That mantra is engrained in my mind as I climb the treacherous employee stairs, reading the large motivational signs; it prepares me for a long shift. I enter the sleek Nordstrom in North County and leave myself behind. I am now employee number 9138934 — a customer-service zombie in trendy attire.
As I stroll through Cosmetics to get to my department, Accessories and Sunglasses, I am dreading the prospect of checking my sales figures. Commission sounded fabulous during three intense days of training, but when customer returns count against employees, you can grow to despise Nordstrom’s generous policy.
I find 9138934 and see that I am at negative $550. “Damn,” I mutter. “It must’ve been those Gucci sunglasses.” At a 9 percent commission rate, I will lose about $50 on my next paycheck — all because of a return. We Nordstrom salespeople call it working for free. I will have to hustle $550 worth of scarves, hats, and sunglasses just to break even.
Yeah, it happens all too often.
I pace around the sunglass bay, looking for my next sale.
An edgy-looking older male approaches. “I need to return these,” he says.
I recognize the Chanel 330s. They’re called Glam Magics, big sellers at any luxury retailer. These $330 shades look as if they’ve gone through a washing machine and then were mauled by a pit bull. Return them, really?
“I got these for my girlfriend’s birthday a month ago, and my dog chewed them up before I could give them to her. Can I get a new pair?”
This sounds rehearsed, which is normal at Nordies. We salespeople have to just stand there and allow people to come up with the strangest lies so they can get money back for something they either regret buying or stole.
I have two choices: I can take back the damaged merchandise and be chewed out by my boss, or deny the return and be attacked by the customer. Decisions, decisions...
The only rule in the short Nordstrom employee handbook? Use your best judgment.
Always turn returns into sales. Another phrase embedded in my mind from training.
“Sir, I am so sorry,” I say, “but I cannot take these glasses back, due to the scratches on the lenses and condition of the frame. Let’s check out some of our new sunglasses and we can find another pair for your girlfriend.” This tactic is a bit of a stretch. On the other hand, I have nothing to lose.
Image by Howie Rosen
“I thought this was Nordstrom,” the customer complains. “This is bullshit.” He grabs the case and struts off.
Well, nothing gained, nothing lost. But now I need to hustle so I can make some money.
My department manager appears. Kathy (not her real name) seems to be on a power trip.
“Okay, girls!” she says. “Our units per transactions need help right now! If they’re checking out plastic-frame sunglasses, have them fall in love with some aviators. And grab a scarf-and-hat combo! Everyone needs these items.”
She must be joking. Look around...we are in Escondido, in a dead store, and to top it off, there’s a recession. My sales skills are good, but that won’t mean much to the average customer.
In retail, nodding and going along keep the higher-ups off your back. “Sounds great, Kathy,” I say. “You’re totally right.” Not. I may be a sheep in the corporate herd, but I will never drink the Nordstrom Kool-Aid.
I switch over to scarves and hats, hoping for luck there, and maybe a commission or two, but there is a hefty pile of returns from customer service, waiting for me to put them back out on the floor.
“What do you think about this scarf?” I ask Ash, another sales associate. “Doesn’t it smell like perfume? We should take it to alterations to get steamed. That’ll take out the smell.” I hoist the obnoxious purple wrap that someone probably wore once and returned. In my mind’s eye, I see Grandma all gussied up. Must’ve been bingo night at the casino.
“It’s disgusting that we have to put these worn returns back on the floor,” Ash says.
A classy older woman walks through the second-floor opening in the mall, and we’re suddenly like lions spotting their prey — this store is so dead, most sales associates usually spend their time trying to sell merch to other employees. But if it looks as if a customer has money, we jump all over the sale.
Ding-ding-ding. I am the winner. Everyone gives me the stink eye as the woman comes toward me.
“Hi,” I say. “Welcome. How are you doing tonight?” Closing is at 9:00 p.m., and I am still in the negative, and I am going for the exactly right level of friendly. I need to make this sale.
“I’m not shopping,” the lady says. “I just need to get this belt fixed. It’s falling apart. I got it ’bout ten years ago.”
Before I can think of how to respond, the old gal beats me to it.
“Nordstrom should stand behind their products,” she says. “This belt is falling apart. It should not be falling apart.”
I want to scream, “Nothing lasts forever!” but being a customer-service-trained individual, I know only too well that I can’t be that real.
