WAL-MART.

Furthermore, the burden for everything is shifted onto the employee. WAL-MART has countless rules on the books in order to protect itself legally. However, by not providing enough resources for everything, the corporation creates an environment in which the rules must be broken, and the blame is placed squarely on the shoulders of the employee. For example, associates are expected to work the hours that they are assigned and part-time employees cannot exceed 33 hours per week (the point at which they would be entitled to benefits.) Problem is there are never enough associates to get people out on time and you can hardly just up and leave without a replacement. Consequently, by the end of the week many associates are projected to break the threshold, a coachable offense. [“Coaching” is WAL-MART’s cute colloquial for getting written-up and generally entails getting hauled into the manager’s office and bitched out. Written coachings go on your record and may lead to your getting denied promotions or even fired.] The solution? Managers routinely have workers take an extra-long lunch break; one of my friends was forced to sit in the break room for an 1:45 minutes off the clock because they didn’t get him out on time earlier in the week! This is but one of countless instances of pressure being transferred onto the employee.

As bad as all of this is there is an even more sinister undertone that I picked up on at Morning Meeting. These meetings were made infamous for the theatrics of the WAL-MART cheer (Give me a W! Give me an A!...) but the meetings in my store were far less peppy. The employees seemed to appreciate the break from the floor, but the browbeating that we were given hardly seemed worth it to me. One of the quickly rising assistant managers singled out different department’s and people for low sales percentages and high shelf availability. Subtlety was not the goal: “You really killed us yesterday” he griped. Store sales were down because of us, we weren’t trying hard enough. I came to realize that management was purposefully engaging in low-level psychological warfare against its own employees. Everything action is geared toward convincing us that we need to give them more. Sadly, most of the workers have no trouble reading between the lines: you are worthless. No doubt a lack of self-esteem among associates helps to create the highly submissive, dependent workforce that WAL-MART depends upon for success.

8 comments:

Panthère rousse said...

Very interesting blog. I went in Walmart only 2 times, one time to go to the toilet and the other time to get prints from my digital pictures because it was the only place I could get them on the same day, on a Sunday during the holidays in the town where my parents live. And I was ashamed to do it...

I find you are very brave to have this blog and I understand very well the precautions you take.

You might like to read this about a Walmart here in Quebec (Canada) where the employees tried to unionize : www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0511-03.htm

An Associate said...

panthere, i appreciate your reading and want to apologize for taking so long to respond. you see, i'm not so good at technology... but i digress. i just want to encourage everyone who is reading to please post your own comments on the blog (but you should probably refrain from using my whole name, social security number, etc.)

i think wal-mart's closing down the store in jonquiere has been a major setback to unionizing efforts in both canada and the united states. it is really hard to beat an opponent who shows such blatant disregard for the law...

thanks again.

catshere said...

"lack of self-esteem"
"highly submissive & dependent workforce"
I must disagree! I assure you this is not the norm & does not apply to all stores. As an associate in a Supercenter in the Southwest, I have on several occassions witnessed employees taking a stand against management when said management was blatantly wrong. I count myself among them & we are still employed many months after the fact. Self-esteem figures in ones ability to speak up. Submissive & dependent does not describe the people I work with.

Goddess Cassandra said...

I haven't shopped at Walmart in two years.

And I have never regretted it.

Dave said...

Just saw your blog today. Good so far, but I'm intruiged by your comment that a friend was "forced" to sit in the break room for almost two hours. What precisely did you mean by that? Are associates required to stay on the premises or in the breakroom during lunch? Or were you taking a bit of poetic license in that Walmarts are usually not near anything useful?

Anonymous said...

I just started to work for Walmart 3 months ago. I have been reading this blog tonite and had to sadly agree with a lot of what you have written. I think it is ironic that while working for one of the country's wealthiest companies, I have to provide my own pen, register fan, and now, with the dress code, uniform clothing! (Oh, I was given 2 shirts and $15.00 toward a pair of pants...all taxed). However, I do think some things depend on the store management. For example, in our store, youth seems to be prized overall, not male vs female. Our head csm is wonderful, and works with us with our schedules, and our csms don't cut our hours as regularly as the company would like; especially when they want to cut our hours for staying late and zoning, or covering a shortage, etc.

The majority of our part timers are high school and college kids, moms who are working p/t to help the family income, or by people supplementing their full time jobs. Quite frankly, unless one is full time management, I don't see how anyone could support themselves, much less a family on retail salaries.

Anonymous said...

What he is referring to is someone going over their scheduled hours. Generally it was that they went over the time worked which would put them over 40 hours for the week and have to pay overtime. Usually management will ask you to take a longer lunch or let you go hoome early for that amount of time. (I picked the latter of the two when it happened to me :P )

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