Walmart, America's largest seller of stuff, has recently been plagued by very public problems with understaffing and poor customer service. Why has the Walmart shopping experience become so chaotic and unpleasant? An actual Walmart employee graciously explains, below.
After publishing our behind-the-scenes exposé by a Walmart manager last week, we received this email—a blunt FAQ for angry customers—from a current Walmart employee. Why can't you find anything? Where are all the people who are supposed to be helping you? And what happened to the smiling faces?
Thank you so much for your series of Wal-Mart worker stories! I am kept sane by them, knowing other associates have the same problems and that people on the outside sympathize with what we go through. I have worked at Wal-Mart for five years, two years as an associate, and the last three as a department manager over hardware and sporting goods, respectively.
If I were to write down every unethical/illegal thing I have personally witnessed in the last 5 years, I would have to write a book. For the sake of simplicity, I will instead answer the most common questions asked by frustrated customers who shop at Wal-Mart, because truly, every evil thing you need to know about our day-to-day existence can be summed up by answering these questions.
How come every time I come into Wal-Mart, there's never anyone around to help me?
Excellent question! The reason there's nobody to help you is because our salaried management team decided to cut hours and staff. Why did they decide to cut hours and staff if you are here now and needing help, you ask? Well, even though the company is worth billions, home office gives store managers a set amount of hours and payroll dollars that they can schedule people/pay people in each area of the store, and it is based on what the sales were in that department on that day the previous fiscal year. So even though last year was a Friday, it was snowing out, and no one was shopping, this year, on a Saturday, when its sunny out and everyone is shopping, you won't have anyone around to help you because LAST YEAR we didn't make enough money! Add to that the fact that store manager's and assistant manager's incentive bonuses (to the tune of $80K for store managers and $20K for assistant managers, once yearly) are partially determined by how much they can bring scheduled hours/payroll DOWN from the year before (of course, while still keeping sales up,) and you begin to see how this pattern of never having any help around comes to be. Us hourlies get quarterly bonuses, of course, but they're usually less than $300, and they don't even make up for all of the hours that they cut from our paychecks to earn said bonus.
Long story short, Wal-Mart won't hire more people to help you, the customer, until you part with your sweet, sweet dollars so that our sales can go up, and then maaaaaaybe they'll hire another person to cut some fabric for you. Salaried managers want their bonuses, you see, and if it means that you don't get help when you come into the store, why, they really don't care! Plus, if you have to wander around for awhile before you find someone to help you, you might end up picking up a few more things than you'd planned. See how that works?
How come nobody ever knows where anything is whenever I shop here?
Another excellent question! Well, as you know, we live by a culture of attrition here at Wal-Mart! As I mentioned before, the assistant managers and store managers are given incentive in the form of $80K and $20K bonuses to cut payroll and scheduled hours. Given that knowledge, you would be correct to conclude that you aren't going to find a lot of people in any Wal-Mart who have worked there long enough to actually learn where everything is. What happens to people who stay there long enough to actually tell you (correctly) where the toilet plungers are, you ask? Well, if they don't get into the store manager's good graces and become a manager themselves (much faster to accomplish, if you have a penis), my bosses make up a BS excuse to fire them just before they hit $12 an hour! Isn't that great? "You took a 17 minute break instead of a 15 minute break, and that's time theft" and "lack of productivity" (aka, you couldn't help customers/answer phone calls in 5 departments at a time AND back up cashier AND clean up YOUR entire area all at once) are the most common excuses I've seen, though occasionally they'll just fire you for saying a swear word, without any previous coaching or provocations. You would also be correct to conclude that the one associate you do find to help you is likely a part-time worker (so no more than 32 hours a week, tops), who, again, because of cutting hours/payroll, likely spends half of his or her shift on a cash register (or unloading a truck) instead of in his or her department, because salaried management couldn't be bothered to schedule more cashiers/truck unloaders (fewer workers=less payroll=more bonus money, you see?)
As department managers, we're also required by home office to change the layout of our areas and what products are stocked there about once every six months. When you throw in all of the seasonal merchandise we have to account for (Easter stuff, summer stuff, Thanksgiving, etc.) its easy to see why not even the managers know where anything is all the time. My first department alone had about 6,000 items in it, and I dare anyone to find me a soul on Earth who can catalog in their brain where 6,000 individual items are at any given time, especially after you factor in that their spot on the shelf changes about once every 3-6 months. This also serves the purpose of getting YOU to part with your dollars by making you wander about 5 aisles over and pick up 4 other things you didn't need while you look for the thing you came in to buy in the first place.