So I pick up a phone and dial the night manager. I can see the relieved faces of my coworkers — by pure luck, they’ve escaped being stuck with That Lady with the Crazy Return.
When the manager arrives, I introduce her to the customer, then get as far away from the situation as possible. But before heading back onto the floor, I decide to check the department’s sales numbers for the day. If I use employee numbers, I can see how my teammates have done, and even the boss. This isn’t snooping, only normal practice at Nordies. It keeps the competitive atmosphere thriving.
Me: sales $0.00, returns $550.
Ash: sales $475, returns $35.
Kathy: sales $1745, returns $25.
My hope for making money tonight is dwindling away.
And here is Kathy. “Girls, it is dead in here!” she says, a smirk on her face. “Call your customers and get ’em in here to shop! We need to make our goal! Make it happen.”
It’s 7:00 p.m. on a Monday night, and calling customers at this hour is something we all hate and dread, but to stay with the herd, we do as Kathy says.
I dial Jill in Rancho Santa Fe, hoping she won’t pick up. Then I can leave my well-rehearsed voicemail.
Score! Another long conversation with a shopaholic, husband-deprived housewife avoided.
I look at my watch. Another two hours have flown by, filled with the folding of hundreds of scarves, then laying them out facing in the correct direction, according to my manager’s standards.
And now I can go. Lucky for me I’m not closing tonight. My feet throb as I trek down the once-motivating employee stairs at the end of another disappointing shift in retail sales.
An insider's view of working at Nordstrom
My mom rushes into my room playing the ultimate backup alarm: “Wake up! You’re gonna be late for work!”
It’s a serious oh shit moment. I have 30 minutes to get ready. That’s enough time for hair or a good outfit, but not both.
What the hell am I going to wear? I mentally scroll through my inventory of clothes, trying to settle on something my coworkers — and especially Kathy — will not criticize. On top of everything else, it’s mandatory that Accessories employees wear a scarf or headband every day to work. That seems a bit extreme, right?
I pull myself together with an all-black outfit I hope won’t receive too many snarky looks from the young, ultra-trendy (make that ultra-snobby) “personal stylists” roaming the store.
“Good morning, girlies!” I say on my way in. I always greet the customer-service gals. They deserve serious credit for dealing with clowns, day after day.
To my right I see a group of young, egotistical salesmen — with a few oldies sprinkled in — over in Women’s Shoes. Now that is where the money is.
To my left, the Cosmetics employees are gossiping, refreshing their makeup, adding a dab of perfume before starting their shift.
I spot Kathy at a register, typing at the keyboard, and with every step I take toward her, I am preparing for the sales-confidence beating about to go down.
“Hi, Kath — ” I begin.
Then I am saved by the bell.
Paula (not her real name) — aka the Shepherd, aka the store manager — announces: “Good morning, my fabulous 364 store! Are we pumped up to have an amazing day in sales? Please grab your beautiful spotlight item for the month and head up to the rally on the third level in ten minutes.” Paula makes everything sound fabulous. This is misleading.
“Hi, Jessica,” Kathy says. “Since we did so awful yesterday, you need to make it happen today. I want you to sell at least three Guccis or Chanels, three cashmeres, and two hats.”
Micro-manage much, Kathy?
I run to the stock room to grab some overpriced gloves for the rally upstairs. Hmm…purple or gray? These are the only colors left in back-stock of our popular, tech-friendly gloves.
Neither of the colors seems right for the rally, though. And then I see the manager’s tiny old desk squished into a corner of the stock room. You’d think a sales manager at Nordstrom would have a nicer desk and a computer less than ten years old.
On the desk is a pair of red gloves. Perfection.
I ascend the escalator to where a sea of sales personnel waits for the rally.
It is 9:00 a.m., and most of us salespeople look, from the neck down, stylish and ready to have a successful day. But then you look up and see dark circles from closing the night before. Our eyes are begging for coffee from the espresso bar downstairs.
I glance around, feeling as if I am in high school.
The sales gals who sell mature women’s clothing are mostly older chicks who have been retail sales associates for years. We call them lifers.
The infamous Women’s Shoes salesmen look like a pack of bachelors oozing with that typical salesman’s stench. They stand around as if they’re at a bar, discussing the week’s winning and losing football teams. Typical.
