We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 3, Episode 5, in which Slate culture writer Aisha Harris talks to “Jake,” a veteran manager for a fast fashion retail chain. In this podcast, he talks about the challenges of his job, including interacting with young staff, angry customers, and shoplifters. Plus—Jake explains to Harris how he would respond if a customer tried on unflattering leather pants, for the Slate Plus bonus segment. To learn more about Working, click here.
We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.
Aisha Harris: Welcome to “Working,” Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Aisha Harris, a culture writer at Slate. Today we’re going to talk about loss prevention, shrink, and customer service. That’s right. We’re headed to the world of retail. What’s your name and what do you do?
Jake: My name is Jake, and I currently work as a general manager for a fast fashion retail chain in New York City.
Harris: And I just want to jump in here and let our listeners know that Jake is not his real name. We are using a pseudonym throughout this episode just to keep his identity anonymous, because he does work in retail, and I think he wants to continue working at least for a little while. So just so you guys know, Jake is not his real name. So if you could tell us a little bit about what a general manager is, what does that entail for you?
Jake: There are sort of three aspects to the job that I do, and the way that my particular company breaks it down is people, process, and product. We manage people. We need to have the right people in the right spaces and places at the right time in order to make the business run. The process aspect is the running of the business, which goes from logistics, bringing the merchandise to the store, and the process in which it gets to the floor to sell for the customers. And then product of course is making sure that the right clothing is in the store for our particular demographic and for what the customers are looking for in our particular store.
Harris: So how many people are you actually managing, and who’s above you?
Jake: Well, in my store I am the general manager, so I manage 70 people, and there’s one direct supervisor that I have who’s a regional director. So it’s me at the top of my particular store, but then there’s one person that also runs all the area stores in New York that’s above me.
Harris: And can you describe a little bit what the store’s layout is, kind of how big it is, how many floors?
Jake: Well, my store is a small store in comparison to the other stores that are in my company. We have two levels. The first level is the women’s floor, and then downstairs we have a larger women’s section, and it also runs into the men’s department.
Harris: And how many customers would you say you’re getting on average on a typical day?
Jake: On a typical day we get—we actually had a foot traffic tracker installed recently, and we get anywhere between 1,000 to 1,500 in a day.
Harris: How long have you been working in retail?
Jake: I’ve been working in retail for about nine years. I started in college just as a part-time sort of thing, and I just continued on. I worked for a different company when I first started in college, and then the company that I work for now was actually the second retail job that I had. And it was also—it began as a part-time sort of thing that I was just doing on the side, and then it sort of turned into my career now.
Harris: Is there a steppingstone between being just a salesperson and then moving on up to general manager?
Jake: It’s different everywhere, but there are sort of trainings and different steps. So I began as a cashier for this particular company that I worked for, and then I became a supervisor, which is a broad term just for like helping the manager manage the people on the floor when they’re busy doing other things. Then I moved on into an assistant manager position and then a department manager, and then the next step was general manager after that.
Harris: Walk me through a typical day for you.
Jake: So a typical day for me would be to let the employees in, open the door, and then we have to unpack the merchandise for the replenishment from the sales from the day before. That includes my visual merchandise managers who are in the store making sure that the product is going to the right place. And often times we have to bring in alternatives to replace merchandise that we sold out of from the day before. And then it’s about motivating the team. We have a quick meeting, after that put people in their places, open the doors, let the customers flow. I have assistants who typically are there to run the floor.
My job is much more operational, making sure that things are running smoothly. So I need to make sure that the people are being paid on time, so payroll is very important, making sure that everyone from the day before, the days before, their time is in, so that they can be paid, and also making sure that we are receiving the deliveries and things on time. So that is the gist of what I do, really making sure that the right amount of product is in the store at all times and making sure that the people are happy, my staff is happy, and paid on time. Those are the most important things that I do.
Harris: And what are the hours like? Because sometimes I imagine you’re working in the morning, but then other times you have to—do you ever have to close?
