7 Things I Learned From 7 Months At Kohls

photo 2-7Seasonal. I was just supposed to be a seasonal employee.

In November of 2013, a few months after leaving my full-time position as a youth pastor, I began working at Kohls part time to help me earn some extra spending money for Christmas.

I thought I would work here for a few weeks.

Today, over seven months later, I’m clocking in at Kohls for the very last time.

Life has not panned out as I planned it in 2014. I didn’t find a full time job as soon as I thought I would.

But now, as I prepare for a new working opportunity, I’ve been wondering how to sum up my experience with Kohls.

Diving back into the world of retail after a 7 year absence has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.

I’ve complained. I’ve cried. I’ve whined. I’ve moaned and groaned to my closest friends. I’ve screamed at God, wondering why He would let me flounder in a dead-end job without any hopeful prospects on the horizon.

I’ve struggled to figure out exactly what I’ve learned from this detour in life.

Maybe it is still too soon to tell what all my time at Kohls has taught. But I have come up with a few things that have surprised me along the way about myself as an employee, about consumer behavior, and about the retail world.

1) Retail Is All About Survival: I went into Kohls on my very first day with the mindset of not caring much about the job. I did not necessarily need the job, so I vowed to never attach my worth or identity in it.

Instead, I made a conscious decision to not be merely a salesperson but instead a servant of the Lord and a strong Christian influence.

Looking back on my tenure I have to say I failed at this goal.

Stores like Kohls are business. Sales numbers are the bottom line. This is the overwhelming environment and mindset inside the store.

Having an attitude of trying to make a change is next to impossible to maintain. Day after day, week after week, my goal of being a Christian influence inside the store was beaten out of me.

I truly underestimated how different the world looks outside of the church. For the most part, everyone you come in contact with there is on the same page of wanting to serve others. That attitude simply is not prevalent outside the church and inside a department store.

Soon I became just another employee in the crowd trying to get by without getting noticed.

Though I became friendly with many of my fellow employees, there were nearly a hundred of us altogether. The store was a high volume machine. There was little time or opportunity to build true relationships or friendships.

So I slowly put my goals on the back burner and went into survival mode.

The funny thing is many customers feel the same way.

They are not familiar with the store they’re shopping in. They are overwhelmed by the breadth of it. They’re just looking for one thing and they can’t seem to find it. They just want to make it out alive and with their budget intact.

The most prevalent mindset of a customer is, “Let me just get what I need and get out.”

Good, selfless, loving, caring, genuine people can become completely different when they enter the four walls of a retail store.

It may not seem like a big deal, but think of all the time you spend shopping during your life. Can you remember many times when you had an attitude of service over selfishness during those moments?

The retail world can suck the life right out of you. Most employees and customers are not thriving – they’re just surviving. I’m disappointed to say I fell into this trap.

2) We Are Trying To Sell You Something: The next time you set foot in Kohls or another department store for that matter, notice the earpieces each employee is wearing.

You may think these are worn so that employees can communicate relevant information with each other. You would be wrong.

The earpieces are all about credit.

The most important statistic at Kohls (and I imagine many other retail stores) is the number of new credit card applications received each day. The managers in the store were constantly assaulting us with their pleas to solicit more credit.

There was a daily target for the number of credits (or “C’s” as the management called them).

Sometimes the store would hold credit contests and competitions, with the cashiers who solicited the most credit receiving candy, movie tickets or paycheck bonuses.

I’m not saying you should feel guilted into signing up for a credit card. As a graduate of Financial Peace University I think Dave Ramsey would have my head if I did something like that.

I’m just saying when you’re going through the checkout line at Kohls or any other store, know that the employees are trying to sell you something for a reason. When they beg you to consider a credit card and give us your email address and please fill out this customer survey, know that in many ways their jobs depend on it.

They’re not trying to annoy you or inconvenience you. They are trying to get management off their back. So please show them a little grace and patience instead of rolling your eyes and cutting them off mid-sentence. It will go a long way in making everyone’s day better.

