Sep
19

My First Job: A Battle of Grocery Store Cultures

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Today’s guest post is by Peppercomm’s Director of Audience Engagement, Sam Ford

5 Takeaways for Your Work as a Professional Communicator

After a summer working at my local high school—doing odd jobs to get the school premises ready for another academic year–and some “spot jobs” here and there working tobacco fields for my family, my first ongoing job was as a “carryout.”

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This is not the author–but we’re sure he was as happy while doing his job as a carryout boy.

Many reading this may be from towns where this particularly nicety no longer existed when they were growing up or else of the more modern era where such service has been done away with in favor of the “self service” world of pumping your own gas and checking yourself out in the retail line. If so, the “carryout boy” (and—yes—where I’m from, it was a heavily gendered designation; women who applied were sent straight to the cash register…Maybe they didn’t trust us boys with the till?) was the person who bagged groceries and then carted them out to the car for any and every patron who came through our store.

I had shopped most of my life at Houchens and the other local grocery stores. (My parents skipped around town, so as to cherry-pick from what each grocery store in town had to offer, in a pre Super-Walmart era where small towns actually had quite a few retail stores to choose from.) I spent Friday evenings camped out on the “front bench” at Houchens. My dad sometimes let me have a chocolate milk and a doughnut, if I’d earned it. And I spent my allowance on comic books and sat at the front and read my comic books while Dad talked to the locals. Sometimes, Dad left, and I ended up talking with one or another old man who might tell me how those comic books I was reading were written by the Devil himself, trying to corrupt my young mind.

Or people stopped by to ask me to recite all of the Presidents of the United States in order. I had learned how to read in part off a paper Houchens grocery bag that we had gotten, which listed all the presidents in order, along with their head shots. And my dad, preparing me for the world that is public relations, would promote my ability to recite those presidents to passersby. I sometimes wish he’d put out a hat…or, more apropos, that he had brought that Houchens grocery sack with the presidents’ faces on it for people to throw in donations after I’d ran through all those presidents and even listed Grover Cleveland twice, as the list required me to do.

I’d long been resolved that I wanted to be one of those carryout boys who brought those groceries to the car. Aside from a few dedicated “lifers” who worked the dayshift and the managers who oversaw the shop, Houchens almost exclusively employed high schoolers at night. It was a coveted position. People vied for those Houchens cashier and carryout positions. They often had a couple of the main basketball stars amidst their ranks, as well as a real cast of characters. Almost always, though, those carryouts were memorable “characters.” They were part of the lore.

And Houchens knew how to recruit for that position. They didn’t complain much that their parking lot was the hangout for local teenagers on Friday night in a town where there was little to do than drive back and forth across town…where the socializing from the Friday night football games typically spilled over to after game socializing, and drama, in front of Houchens. The carryouts and the cashiers would run out to join the social scene once their shift ended. And Houchens was always present at all the local sporting events—sponsoring teams, providing food, and whatever else could be done to root the local team on.

For months before I applied, I went in to let my intentions be known. I worked hard on my resume. I checked in often while on those Friday afternoon shopping excursions, to make sure they knew when I’d be available. And all the work paid off: I found myself part of the “Houchens team” and had a glorious time my junior and part of my senior year being amidst those “carryout” ranks.

Eventually, as my senior year of school heated up and I was in the midst of college prep and dating a girl seriously and everything else that came along, I ended that relationship with Houchens. But Houchens had no problem ending that relationship, either. In the time between, the Super Walmart had come to town, right across the road from the high school in what used to be a cow pasture. They were open 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. They could undercut Houchens’ prices. And, soon, Houchens had started having fewer slots, and fewer shifts, available to us carryout boys.

Several months after I left Houchens, I made plans to get married—right at the end of my senior year of high school. I wanted some extra income, but Houchens didn’t have those spots to bring me back to. Instead, I applied at Walmart. Walmart didn’t bother with carrying people’s groceries to the car—after all, they were about Lower Prices. Always. So I was a “Cart Pusher.” (I wish I’d gotten business cards made up for that.) Our job training consisted of showing us what union representatives looked like and begging us to run straight for a manager if we ever saw one. The store was massive. Managers had been brought in from other Walmarts to help our little town know how to run an operation so impressive, or at least that was the attitude that seemed to prevail among some.