Isn't Wal-Mart just swell?
How come everybody who works at Walmart is so grouchy and surly? I used to work retail/currently work retail and I am/was always sunshine and rainbows no matter how shitty other people are/were to me!
I only added that second line into this FAQ so that I could tell people who tell me bullshit like this on a weekly basis that you are terrible, terrible people, I hate you, and I hope you get eaten by a dragon. That is all.
I can only speak for myself, but from reading other installments of Wal-Mart worker stories, I have concluded that my experience is pretty common for the company, so other associates can probably relate to what I will say. On any given day, I am given, on average about 3-4 "notes" that I must complete before the end of my shift. This includes things like taking down/moving displays, working 100 (ish) boxes of merchandise to the floor, changing the layout and replacing all of the labels of an entire aisle in my department. Sometimes these things don't take long to do at all, but if too much merchandise is full on the shelf, or there's a lot of extra discontinued stuff after you put up a new layout on an aisle, it can take an entire shift or longer to complete. This would be fine, if not for the fact that you are also expected to help customers, back up cashier (even department managers/zone managers), and clean up and put away stuff in other departments where salaried management has cut hours (they love their bonus more than your satisfaction as a customer, remember.)
You might be asking yourself how a single person can do all of those things in an 8, or sometimes 4 hour shift. The truth is, they can't, and salaried management knows that no person could, but nevertheless it is expected that every associate do the impossible and complete 3 days worth of work in a single shift. If they can't do this for whatever reason, they are treated with contempt, rage or ridicule by salaried management, who mockingly insist that "its not that hard" to get that much work done...while they sit in the office all day and chit-chat amongst themselves and their few chosen toadies. I've seen associates cry after being yelled at by salaried manager's for not getting their area cleaned up, even though those same managers were the ones who told them to leave their areas to get on a cash register because "we're a family here and we help each other out." This serves a double purpose. If an associate doesn't quit from this cruel treatment within 2-3 years, the salaried managers can fall back on "productivity" (even though no human can possibly do that much work) if they need a convenient excuse to get rid of someone who's making "too much" money, or even just someone they don't like for personal reasons. Either way, payroll goes down which means the managers have a better chance at...you guessed it, the bonus! The culture basically offers monetary incentive for assistant and store managers to treat their workers like shit and encourages high turnover in the process.
So when you, Mr. or Ms. customer, approach me with a question, I certainly don't mean to be surly. It's not that I don't want to help you, I'm sure you're a nice person who didn't mean to bother me, but if given a choice between pissing off you, a stranger I don't know, or my boss, who will call me incompetent, lazy, etc. if I don't get my notes done, I choose to piss you off with my dismissive, rushed service instead of my boss, because ultimately my boss signs my paycheck and you're a face I will forget in a few hours. Honestly, if someone is making $8.20 an hour, they're rightly only going to give you $8.20 an (overworked) hour's worth of service. I'm sorry it has to be that way, but I assume if you're shopping here you know on some level what you're getting into.
If you are a department manager, you have the additional responsibility of having to work five different reports every week, all of which entail a process of running from the back room to the sales floor (in a store the size of a football field) counting close to 50+ items on a single report. Even then, you can count until your eyes fall out of your skull, but it is ultimately the comanagers and store manager who have the power to approve or deny the counts I enter into the computer. Which leads me to my very last FAQ angry customer question about Wal-Mart...
How come I can never find what I'm shopping for at Wal-Mart? How come there's never any product on the shelves?
Because even though you and I can both clearly see that there's no sex jelly on the shelf, my scanner thinks that I actually have 3, hidden away, somewhere...and management, not wanting to eat into their precious, precious bonus, will not let me change the number in the system from 3 sex jellies to 0 sex jellies. 3 containers of sex jelly at $4 a pop means they lose $12 of sex jelly profit, and every dollar lost eats into their bonus, which is just unacceptable in their world. Those containers of sex jellies could have been stolen, sent to the wrong store...but if the scanner says they're in the store then OMG IT MUST BE THERE SOMEWHERE THE DEPT MANAGER KNOWS NOTHING! So, no sex jelly for you. But definitely $80K in the pocket of the store manager come December.
Before I sign off, I just want to add that if you really can't afford to shop anywhere but Wal-Mart, buy as much stuff on clearance as possible when you do have to shop there. All of our clearance items are sold at a loss to the store. If you buy more clearance items, we lose profit. And it helps the associates suffer less at work, because sorting clearance items is a pain in the ass. That is all!
[Photo: AP. If you're a Walmart worker who'd like to share your story, email Hamilton@Gawker.com]