3) God Has A Sense Of Humor: Here’s a true story – I’ve always despised shoe shopping. Loathed it. There’s nothing more boring to me than spending more than 5 minutes trying on different shoe styles just to be disappointed when they don’t feel quite right.

So one time while shoe shopping with my mom as a child, I saw a middle-aged man working at a department store helping women try on various sizes.I remember telling my mom, “If I ever end up working in a shoe store, just kill me.”

Imagine my dismay when the store manager told me back in January that I would be kept on to work after the holidays in the shoe department.

I couldn’t help but laugh many days as I clocked in for the one job I swore I would never have.

I still don’t think I fully understand why God placed me in shoes. But I know one day I’ll look back and see the comedy in His decision.

God’s plans are not our plans. The life we want is not always the life we get. God has a hearty sense of humor.

4) I Don’t Know What You Are Talking About: If you ever thought departmental employees at stores were given extensive training over the areas they were placed in, let me clear something up for you:

No, they most certainly are not.

In 7 months I never learned how a shoe is “supposed” to fit. I never learned what makes one type of high heel different than another. I never learned how to size a child’s foot. I never learned the differences between men’s sizes and women’s sizes.

Still every customer seemed to think I knew these things.

Understandably so. I definitely should have been taught these basics at some point. But I wasn’t.

Please don’t get mad when an employee in a certain department has no idea what you are talking about. Just because they work in shoes or bedding or kitchenwares doesn’t make them an expert in their area.

They want to help you but their brain is panicking because a dozen other people have already asked them questions they have no clue about in the past hour. All the while their manager is bugging them about the weekly customer service score and all the nightly tasks which still have to be done and don’t forget to get a few credits while you’re at it!

By all means ask your question. Most employees will do their best to help you.

Just remember to temper your expectations. Most employees aren’t the experts you think they are.

photo 1-85) The Store Is Not Your Closet: Though I had many daily tasks working in the shoe department, the job pretty much came down to cleaning up after customers.

You see most shoeboxes are filled with trash. Piles of paper covering the shoes, cardboard lining the inside of the shoes, promotional inserts, etc.

When you open a box to try on a pair of shoes, half of this trash immediately pops out all over the floor. This is why we have wastebaskets placed all over the shoe department.

But most customers don’t pay attention to the wastebaskets. In fact, it seems like most customers don’t pay attention to anything once they’ve found the pair of shoes they want.

Seems like most people are just thinking, “HOORAY! I HAVE FOUND EXACTLY WHAT I WANT AND I SHALL LEAVE ALL OF THE OTHER ITEMS I WAS TRYING ON IN A GIANT PILE ON THE FLOOR.”

Look, we’ve all done it. We pick up an item while we’re shopping, then decide a few minutes later after walking across the store that we don’t really want it.

We’re in a hurry. We don’t feel like walking all the way back to another department. So we drop whatever items we have wherever we are and keep on walking.

“Someone else will put that back,” we think. “It’s their job, after all.”

Yes. Yes it is their job to put your items back. And when you leave your discarded items in random spots all over the store, you make that person’s job much harder for them.

Every night I worked folding clothes and stacking boxes, trying to bring my department back to pristine shape for the next morning. As soon as I would get done I would find another random stack of boxes or clothes or trash scattered all over the floor – the left-behinds of a customer who didn’t want to deal with them anymore.

It’s a side effect of the mindset most of us have while shopping: “Let me just get what I need and I get out.”

What if we had a different mindset when we went shopping? What if going to a department store was not a completely selfish endeavor?

What if while shopping for what we need we considered how our actions impacted the employees inside every store?

What if we saw a box in the wrong place and decided to put it back ourselves? What if we picked up our own trash?

What if we asked an employee how they were doing? What if we served those who are serving us?

Imagine the radical change we could bring about in the world if we had the mindset of serving those in customer service every time we went shopping.

6) Let Go Of What You Can’t Control: My biggest frustration in my 7 months at Kohls came with the monotony of the job.

