For two years in undergrad and during a summer in vet school, I worked at a local Wal-Mart. With only a year and a half left to go in vet school and all my classroom studies behind me, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that I’ll ever have to work at such a place again. So, I figured it’s time to take a look back on that bygone era and tell you all about what it’s like to work for the largest American employer. I don’t have anything super-scandalous to reveal, but I’ve got first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to work in a half-different positions at this company. So if you’ve never been employed at Wal-Mart and are curious what it’s like, allow me to fill you in.
Comedy is usually found in extremes, but unfortunately for this blog Wal-Mart wasn’t the single greatest experience of my life, nor was it the most soul-crushing.
I’ve endured far worse.
So let’s start with the positives. I made better money at Wal-Mart than at any of my previous jobs, which had been in fast-food. Instead of making minimum wage, I was hauling in $8.40 an hour. Obviously that’s not much to brag about, but what was nice is that I made time and a half on Sundays and holidays. I always tried to get one of my 8 hour shifts on a Sunday, which meant 20% of my paycheck was based on $12.60 an hour. For a college kid, that was none too shabby.
Another nice thing was, at least at the store I worked at, they gave you a surprising amount of wiggle room in what you wanted to do. That’s why even though for 2 years I was hired as a cashier, I had experience in lawn & garden, stocking shelves, electronics, cart-wrangling, being a janitor, and unloading trucks. I’m not exactly a super-motivated worker, but if the front-end was slow then I didn’t want to just stand there for four hours. I’d ask if I could do something else and they’d find another department for me to help out in. It’s not exactly up there with Google’s perks, but it kept me from losing my mind from boredom. That has to count for something.
Any other nice stuff? Um…we got a 10% discount. As long as it wasn’t on food or sales items, which were half the store. But better than nothing.
As you can tell, I’m not exactly brimming with inspirational stories here. The negatives are always more fun to write about anyway.
First up, Wal-mart is just plain creepy. Most of the associates don’t buy into this, but there is a serious cult-like atmosphere in that place.
And it’s all based around this strapping young lad.
I have never seen any place so obsessed with worshipping its founder. I get it. Sam Walton built an enormous company with great ingenuity, skill, and perseverance. Great for him! But do we really need three giant portraits of him hanging in the breakroom? Do we need a ten-foot long mat leading out of the ’employees only’ area having us pledge to make Sam proud? Didn’t anyone in the PR department think that was overdoing it a bit?
Another bad thing: orientation. My girlfriend worked at Target and had a 3 hour orientation. Ours was 8 hours. I have an orientation for my small tissue surgery rotation on Monday that won’t last that long. How is that possible? That thing dragged on and on. At first I found it rather amusing, then I got bored, then I wanted to die, then around hour six I realized that this was my life now; this orientation was eternal. Out of that acceptance grew a feeling of complacency and then…almost euphoric wonder at how there had existed a time before that meeting. Then I got bored again.
At orientation you’ll do such fun things as fill out paperwork as a group, hear how unions are not so bad but you are to contact management immediately if one of their reps so much as looks at you, and of course, learn how to deal with ethical dilemmas! Oh what fun that was. My favorite was having to figure out whether it was okay to accept a soda from a vending machine stocker on a sweltering hot day.
I know what you want me to say, but the answer’s still “Yes.”
There’s also the clientele that frequents Wal-Mart. For the first year or so at my job, I worked at a Wal-Mart in Woonsocket, Rhode Island. This was my hometown and is filled with…less than desirable people.
We’ve been on the move since before I was born. When are we getting somewhere?
When our store moved to the nearby but much more affluent North Smithfield, I figured we’d be serving a higher-class of individual. Replacing our Velveeta with caviar, be forced to raise our pinkies at the drinking fountain, that kind of thing. Instead, one of the first weeks there two people fought in the parking lot with a tire iron and golf club when someone complimented another customer’s girlfriend. The tire iron flew out of one guy’s grasp and smashed into a little kid’s face, sending him to the hospital. That’s the kind of people I dealt with everyday.
Two last quick annoyances are how Wal-Mart does not hire nearly enough people to run its stores, and only 1 – 2 people from each department have walkie-talkies. The former resulted in no one being around to help customers, which made them angry, which in turn led to incidents like the compliment-fueled tire iron child slugfest of ’09. The latter means that instead of simply reaching into your pocket and communicating with people, you have to run around the entire store just to find someone with a walkie, then wait for the person on the other end to run around the store to find the person you needed to speak to.
They are a one-time fee and use rechargeable batteries. How can a store not afford one for every worker? Target does it!
As I said, I spent two of my 2.5 years at Wal-Mart as a cashier. This is probably the worst position possible for me. It takes a long time for me to warm up to people, I hate standing still, and I detest small-talk that serves no purpose. It’s the small-talk thing that really got to me. I hate how we were told to ask how people were doing and have stupid little conversations with every customer. My attitude was I don’t know you and you don’t know me. Wouldn’t you rather I shut up and and get you out the door fast so you can spend time with people you like?
It’s astounding they didn’t put me in customer service.