Jake: Uh-huh. Yeah, I do. The company tries to make it fair. They don’t want the general manager—some companies that I’ve worked for or the company that I worked for before, the general manager worked 7 a.m. to 3 every single day, and the assistant sort of ran—did everything outside of that because they needed to be there when the corporate office was open.
Our particular company doesn’t do that. They sort of want to make it fair for everyone. So there are no really schedule requirements for me. I make my own schedule, but they ask that we try to stick to the formula of two openings a week and three closings. And we do that for all of the managers in the store, so they don’t feel like we have some sort of advantage by like opening every day.
Harris: How many general managers are there at your store besides you?
Jake: It’s just me. And then there are—I am the store manager, and then there are two managers for the women’s department and two floor supervisors for the women’s department. And then there’s a men’s department that has a department manager and an assistant manager and a floor supervisor and their own team, too. So I manage both of those departments.
Harris: Got it. And with retail a lot of times if you’re a manager, a general manager, you might move around a lot.
Harris: How—have you been at this same location for a while? Has it always been this one that you’ve been managing, or have you been elsewhere?
Jake: I’ve been—I’ve definitely been elsewhere. I think that’s the thing that like sort of changed—changed me and sort of changed the trajectory of my career. When I started, it was just like a part-time thing, and I was asked when I—I worked in Jersey at the time, New Jersey. And I was asked to go to D.C. just to help out with a store that was, like, struggling. They said, we just need a floor supervisor to help out with the staff. They have a lot of new people. Will you do that? And so I volunteered and I agreed to do that. And so I’ve worked in New Jersey and D.C. and Maryland. I’ve worked in Philadelphia, back in New Jersey, and now in New York City. So I’ve been, I think, in 10 stores over the last seven years with this company.
Harris: Wow. What do you love about your job?
Jake: I love working with people. I love working—like training and development of the staff is something that I think is not only important to the business, but it’s important to the development of the people in the store. I have a lot of students and very young people, staff, in my store. And so seeing them mature and sort of take the work seriously when they come in sort of with the same attitude that I had when I started like, oh, you know what I mean. This is just something that I’m going to do on the side.
And some of them actually start to see careers for themselves or sort of find their way through the work that they do at the store. I think that’s the most satisfying aspect of my job to like see people at the other end of things. And so spending time training and developing and helping people understand that this can be something for you. It doesn’t always have to be a career path. But seeing young people take the job seriously and sort of take pride in the work that they do, I think, is most satisfying to me about what I do.
Harris: If I were to come into the store and I wanted the job, but I was clearly in college—actually this was me. I’ve been in retail before during—during—after college, and I’m just like, whatever, this is just like part-time job. I don’t really care. What would you say to me in order to like motivate me to take this job more seriously?
Jake: Well, I always tell my staff, this is—what you’re doing now is sort of going to dictate what you do in the future. I always ask them if—lateness is always a problem with college kids especially.
Jake: And so what I always sort of tell them is like, what career do you want? What are you going to school for? Whether it’s a doctor, lawyer, veterinarian, teacher, would you show up on time to that job? Why is this any different? You realize that you’re being paid to do a certain job, and you realize that this says a lot about who you are as a person. So do you still think that this is something that you—do you still not take it as seriously, or do you think that we need to sort of change the way we think about the work that we do?
And then also motivating them to understand that they play a serious role in what we do. I sort of try to let everybody know that we’re all on the same level. Yes, I’m the general manager of the store, but my role is no more important than your role. If you’re not here on time to do your part, which is customer service and helping people, then we can’t meet our goals, and we can’t run a successful business. So I think empowerment of the staff is something that is important, and that’s sort of what motivates them. And they’re like, yeah, it does make a difference when you’re not here. We’re suffering because you’re not performing at the level at which you should. It sort of like changes the way that they think a lot of times.
Harris: Talk to me a little bit more about customer service because, as I mentioned before, I’ve worked in retail, and a huge part of that is theft prevention—
Harris:—that kind of thing. Can you describe a little bit what you tell your staff in terms of what to look for?