Seemed like everyday I was just cleaning up the same messes to straighten up the store only for it to be messed up again. (I wrote about this back in January.)

It felt like every interaction with a customer went through the same rote pattern as well: “Hello. How are you doing?” “Fine. How are you.” “Did you find everything alright?” “I did.” “Would you like to put this on your Kohls charge?” And so on.

Then there was the music.

The same playlist of pop music. Everyday. For 7 months.

Having to hear Miley Cyrus, Sugarland, Robin Thicke and others day after day, sometimes twice a day. When you’re already annoyed with people and then the most annoying song in the world comes on, you feel like you want to jam a clothes hanger into your eardrum.

Day after day was the same. Day after day I got frustrated. Day after day I could not wrap my head around why nothing seemed to change.

Finally, after months of getting upset about all the monotony, I decided to let it go.

I finally realized the things that were bothering me were never going to change. The store was always going to be messed up at the end of each day. Little kids would always run around like crazy. The music was always going to be terrible.

So why let it keep bothering me?

If the world won’t change on it’s own, then I need to be the one who changes. Even if I can’t change what’s happening around me, I can change how I let it affect me.

7) Always Means Always: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4

Ever since I read this verse in the 10th grade, I’ve tried to live my life with it daily on my mind. I’ve never struggled more to live this verse than during my time at Kohls.

Like I wrote earlier, I take the full blame for my mindset over the past 7 months.

As much as I hated the music played ad nauseum through the store, there were a few bright spots. One of those was Ellie Holcomb.

No joke: I nearly cried when I first heard Ellie’s song “The Broken Beautiful” one night out of the blue as I was cleaning up shoe boxes. Hearing the first chords of a song I loved, completely unexpected, really helped me come out of a momentary funk.

As the song says, God will take the broken fragments of our life and make them beautiful

Maybe not immediately. But someday. Somehow. Someway.

The 7 months I spent at Kohls seem ugly and irredeemable. They seem like a mistake. They seem like a failure.

Over time I will learn from them. I will grow from them. I will be a better worker, a better man, a better follower of God through them.

Always means always. God calls us to rejoice always in Him – not in our circumstances. Even in the confusing, painful, meandering moments working retail as you look for more meaningful job, we find joy in the comforts of the Lord.

*********

I was not the best employee. I did not have the best attitude. I missed opportunities to share the gospel with my coworkers.

But His love never fails. There is healing in His name. He takes the broken and makes it beautiful.

God never intended us to find joy in our dead-end jobs. Instead He offers the glorious promise of hope beyond this world for us to cling to in our working hours. 

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10 thoughts on “7 Things I Learned From 7 Months At Kohls

  1. Alex, great post! Retail work – like food jobs – are terrible. In part because of the the lack of respect you receive (I know I hated my year and half at On the Border). I was also amazed Kohl’s gave you zero training in the shoe section… but then I was not surprised. Big companies almost expect you to be gone in seven months (or less), so they choose not invest in their employees… (Do churches do the same thing – not that we expect people to leave… but I am not sure we really train our members…)

    One question I had the whole blog, where are you heading? Maybe I missed your announcement in early blog…

    • Alex… the indifference humanity practices, which is outside christian teachings, is appalling! However, its not so much they’re fault but rather they have become a reflection of their time in history. You recognize the problem or “change in humanity” because it wasn’t so long ago you were being taught differently as a young man. At twice your age, I remember an even more “thoughtful” time in history e.g. a time when people had a conscious about how they treated others…like leaving a place like they found it, or greeting someone with their name before starting a conversation. The word civility come to mind!