Paula steps out for the rally. She has a presence that comes from being a tall woman with incredible style. Think Devil Wears Prada Meryl Streep, without the harsh edge.
Paula is going to get everyone fired up to sell and make the store money.
Department by department, sales associates go up to the microphone, trying to score brownie points with Paula, who gives away free drinks from the espresso bar. The retail gods know we need it — concealer can only hide so much.
Then we are given our daily sales goals. Then we’re dismissed back to our sparkly departments, which have been bedazzled with holiday decorations.
Yes, it’s that time of year.
Longer shifts, the endless folding of those beloved silver Nordstrom boxes, and the tying of the infamous silver bows. You’d think sales associates would be trained on how to tie bows, on how to wrap boxes perfectly, because that is the standard. But, no.
My first customer of the day — Ina, an older woman who buys a beautiful scarf for her daughter-in-law — asks me to wrap the box.
My skills are about to be tested. Uh-oh.
I do a hack-job on this poor lady’s gift box. When it comes to wrapping presents, not everyone is Martha Stewart. But there’s no one around to help me fix it, and I can’t leave her waiting for long. Every step back is filled with dread and embarrassment.
In one long breath, I say to the customer, “Hi, Ina. Okay, so, I know the wrapping isn’t perfect... If you want to get it wrapped nicely, I would recommend going upstairs to customer service, and they will do a great job. I’m sorry.”
Ina is legitimately mad.
I am sincerely upset that our store wants us to provide this wrapping service without ever teaching us how to do it properly.
Wrapping is the plague — I’d like to stay far, far away from it.
Ash, my coworker, has started her shift. She approaches with her usual smile, something necessary in this line of work.
“Hey, Jess,” she says. “You can take your lunch now.”
I am relieved to hear this. Time to put these feet up for an hour. But an employee could go broke eating at the Nordstrom Café, even with our discount, so I opt for more caffeine instead, a quad-shot espresso over ice. The retail employee’s fountain of energy.
Oh, and the Nordstrom employee lounge can make or break your lunch.
For instance: the shoes guys always rush to the lounge to grab the clicker for ESPN. The girls and other non-interested employees must opt for another location.
Or: the employee tables are filled to capacity.
Or: Bravo is on the TV, so we are all forced to catch up on the latest Real Housewives episode.
Lucky for me, on this day the TV is off. The clicker is nowhere to be found.
I sit at an empty table, hoping to tune out the chatter, the exchange of weird-return stories, the bragging about a large sale.
I go into a daze…
“Jessica, five-four. Jessica, five-four.”
Oh, that’s me. I run to the nearest phone. It’s up on the third floor, in St. John, a designer area where you would be lucky to find anything to wear that’s less than several bills.
“Hi, this is Jessica,” I say into the receiver.
“Jessica! It’s Nika,” says the woman on the other end of the line. “Albert and I are heading over to the mall and want to shop with you for new hair accessories. Just checking to see if you’re available.”
“Sounds great, Nika!” I say. “I’ll see you and Albert soon. Thank you so much for thinking of me!”
Albert (not his real name) and Nika (not her real name) are regulars of mine. They are a cute couple from Russia, mid-40s, and they never shop without one another. Nika returns about 70 percent of the stuff she buys.
I down my espresso and clock back in, hoping Nika will purchase something worth keeping for more than a month or two. She loves the glitz and glam, so I pull some hair accessories and wraps I think she will love.
Soon Albert is holding Nika’s flashy silver purse while she stands at the mirror, trying on accessories.
“Oh, wow, that looks incredible,” he says.
“Oh, my gosh, you look stunning.”
“You are just ravishing in that headband.”
Albert spews these dramatic compliments in a monotone. Nika soaks up the glory. After an hour, he’s said it all and Nika is ready to buy.
“Your total is $85.10,” I say. Another hour has passed, and I’ve earned less than $9 in commission. I’m thankful that at least it’s more than minimum wage.
“Excuse me,” another customer says. “I needed some help with sunglasses, but no one was helping me. Do you mind?”
This woman is dressed way down, but she sounds kind.
“Of course!” I say. Night is creeping in, and I am eager for a sale. “Let’s go over there.”
The woman pulls out older Chanel and Gucci sunglass cases.