Jake: As far as like loss prevention is concerned or as far—
Harris: Yeah, yeah. And how much do you stress the loss prevention in terms of your job?
Jake: Well, I think—shrink is very important. It’s an aspect that I am responsible for. Like my—my commission and bonus is—a certain part of that has to do with how much loss we have in the store, and so I have a certain target. The—my—the target for our store is 1 percent loss is the goal. And so anything over that I suffer in my evaluations or whatever.
Harris: Is that 1 percent of—of what?
Jake: Total sales.
Harris: Total sales?
Jake: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Total sales you can lose up to 1 percent and be OK. Outside of that there’s a problem.
Jake: And so in order to prevent that, really what I tell my staff is that customer service is the most important thing that we do. You have to pay attention to people. And there’s nothing to look for except for behavior. Red flags for me or what I tell my staff is always like, if somebody’s watching you more than they’re looking at the clothes, then that’s sort of something. But I make it very clear to the staff that we have to be careful. We’ve all seen the news about people being profiled and things. And me being an African American man who has dealt with that myself at certain stores, I know what it feels like to be on the other end. So I know in my particular case we’re very careful about those things in my store.
And I always make it very clear, we’re not looking for a person. We’re looking for behavior. Are people acting strange? I typically would tell them to give enhanced customer service, which means that you just add an extra layer of friendliness. So you walk up to the customer and say, “Hi, my name is Jake. Did you need help with anything?” “No, I don’t need help with anything.” “Well, just so you know, I’ll be right over here. Did you want me to take those pieces to the register for you?” “No, no, no. I’m fine with all of this.” “All right. Just so you know, I’m right over here.” Just to let the customer know that you are there, not necessarily watching them but the presence is there.
Oftentimes shoplifters are only doing it because they have the opportunity to. When they realize that somebody is next to them or someone’s paying attention to them, then the opportunity is lost, and then they don’t do it. So I think that’s the easiest way to prevent.
Harris: How do you deal with a shoplifter once you do catch them?
Jake: It’s different because we don’t really catch them. There’s—we can’t physically like touch them. So sometimes what happens is that the person is just embarrassed. More often than not that’s what happens. I’ve caught people from all walks of life who often times just say, oh, I forgot, or I just put this in my bag because I was walking around, and you guys don’t have shopping bags to do that. So people just like blow it off. There are some people who have gotten violent. There have been cases in my store and myself included that have been accosted by shoplifters or have been pushed, shoved, have been spit on.
Harris: Has—so you’ve been—have you been spit on or pushed?
Jake: Yes, pushed, shoved, spit on, all of the above. All of these things have happened to me in the time with this particular company. We have security guards in some of the stores depending on where you are in the country. They sort of help us where they can, but there are also rules and regulations to what they can do. They’re not police officers. They can’t really arrest people. They can’t detain anyone. So safety is the most important thing to me. My safety is—and the safety of my staff is much more important than anything that can be stolen. And as far as my responsibility to the company, just knowing what was taken or knowing that something was taken is more important than really fighting for it.
Harris: I imagine that theft among your own employees might also be an issue.
Harris: Has that happened to you?
Jake: It has happened to me. And it’s—it’s—I hate to sound sappy, but the thing is that like I’ve always sort of managed my team so that we feel like a family. And empowering them and having them understand that they take ownership in the store is a way that we sort of try to prevent that, or I try to prevent that. But it happens. There are certain spaces that customers have no access to, and we find sensors, and you find things ripped apart. So we know that there is an internal problem.
I will say in my time in New York City, I haven’t—it hasn’t been a huge problem. It has—I’ve dealt with it, but it hasn’t really been a huge problem. I have a staff of about 70 people right now, and maybe in the last two years at this store, I think I’ve had five incidents where I like knew that something happened. And that’s not a lot for the volume of my store and the size of my staff.