      I guess my point is; we all are a direct reflection of our parents efforts, both the good and the bad! Maybe your lesson in retail was to teach you, “that in the future, those in your family would be raised with respect for others they didn’t know, that compassion was to be shared freely with those in need, and that integrity was virtue not easily earned.” Yes, we live in a society in 2014 that has “an attitude of indifference” to others but as Christian’s we know that to love others like ourselves is our true calling. At least while we’re temporally here on this great place we call home… Don’t worry, you’ll do just fine!
      Wp

  2. Alex, we are out shopping. Four places. Four credit card application requests. One place I had not even picked up an item for purchase… All I can think about is this blog and the voices in your head(set) calling everyone to join the parade into debt. — you have given me new shopping perspective and I feel for the poor workers! Thanks.

    • It’s crazy! Does anyone really need a Build A Bear credit card? Don’t know if that one actually exists, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I bet you have some tales from your days in the restaurant world…

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  4. GREAT POST! Definitely so insightful that is coming from a person with so much feelings to feel and to share!, I am going to brake the 7 months record? I am not sure, but what you describe is exactly the same happening, I guess, under all the locations of this retailer’s brand name, now that I am there, I am going thru all that, my only distraction is guessing all all all the songs they play, and later go and watch the videos of each one, I have discovered so many things just by doing that, that when I listen to a song I picture the video and I say: That is a good video, I see colors, people laughing, traveling, enjoying, I end up dancing, singing, smiling, what else? No time to practice exercise? Walk around all the store, bending, moving, rotating, walking fast, track the number of steps, no need to go to the gym, I am losing weight! And I am transforming from a perfect “faker expert” into a plain expert in getting C’s and R’s, some stores they even give a DIPLOMA for selling a lot, others for never missing a punch, or number of compliments from customers, for climbing a ladder more times in month!! Laughable I know! Thanks for take the time to write all this that I am sure everyone would like to put it down at one time or another in their lives. Bye, I have to keep looking for the videos of each song…

  5. For me, working in retail felt like being in prison. Luckily my job was not that monotonous, and I had a regular work schedule. Most everyone else was not so lucky. The worst part of working in retail, for me, was finding evidence of stolen goods. All the time. Everywhere in the store. It really put a dent in my faith in my fellow man, and still makes me sad.
    I, too, remember the moment I “let go” of trying to put everything where it belongs, and trying to do my best. It isn’t possible, and I certainly wasn’t paid or respected enough to try so hard. I never could let go of the music, though. I finally built up a callous indifference to it, and I’ve never been able to enjoy music the same way since.
    I don’t know if it’s my “everything in its place” attitude or the way I was raised, but never in my life have I ever shopped a store, picked up an item, and later dropped it off at a random spot in the store after having changed my mind about it. In those rare moments, I have always put it back where it belonged. To say I asked God on more than one occasion why I was being punished for the relentless laziness and self-centeredness of others is an understatement.
    A comment above mentioned the word civility. The real word you’re looking for is class. I remember when people had class. People treated each other with due, civil respect. They were conscientious of being a reflection of how they would want to be treated themselves. Gracious and humble people led quietly by example, simply by holding their heads high, doing good, and never asking for a thank you. As our expectations of how members of society should behave have slipped over the decades, so has our society. God help us all.

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  8. Alex,

    After graduating from seminary and wondering what the Lord wanted me to do, I find myself at Kohls working part tome in the intimates department. Retail is my first love and at 53 three years, the Lord had placed me here.
    Everything I have learned in retail the last 35 years, I use. Who knew that my two year stint as a buyer right out of college would be used? Who knew that my two years as an assistant manager of Talbots would allow me to someday be in management some day.
    I know what you mean about customers. But when I help them be fitted for bras, a most embarrassing and intimate thing, they are overjoyed that someone paid attention to them.
    They play quite a lot of Christian music here and I work with a part time pastor and a pastor’s son of a growing church.
    My philosophy degree is also used. I communicate with these customers. I have women who have mastectomies, are going through divorces and have doubts about child rearing. And they come to me to talk.
    That is what I have made the retail world about. And I have made it clear to my managers that this is what I do. Perhaps mine are special and they probably are because I see God’s hand in this job everyday.
    In sum, retail is not for everyone, but God has a place for us all and believe me, in this fast paced world, customers need all the people they can get to listen to them and their struggles.

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