“I’ve had both of these styles for years and absolutely love them,” she says. “So I came in to buy a new pair of each.”
I grab the current, modified styles of the glasses from back stock. The woman loves them as much as her old ones.
“Total is $1125.95,” I say.
She hands me her card to swipe. It’s heavier than usual, and I realize it’s the notorious black American Express.
Never, ever judge a woman who isn’t decked out in designer duds. Especially when you’re 100 percent commission.
Kathy paces up to me after I hand the generous customer her bag.
“Jessica, I just love the way you sell to customers,” she says. “Woo-hoo! You made our sales for the day. Awesome job.” Kathy is jumping for joy because, for today, the heat from upper-level management will be off her back. Not to mention, she takes a cut of everything that I sell.
One minute I suck at sales, the next I’m a rock star. I’d better soak in the praise, before it swings back the other way.
Kathy and Ash jet out for the night, and I am left to go it alone for the oh-so-dreaded closing shift: dusting, cleaning the glass displays, making sure everything is perfectly folded and in its correct place.
A tall order, if you’re busy, you know, helping customers. Isn’t that my real job?
The store is set to close at 9:00 p.m., but we’ll remain open if people are shopping.
It’s ten to 9:00 and a few browsers remain; customers who, when you approach them, say immediately, “I’m just looking.” Isn’t that what everyone is doing here?
The other employees have nasty looks on their faces. They’re giving the evil eye to these last stragglers on the second floor. Meanwhile, I scurry around the department, making sure everything is perfect for Kathy in the morning. Not one scarf can be left unfolded, not one pair of sunglasses can be out of place, or I will have to kiss goodbye being on Kathy’s good side.
The ten-minute warning sounds: “Attention, customers, our store will be closing in ten minutes.” A giant sigh of relief comes from every department on the floor.
Now it’s time to get serious. Time to count the money.
There are three registers I have to count. I know I’ll be last in line when we get upstairs to turn in our money bags.
I scramble to write everything down. If I miss something, I’ll be in deep shit (pardon my French, Kathy). I glance up every 30 seconds. The Women’s Shoes team is heading upstairs, followed by Cosmetics, Men’s, Jewelry, and Handbags.
I am a one-girl team, trying to finish. Accessories is short-handed. Other departments have three or more people to help.
One register left to count.
“20-40-60-80 — ”
Then everything goes black — the store lights are on a timer. Uh-oh. Counting money in the dark heightens my chances of messing it up.
Finally, I shovel the money bags into my arms and try to balance them as I make my way upstairs. The glamorous and sparkly second floor isn’t quite as fabulous in the dark.
The third floor is alive. I don’t feel so alone anymore.
I am the last in a line of very tired but well-dressed sales associates waiting to turn in their money bags and be released back into reality. Somehow, I always feel like a mess in this sea of type-A personalities. I scramble to get my money bags filled out and in order.
Laura (not her real name), the customer-service manager, will be counting my bags tonight.
Laura climbed her way up the Nordstrom ladder from being a sales associate. It probably helped that she drank the Kool-Aid. Scratch that — she invented it. Every rule and code, she will enforce. If you make a decision about a customer or purchase, she will judge it. Laura is everywhere in the store and knows most everything that goes on. What with our extensive video surveillance, not a single move goes unnoticed. You are always being watched.
“The money needs to be facing upwards, Jessica,” Laura says. “I’ll do it for you this time, but next time, you need to make sure you do everything before you get upstairs. We try and make it timely and efficient up here this late.”
Just like that, I’ve devolved from Sales Superstar to Money Bag Mess-Up.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
I dash to the nearest computer screen and clock out number 9138934.
I look at the dashboard. “12:30!”
I am 30 minutes early for my 1:00 p.m. shift.
No sense in letting these curls fall. No sense in letting my make-up melt in the heat. So I go in.
The climb up the once-hopeful stairs at the employee entrance is exhausting. The motivational signs no longer seem bold, but transparent.
Instead of a cheerful hello to the gracious customer-service gals, I make a hard left. I head to Human Resources.
It’s a snap decision, but I will no longer answer to 9138934. Kathy, Paula, Laura — I think of them as “Javerts,” from Les Mis — they can’t get me now. Okay, maybe I’ve seen that story too many times.
I sign paper after paper, and then I am released.
I walk down the hallway, no longer a number. I am Jessica.