Harris: And then do you discipline them? Are they automatically fired or—
Jake: Yeah. That’s—that’s automatic termination. When you steal from the company, it’s automatic termination. But it’s very—also very hard to—to make that—to accuse someone of doing that without having a lot of evidence. So even still we have a loss prevention director who would come in and interrogate. And in general they basically have to admit to it unless you physically see someone taking something. And there have been cases where someone took a cologne and then was like, oh, because it was a sample I thought that I could have it because we’re not actually selling it, and little things like that. And those sort of things like you sort of feel bad about like, yeah, kid, you’re not going to have a job now because you wanted to take a cologne home.
But then there are people who are like actually like taking things or having their friends come in the store and letting people remove sensors or doing things that way. So the loss prevention department will sort of take over after we have whatever suspicions. Then we have someone come and investigate. They come in sometimes in plainclothes and sort of observe for themselves and then pull the associate aside and have a conversation. And oftentimes people will admit to what they did.
Harris: What does a bad or particularly stressful day look like for you?
Jake: A stressful day is a day when I have a lot of dissatisfied customers. The store that I work in is situated near an affluent area, and so our customers are used to a certain level of service. The thing is that I work in fast fashion retail, and what people don’t generally understand is that fast fashion is sort of like self-serve if you will. Our associates are there to provide a service by grabbing things for people when they need to, but we don’t have the sort of time that luxury brands do to really work with people at an intimate level. And so sometimes customers are very demanding about what they might need and what they want, and there’s still a lot of other things that I have to do. And so that’s stressful.
I think the return policy is also something that we sort of—it’s silly, but we sort of have to go back and forth a lot with people because people just want what they want despite the fact that there is a clear policy on the receipt and posted throughout the store about what we can and can’t do. And so it holds up the line. It creates a poor atmosphere in the store because you have someone yelling at you, and it sort of like affects the energy in the store. So I think that is probably the worst thing that can happen is when you have an irate customer or someone who is just hell bent on like getting their way and refuses to sort of bend.
Harris: Can you think of any time in the last like week or month in particular that really stood out to you where someone was just like way over the top?
Jake: Yeah, yeah. So there are—there was a woman who was shopping in my—was coming to my store to make a return, and she had leather goods. And leather goods are at the top of like the—the more expensive pieces that we have in the store. They are the most expensive pieces that we have in the store. And so leather pants, leather jacket, leather, and those are also the things that are stolen the most. So we can’t take those things back without a receipt.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the type of system where we can just run a credit card and figure out what you purchased. It doesn’t work that way. And the customer—I had no suspicion about her having these things. I just told her the policy is that we can’t take them back without a receipt, and she would need to find the receipt in order to do it.
And because I asked her, she thought that I was accusing her of something, which wasn’t the case. And she sort of made a huge scene, calling me all kinds of names, cursing at me, threatening me, saying she was going to have somebody come to the store and beat me up in front of a line full of customers. And, again, this is in affluent area, a lot of older wealthy people who are not used to dealing with those sort of things, so it made a lot of people uncomfortable. And for me there’s nothing much that I can do except for take it. So it’s sort of emotionally taxing sometimes when you have to deal with those things on a daily basis, where you just like take the punches, because my normal self would’ve responded in a different way.
But of course you just have to smile and say, ma’am, well, that’s all I can do to you. OK. I’m sorry you feel that way, but this is all that we can do. Can I—and then it got to the point where she got so irate that we had to have security physically remove her from the store because she started to get very close to me and started to say really horrible things that I was just uncomfortable with. So I got to the point where I was like, we can’t do this anymore. You have to go. And so we kicked her out. But that’s—that—you know what I mean? That happened. They don’t—it doesn’t always get to that level, but I will say at least once a month there’s one who just is ready to fight. And so I just always have to be prepared for that. Keep my distance and smile.
Harris: I wonder if you can like give any advice to shoppers as to like what can we do better as people and as customers to make your job a little bit easier?
Jake: It’s—I just think that kindness is—goes a long way. And I think that—I believed this before I worked in retail, and it’s so interesting. I think it’s karmic in some ways because when I was a kid—just going to just like go off on a tangent a little bit. When I was a kid, I would go through the grocery store and pick up something and ask my mom if I could have it. She would say, no. And I’d sit it down. And my mom would always say, put that back where you got it from. Don’t place it somewhere else.