I also hated when people brought $200 worth of stuff up and said, after I rang everything up, “I have $25 to spend. We’ll have to put some stuff back.” Stupid me for assuming you would have the estimation skills of a fetus to realize that an entire cart of items is worth more than that, or that you would watch the price ring up to keep tabs on your total.
About the only fun aspects of being a cashier were the slight mental exercise of trying to do addition and subtraction faster than the computer and keeping track of my sales to see if I was beating other registers. Riveting stuff.
So if you love forming fleeting and empty relationships with strangers, standing in the same position, and doing the exact same repetitive task for 8 hours, cashiering is the job for you.
This is one of the many jobs I was routinely asked to do when someone called out or it got really busy. Most people thing running around outside and pushing dozens of carts at a time for hours on end is horrible, but this was actually like a vacation to me.
First of all, you got to work outside. Obviously this sucked on rainy days or when the temperatures were extreme, but on an average day this was a blessing. You also got a ton of free exercise; a couple hours of walking around and pushing those things is like a trip to the gym. What was best about this for me is that I was constantly on the move (remember I hate just standing or sitting still) and I got to talk to myself. There were never any customers around and I didn’t have to interact with anyone, so I used this time to work on my writing ideas. I came up with countless chapter ideas, story concepts, and editing notes while I was walking around the parking lot mumbling to myself.
I’m sure that if I was hired for this job I would have hated it after only a short time. But getting to do this a couple times a week for only an hour or two at a time was awesome.
Except for the raw rage I would feel whenever I saw a cart outside of those corral areas. They are clearly marked and never more than a 20 second trip from wherever you parked. Why is it so hard to put them there. Why do you make my job needlessly difficult?
Also, my girlfriend told me that at Target, cart wranglers could get one free drink from the Target’s Starbucks each day. Wal-mart employees were likely if they had bottled water in stock for them.
This is another job I often had to fill in for when the backroom people got overloaded or someone called out. It’s basically identical to cart-wrangling. It’s fine for a little while and good exercise, but I’d hate it if I had to do it all day every day.
The best part about this getting to toss super expensive stuff around like they were pillows. They just wanted to unload the truck fast, they didn’t care about being careful. They had insurance in case stuff broke; and most of it was protected inside the box anyway. It was also really cool to climb on top of the 10-foot-high pile of unstable boxes to get stuff down. I don’t know why they allowed us to do that; it seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The worst thing came out of this carelessness, and that was getting smacked in the head with boxes. You’ll quickly get used to hearing “Heads up!” and realizing at any moment a big-screen TV might be hurtling down upon you. But at least that makes things interesting, which is more than can be said for cashiering.
LAWN & GARDEN
This is, by far, the best area of Wal-mart I ever worked in. I did this for the summer during vet school and loved it as much as is reasonable, considering I was still working at Wal-Mart. It was perfect for me. I got to walk outside and go for a stroll through some plants whenever I wanted.
If you close your eyes and open your imagination, it’s almost like you’re not even working in retail.
There were tons of different jobs to do. I could cashier for a little while, water some plants, and even do my favorite thing to make time go by faster: set up displays.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. You like math AND organizing things? Give the other guys a chance to score.
If you work at Wally-World, get into lawn and garden. Just look like you’re busy, and as soon as the bosses leave set up a lawn furniture display, grab a free bottle of water, kick back in that Adirondack, and settle in for a smooth ride.
I only worked in this department to cover two breaks, but each time was stepping foot into a different, brighter world. You’re allowed to walk around. You can read the backs of DVDs and video games. There’s a computer connected to Walmart.com, thus granting me a semblance of the internet. Best of all, when you interact with customers, it’s not just forced small talk. They actually have real questions and need help that you can provide. It makes the whole thing seem…real. Electronics is a fascimile of the world outside Wal-Mart. That may not sound like much, compared to the alternatives, it’s paradise.
I’m not talking about this.
A recreation of the typical Wal-Mart restroom.
Technically, I never really worked on the floor. But when customer service was overflowing with returns, they’d let me grab a carriage-full and put the stuff back on their shelves. I loved this as a break from cashiering. I got to walk around, mutter to myself about my writing plans, and occasionally help a customer find something. Since I didn’t actually work in these departments, I never knew where things were, but that just meant I could wander around and be away from the register longer.
“Can you help me find something?”
“Not at all, but I can walk aimlessly around and let you know if I spot it! Also, this public domain image is of a Chinese store, so we’re doubly screwed here.”
So, in summation, working at Wal-Mart’s not…completely awful, but I definitely find becoming a doctor more rewarding.
In other shocking developments, the sky is blue and kittens are cute.
Lots of customers are weird and trashy, many jobs are incredibly boring and monotonous, and you’re very aware that you’re a replaceable cog in a poorly-oiled machine. But some positions let you wander around muttering like a lunatic, working on your fanfiction. That’s the best compliment I can give.
If you don’t like that, go ahead and sue me. I’m not even done vet school yet and am over $200,000 in debt. Gook luck getting anything.
$200,000 for two and a half years of school. Huh. I think I might have gotten an idea for my next post.
Thanks for reading my stuff so far. I’m trying to find ways to promote this little old blog of mine. If anyone’s interested in setting up a guest post, I’d be all for that. Let me know if you’re interested or have other cross-promotional ideas.