Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Kmart's never ending death spiral; an insiders account

By the time Sam Walton was born, Sebastian S. Kresge was one of the richest men in the world. If Sebastian had the slightest inkling that baby Sam would eventually erase Kresge from America's retail map, he would have found a way to strangle wee Sam in his crib.

This will come as a shock to the Falling Downs faithful, but I was once a Kmart insider. A very low-level insider, mind you, but an insider none the less.

I was a department head. No retail experience whatsoever. Down on my luck, but a fresh haircut saw me walk into a Kmart in the late seventies, fill out an application, and walk out as Manager of the Automotive Department.

Being a department manager had its perks and its responsibilities. One of the perks was access to the paperwork that showed the wholesale price of everything on offer in the store. We were selling twenty dollar items that cost us two bucks. Obscure automotive parts, but people bought them. No wonder Sebastian got rich.

Another perk was the perogative to arbitrarily create mark-downs. If one of my buddies came in looking for, say, a twenty foot extension ladder, we'd find a scratch on it, and voila, that hundred dollar ladder was marked down to twenty bucks.

One of the things I'll always remember is how many people were perfectly happy to screw their employer. The guy who ran the shoe department would wear a new pair of shoes home every day.

The part-time guy in the building supply department had a great thing going. He needed to call an assistant manager to open the shipping doors. Unlike the full time day shift "department manager", he wasn't entrusted with his own key. But once that door was open and the assistant manager had left, he'd be cutting the sweetest deals. Got your eye on a new bathroom vanity, regular price $399? If you've got fifty cash in your pocket it's yours while the door is open.

I personally take a dim view of stealing from my employer, but I admit I had a lucrative sideline. Medicinal herbs. It was an ideal setup. Kept a stash in my stock room. Folks always knew where to find me. Didn't have to hang out in pool halls and strip joints. Good for the customer too. They didn't have to venture to a pool hall or a strip joint. "Hey honey, I'm just going up to Kmart at the mall for a minute." Solved a lot of problems on both sides of the equation.

Alas, all good things come to an end. The downfall of my Kmart career can be attributed to a couple of young hotties in the pet department. In my relentless campaign to impress them, I'd have my 300 pound teenage assistant go down to the pet department and surreptitiously release a couple of canaries or budgies.

Then he and I would make like Stanley and Livingstone in the jungle, carrying a ladder and butterfly nets from one end of the store to the other. We even found some pith helmets somewhere. We'd zero in on the  awol bird, plant our ladder, and quietly hone in on it with the butterfly net.

This was a game you could extend indefinitely. Just make sure you scare the bird off with that net instead of catching it. To impress the gals in the pet department you'd have to catch it eventually of course, but this little gambit made for many fun days working at Kmart.

The management structure in the store was something to behold. Our store had as many as twelve assistant managers at one time. It was a company strategy, applied Darwinism at its finest. You'd have these twelve guys (I don't remember a single female assistant manager at the time) all out-doing one another to climb the corporate ladder.

When the big dogs from head office made a store visit, you had an absolute frenzy of ass-kissing. There would be a parade of vice presidents and regional managers and assistant managers snaking aisle by aisle through the store, everybody determined to demonstrate to the people further up the hierarchy that they were better than the person immediately ahead of them.

Given that my income from the sideline was several times my income as a department manager, I kept myself aloof from that sort of thing. I had purloined a TV and a Lay-Z-Boy recliner from the furniture department and had a little lounge area set up in my stock room.

One Saturday morning just after Christmas I was relaxing there, one of the pet department hotties on my lap, rum and eggnogs at hand, watching the Saturday morning cartoons, when the parade of management wannabes decided for some reason to tour the stock room. If memory serves, we'd just sampled some of the medicinal stuff moments before.

That turned out to be my last day as an insider at Kmart.

Little did anyone in that parade realize that Sam Walton was about to cut their grass. The carnage continues. Today Kmart announced the closing of another 100 Sears and Kmart stores. In a strategy that does grave disservice to wherever those Kmart managers get their MBA's, Kmart decided a few years ago to buy that other sinking giant of the post-Walmart world, Sears.

And here they are today, still retreating and regrouping and running from the Walmart juggernaut. Another hundred stores closed.

As for me, that was my one and only foray into retail. Much too old for it now. But I hear that there's a kid up at Walmart, in the automotive department, there everyday from five till closing, can fix you up with some primo medicinal herb.

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