Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Conveyable Flow

Conveyable Flow

I'm at my second week on the job. I've got a small corner office with two tiny windows on one of the Peachtree Streets. The walls are bare because I haven't had time or resources yet to hang anything, but the office is mine. Soon they'll make me one of those little plastic plaques to go on my door with my name and the title "Assistant Archivist" on it. I can stand in front of one of my two narrow little windows and look out on Atlanta, and know that outside it's February but over 50 degrees, and in the cafeteria I can have fried chicken and okra or vidalia onion rings or any of another dozen familiar foods that I missed so much while I was away.

I can listen to music while I wear my cotton gloves and document the history of the area.

And I can know that I appreciate this, while it lasts. Because I worked for it.

I'm still going to work at the movie theater Friday nights and Sundays until I get my own place. I have a lot of bills to catch up on, and I owe so many people money it's just ridiculous. So there's no reason to give up putting on a name tag and selling tickets just yet. I find the atmosphere of the theater comforting, soothing even.

Wait - I never got around to writing about Target, did I?

I should write about Target before I forget what it was like.

I was on the Price Change Team. The normal hours for the Price Change Team were 6am to 2:30 in the afternoon every weekday, but we often left early or stayed late due to the nature of the job.

When I came into work I clocked in on a digital timeclock with my employee number. Then I used my keys as collateral to check out an LRT - a laser gun with a keypad and pixilated screen on its top. Then I would walk to the back of the store into the stock room, a concrete floored place where all the merchandise was stacked in narrow aisles 20 feet tall. I always thought the store room was pretty magical - here was every type of candy and toy in little cardboard bins, and the bins had bar codes on them. The LRT gun could tell you where every piece of merchandise was in the store according to those bar codes, and the bar codes on the merchandise itself. Take a minute, the next time you're in one of these big department stores, and realize that every piece of cataloged in a computer somewhere. The error rate is actually pretty low for so many hundred of thousands of little pieces of stuff.

My job, and the job of everyone on our team, was to mark down merchandise on clearance. To do this, we had little printers (called "hip printers" because they allegedly fit on a belt around your hip, but none of us ever had one of those belts). The printers were made of the same light grey plastic as the LRT guns, and they could be loaded with rolls of tickets.

Each day, we could turn on our LRT guns, enter into the proper menu for price change, and see what sections were being marked down that day and how many items in each section were due. Then we'd hook up our printers to our guns, and scan every item in the appropriate sections until all the markdowns were done. When our guns hit a barcode on an item up for price change, the printer spit out the appropriate ticket.

And allegedly, it all should have worked very smoothly that way, except that it didn't.

The guns were often difficult to use; they ate batteries, and because the batteries drained so fast people would take charged ones and hide them for use in their own departments. The guns sometimes froze up just like bad computers, or refused to communicate to the printers. The hip printers were even crankier than the guns, and to make matters worse, there weren't enough working printers on any given shift for everyone on the team. The printers would jam, feed the sticky tickets wrong, eat their own kind of rechargeable batteries, refuse to communicate with the LRT gun.

We had a supervisor who would blame worker's attitudes for the tricky equipment's failure to operate. One girl cried in the bathroom after a particularly frustrating night.

There are a number of teams that work the sales floor at any given time; in addition to the price change team, there's the stock room team, in charge of getting everyday merchandise restocked; the flow team, in charge of unloading trucks and getting that merchandise into its proper stock location or out on the floor; the "front" team that works the registers and opens and closes the store, the cleaning crew contracted by the store that does the floors and bathrooms at night, the customer service team that works the front desk and helps out all over, the snack bar team, the electronics team and the jewelry teams in charge of their locked up merchandise, plus the management team which consists of all the team leaders and the head store managers. Workers on the floor were usually divided into "hardlines" workers or "softlines" workers. The softlines departments in the store were carpeted; the hardlines were not.

During Christmas the price changes come so fast and so many that the Price Change team stops working afternoons and goes to work 11pm to 6:30am every night except Saturday and Sunday. We pull workers from the stock team and double our size. In a typical season, the Price Change Team works a week to ten days of overnight shifts, but this week there were four weeks of overnights.

The overnight shifts are wearing to those who have to re-arrange their whole lives to make it to work. The smokers suffered the worst; because of the alarm set on the outside doors after midnight, they couldn't go outside to take their breaks. A lady in her fifties, a solid worker for almost two decades, was almost dismissed for smoking in the women's room one night the third week in.

My favorite part of the job was going into the back stock room to pull merchandise from those giant tall shelves. When you take merchandise out of its bar-coded stock bin, it's called "pull". When that merchandise is pulled, marked, and on one of the great metal sleds used to move it onto the sales floor, it's called "push". The act of putting this merchandise onto the sales floor is "pushing".

Sometimes when there weren't enough working guns, or printers, or somehow when the whole system had gone crazy, they would put the Price Change team on the flow team. We couldn't help the flow team unload trucks though, because they had a whole system down as a unit and we'd just get in the way. So we'd end up pushing flow, easy enough to do at Christmastime when the shelves could get bare in a night. We were taking stuff the flow team had got right off the truck, put on a cart, and putting it on the shelves. A lot of the stuff came off the trucks on a long conveyor belt made of many metal rollers, and the boxes were marked for the team by companies Conveyable Flow.

Conveyable Flow was mostly ordinary dry goods that were not breakable, like giant boxes of toilet paper or detergent or cereal. Sometimes Conveyable Flow could also be stuffed animals or panty hose or waffle irons. But by in large it was that stuff that you could find in a lot of houses at anytime, the stuff of ordinary life. hundreds of boxes of Conveyable Flow would pass through my hands some nights, and my mind would reel with a million thoughts about my own life and the stuff in it. Luckily, I've never been terribly materialistic, but I understand my own needs better after spending all that time up all those nights.

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