And I was like, well, people work here. You know what I mean? Like they can put it back. And she would always be like, no, they’re not here to clean up after you. They’re here to do a job. You need to put it back where it goes. And so for me I just think that courtesy and kindness goes a very long way. If you knock something on the floor or spill over a table or drop your coffee, make a gesture to at least let someone know that you’re concerned about it and not just assume that no one has anything else to do but sort of clean up after you.
And then also as far as like return policies and things like that, like all of these things are available to the customers, and there’s very little that we can do outside of those things. This is dictated by a large company. Yes, I am the general manager, and there are certain exceptions that I can make to certain things. But I can’t—I can’t listen to everyone’s story, and everyone can’t have their own policy, or there would not be one. Exceptions can’t become the rule. And so I think that’s what it is. Just be—just be kind and understand that there’s a person that you’re talking to. Yeah, so that’s what I would think.
And another thing is just don’t assume. I think that—I talk to my friends about this a lot, especially in retail and the level that I work at. Like I said, it’s fast fashion, and so people sort of assume that this is one’s highest aspiration to like work as a sales associate on the floor, be a manager, or be whatever. I have people in my store and one store in particular that I had two people who were going to Harvard Med School. You know what I mean? And they just needed a summer job.
And so these are like smart, intelligent people who like have hopes and dreams and are living lives just like you. They just happen to be in a certain space at a certain time. So like treat them that way. You know what I mean? And I think that it would go a long way. We’re more than happy to help anyone who’s kind. But if you come in ready to go, then you sort of get that sort of energy back. It’s cyclical.
Harris: How has working in retail for all these years made you a better shopper?
Jake: I think that I know—I always have an idea of what I want when I come to a store, and so having an idea when you come to the store of what you’re looking for. And if you can identify that online, they have reference numbers, certain styles, you can ask someone, do you have this? And have a photo of it. Someone can tell you exactly where it is. You get in and you get out. I know how to get around the crowds. I think that’s the biggest secret now. I never go to a store and just wander. I don’t window shop. I don’t do that. I think it’s because I’m around clothing all day long. So I need to get in and out, sort of like an anxiety that I have when I’m not working. Having information before you go in and having a clear idea of what you want will get you in and out the door much faster.
Harris: Another question I have is, how much of your wardrobe is from where you work?
Jake: All of it. Not all of it, but I would say at least 95 percent of what I wear comes from my company because I actually do like what we produce and also, again, because it’s easy. I don’t like shopping when I’m not at work. And so I can do it on the tail end of a shift and get it all done at one time, killing two birds with one stone. I really hate shopping. I really, really hate it.
Harris: Do you think if you leave the retail world, will you like shopping again, or is it like just dead for you now?
Jake: I think—I think maybe I will. What’s also interesting is that I was like—the fashion aspect is sort of why I got like—or why I stuck with it. It was all about the product and like knowing new trends and having access to things first. But now I like don’t even really—like personally on a day off, I don’t care what I’m wearing.
Jake: I’m just jeans and T-shirt kind of guy at this point.
Harris: You talked a little bit about how a lot of your staff are just—take this job for college, part-time sort of thing, and you—it also seems like retail is not necessarily the end game for you. What is it that you hope to do after you’re done with retail?
Jake: Well, I love to cook, and so I’ve been playing with the idea of going to culinary school, going back to school for culinary and exploring that. I have—I—running the type of business that I run, my particular business is a $17 million volume store. And so I—that sort of like turned the light bulb in my head to say like, if I can do this for someone else, I can do it for myself. I’ve always had dreams of like having a boutique catering company and those sort of things. And I’m like, I can run a mini-enterprise for a billionaire. Why not try to start something for myself? So my personal creative pursuits are in the culinary industry, and that’s sort of where I see myself going outside of this.
Harris: So 10 years from now where do you see yourself?