There were four managers overseeing the store at one time, and the “Cart Pusher” was the day laborer who had to answer to the will of any of those managers. Sometimes, all four of them gave me instructions at once—and there was no clear designation of which I was supposed to listen to.

At Houchens, I was heavily encouraged to engage with the people whose groceries I carried out—to have fun with my coworkers and to talk with the people who shopped at our store. At Walmart, I was given a cross look if I stopped to talk to someone. I was officially “written up” because I didn’t answer a call to go outside and bring carts in. I tried—and another employee tried as well—to explain that I didn’t answer the call over the PA to go outside to gather carts because I was already outside gathering carts. But the managers didn’t care.

To be fair, Walmart did give me a $1,000 scholarship for college, which I was grateful for…But they gave me a heavy dose of what it was like to work in a toxic work culture I abhorred to go along with it.

Houchens wasn’t just a retailer in town. It was a local institution. It was part of the community. It invested in the community, and the community invested in it. Its people loved working there (for the most part; I’m sure some disgruntled “bag boy” might provide a counter-narrative). People loved shopping there. And it was part of the local social life in a way that it embraced.

All that goodwill didn’t protect it from business realities. If another store came along open all hours of the day, and which could offer a far greater product range and far lower prices—Houchens couldn’t compete. And people’s love of Houchens wouldn’t necessarily stop them from crossing the road into that old cow pasture, fill up their carts with Walmart merchandise, and then go through the indignity of pushing that cart to their cars themselves.

But it did matter. The old men sitting at the front of Walmart didn’t laugh and joke about life. They told jokes about how long their wives spent at Walmart. (“I was in here one time, and a man and his son was sitting here. The boy was really cute and looked like he was in first grade. I asked the man, ‘What’s your son’s name?’ He said, ‘Ralph.’ I said, ‘Well, how old is Ralph?’ And he said, ‘Well, he was 3 when we came in.”) They complained about how much money Walmart brings in and ships right off to Bentonville, Arkansas, without much investment in the local community. And they have spent the last almost 15 years watching as many of the local hardware stores, grocery stores, and other staples of the old main street shuttered their doors, unable to compete with “We Sell for Less.” They’ve even seen the local newspapers take a real hit for awhile, when all the local businesses that ran advertisements that supported the local journalists closed their doors and Walmart didn’t need to advertise…because, after all, they’re Walmart.

I don’t know that people line up around the block to work for Walmart, or vie for a position. They sort of resign themselves into working for Walmart, if they’re not flipping burgers for a fast food chain. And now, as most of town has died out, what largely remain is that lit up campus in that old cow pasture, standing as a headstone for the town it had played its small part in sucking dry. And, nevertheless, people in Beaver Dam, Ky., can now get papayas and almond milk and all sorts of items only a Walmart could afford to ship in on those big trucks. And, while I don’t see the same “hangout culture” in Walmart’s parking lot, people are known to do their best to “co-opt” Walmarts aisles as a reinvented town square. If you go to Beaver Dam and someone’s not home and it’s not a church night, you just as well drive over to the Walmart and look around the aisles. You might find who you’re looking for.

But there’s no love or loyalty there. If anything, there’s a slight resentment as people push their carts down the aisle and say hi to one another. Walmart’s a necessary evil in their lives, not a community member.

And don’t feel like the community turned its back on Houchens, by the way. While they couldn’t compete across the road from Walmart, they still own a “Hometown IGA” in Ohio County, and a Sav-A-Lot discount grocery store, and a few different gas stations. Houchens actually had $3 billion in sales last fiscal year and is currently #154 among Forbes list of America’s Largest Private Companies. They are an employee-owned organization whose holdings range from a wide variety of grocery store, gas station, and convenience store brands to insurance companies, restaurants, transportation, construction, recycling, health clinics, healthcare services, financial planning, indoor tanning, and website/software. But when people around Kentucky talk about Houchens, they much more often do so with some admiration in their voice and a deep feeling of community investment.

Other than this old codger reliving some nostalgia here on PRiscope, what’s the “moral” of this story for those of you working in the public relations field? There are five main takeaways from this “comparison of corporate cultures” that I hope you take with you throughout your career—the companies you work for, the clients you work with, and the communities you seek to reach:

  1. Your job can be more than a job. Seek out workplace cultures where you can thrive and where you enjoy working. In every industry—in our industry—there are some behemoths who may always do well because of their size and the business practices that size allows them to engage in. Some of them may treat you well; I don’t know, and I don’t know that I ever will know. But, if you have options, don’t just work somewhere to earn a paycheck. Work somewhere that causes you to enjoy going to work and where you feel that your work is respected.
  2. Business is about More than Business. Business is about people. The companies we work for, or consult with, aren’t just there to sell stuff to people, or to spin a message. They are part of the communities—whether physical or otherwise—they seek to engage. It’s our job as communication professionals to push those companies to be true members of that community: to listen, to empathize, etc. We are there to make sure that not only their bottom lines do well but that their reputation does well, too.
  3. Have Fun. When I worked at Houchens, I looked forward to clocking in. I and fun with my co-workers. To this day, I still keep up with my old managers there. I thought seriously at one point about heading home from the East Coast, while I was still living there, to go back to Kentucky for a Houchens employee reunion. I tell stories about the time I spent there. I feel emotionally invested, even now as a “Houchens alum.” Seek out jobs like that. When you find one, get the most out of it. And, if life takes you elsewhere, don’t forget about the time you spent there.
  4. Our Clients Are “Selling” Experiences. For me, Houchens was an experience. It was woven into the fabric of our neighborhood, and it openly embraced that role, rather than indifferently allowing it. I desires that Houchens job as a teenager because I liked being there. My managers embraced my banter with old Remus Evans or my talking about the latest school gossip with Pixie Graham. And people looked forward to coming. In Houchens’ case, the experience wasn’t quite enough to compete with Walmart’s undercutting prices and greater product variety, but it was more than enough to maintain a variety of business holdings in the county, once the flagship grocery store closed. Generating that sort of loyalty, goodwill, and passion from audiences requires doing all we can to ensure a superior customer experience.
  5. Goodwill Matters. When a company is beloved, its customers will often jump to its defense. Economic necessity allowed Walmart to prevail against Houchens in the direct grocery war…but almost begrudgingly so. Many people who shop at Walmart would love nothing more than to see another company who respected the community more come along and offer a similar product range at competitive prices but which actually pays its employees well and engages more deeply with the community. When people give Walmart “down the road” back home, I don’t hear people jumping up to their defense. Instead, they talk with snark about the inevitable reality that they will end up pouring their money into the Walmart Corporation. Walmart has a retail foothold. But they don’t have a loyal customers and they remain open for potential disruption.

Sam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm. In addition to his experience with Houchens and Walmart, he has honed his retail chops as a seasonal worker at Target, as a pizza delivery man at “Pizza Tonight,” and as a bank teller at Bank of America…and even degrading himself to working as a telemarketer for all of two or three days.

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2 Comments

1
Colonel Larry Stewart
September 20th, 2014 at 10:29 am

Enjoyed your article! I worked during high school at first Houchens store for Tavor.
I could share lots of stories similar to yours. Enjoyed interaction with customers but disliked jocks that worked in fair weather and were given my hours that I desperately needed.
In fairness, Houchens was the “WalMart” when the came to “new” Embry campus (not downtown) Beaver Dam putting Leach’s, Cross Road Groceries, and many other mom and pops (in town) small groceries out of business!! No one stood up for them!!

2

A very fair point, Larry! (Sorry…just now saw your comment…) It’s been nice to have such a push back toward locally owned businesses…One thing that I think made Houchens feel quite a bit different than Walmart is the degree to which Hounchens’ local leadership invested in being part of the community in a way that Walmart hasn’t. But you make a great point in terms of how succeeding generations of regional and then national chains made small towns with completely locally owned commerce impossible to maintain. There are positives to that (the range of things that are available, for instance, in these bigger stores) and some distinct negatives, too…

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