Jake: My dream is 10 years from now I would be running—be a casual business owner, not trying to meet—I just want to run a business that serves good product to people that allows me the freedom to have a personal life. I think the thing about retail and working for a box—big-box company that I work for is like sales target, sales target, meet the goal, meet the goal, do more, make more, be more. I’m sort of like turned off to that sort of aspect about business. I like running a business. I like working with people. I like those sort of things about what I do, but I don’t like chasing dollars. And so I think that if I could do—manage my own space casually, that’s—would be the perfect life for me.
Harris: So we’ve learned a lot about the world of retail and kind of what your job entails. But what’s the one thing that you haven’t mentioned yet that like you do every day that we wouldn’t necessarily know?
Jake: I think doing my best to help people, especially my staff. They come in with a lot of personal baggage. And sort of working in the industry that I do, everywhere that I’ve ever worked, we always say, drop your attitude at the door. Come in. You put a smile on your face. But understanding the—how it’s emotionally taxing to have a smile on your face every day sometimes when you have finals, your mom can’t pay the rent, your father is an abusive drunk. I get all of these things from my staff. You know what I mean? Dealing with really tough things every day.
So I don’t think a lot of times people see that. The automatic assumption is that, well, if you work in this industry, then you should have a smile on your face. Like you chose this job. No, sometimes the industry chose them. This is sort of what they can do at the level that they have, the educational level or just where they’re situated in life. And so I don’t think people realize, again, that there’s a human side to what I do. I spend a lot of time in my office just having conversations. What’s going on today? I don’t feel—I don’t feel your energy. I don’t feel like you’re the same person that walked in here yesterday. What’s going on?
Of course I have to be careful with that. But often times and I’ve been lucky enough to have relationships with my staff where they really open up to me and will let me know what’s going on. And I try to help them through it or try to give them the best advice that I can with what limited knowledge I have. So I think that would be something that people don’t see because it’s always behind closed doors, and it’s just me and that person.
Harris: Yeah. I mean, I don’t remember ever having conversations with my manager like that.
Jake: It gets intense. I’ve learned some things. It gets—it gets intense. But it’s also good for me. I think that I learn a lot from them. And it also lets me know, like people make mistakes. You know what I mean? And it’s—we have certain—a certain standard that we have to meet from our corporate department. And so I—I try to be kind when I can, and I try to be as understanding as possible while still meeting the goals.
Harris: You’re not a shrink.
Harris: Thanks for listening to this episode of Working. Send us your feedback about the show to email@example.com. And there’s lots more where this came from. Explore our first two seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Matt Collette. Joel Meyer is our managing producer, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Aisha Harris. See you next time on Working.
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Harris: Say I were to come into your store.
Harris: And I’m trying on this—these leather pants that you guys have. And I’m in the fitting room, and then I come out and I’m like, “Hey, how does this look on me?” Would you—what would you say? Would you tell me the truth, or would you make it a very sweet lie?
Jake: Well, I would start by saying, I’m sure you look great in the leather pants. But if it did not look good on you, I would tell the truth. We want people to represent the brand in the right way. We don’t want someone walking down the street and saying, “Oh, where’d you get that from?” “Oh, I got it from X.” And people are kind of like, ugh. So we want people to look their best. And for me I always tell the truth. If it does not look good, then I’ll let them know.
My first question, though, is always, are you comfortable? It’s about the customer. It’s subjective. So my opinion of the way that you look is just my opinion. So if you feel good in it, and you are confident in what you’re doing, then go ahead and do that. If you really want to know, does it look too tight, or do—does it look wrong? Typically what people will say is, “Yeah, I feel like it’s a little too tight.” Then it’s too tight. You know what I mean? Your body told you already. I can get you another size, or I can get you something else that’s a little more flattering.
And I sort of try to help them understand proportions. You want to be balanced. So you want to cinch here and do this or whatever, so there are little tips and tricks that I try to tell them, but I always tell the truth as much as I can. If someone really, really wants something and they really love it, and they may not look good in my opinion, like I said, it’s just my opinion. And so run with it. Be free.