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How to work retail in the middle of the retail apocalypse

As brick-and-mortar stores scramble to justify their continued existence, they're trying to be all things to all customers, to blend instant gratification and infinite selection

By Andy Newman
Published: Dec 27, 2019

How to work retail in the middle of the retail apocalypseDaisy Tecotl, a merchandising manager at an Old Navy store, works the register in Manhattan, Dec. 12, 2019. As brick-and-mortar stores scramble to justify their continued existence, they’re trying to be all things to all customers, and it falls upon the workers on the front lines to make it all happen.
Image: Sarah Blesener/The New York Times

NEW YORK — It’s Dec. 17 and a customer at the Old Navy on 18th Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan has a problem: She’s looking to get matching Jingle Jammies for her family but can’t find a size 3T for her son.

Daisy Tecotl has a solution. She checks the In Stock On Shelf app on her store-issued mobile device to see if there’s a 3T in the stockroom. There isn’t, so she opens the Order In Store app and arranges to ship it to the woman before Christmas.

The sale is reflected in yet another app, the Sell app, that pings Tecotl, a 24-year-old merchandising manager, with hourly figures on sales and credit card sign-ups and several other metrics, which she uses to broadcast guidance to “refocus” her sales associates, who, like her, are outfitted with earpieces and walkie-talkies.

“Maybe our focus is getting more customers that come in to purchase more,” Tecotl said by way of example, “so maybe the refocus is handing out mesh bags” — the store’s branded shopping bags — “and saying hello a little bit more.”

This is the job of a retail clothing worker at the end of 2019: dashing back and forth between stockroom and fitting room and sales floor, online and in-store, juggling the hats of cashier and cheerleader and personal shopper and visual merchandiser and database manager.

As brick-and-mortar stores scramble to justify their continued existence, they’re trying to be all things to all customers, to blend instant gratification and infinite selection. And it falls upon the workers on the front lines to make it all happen.

Entry-level associates at Old Navy have store-issued mobile devices, too, that do things like ping them when a customer buys the last item in a particular size so they can replenish it from a stockroom that holds more than 250,000 items (don’t worry, the app tells them where to find it), or ring up customers anywhere in the store’s 30,000-square-foot, three-story expanse, or notify them of a BOPIS — that’s Buy Online Pickup In Store, which sends an associate to find the items on the sales floor — “sort of a reverse replenishment,” Tecotl explained — and scan them in and print the invoice and stick it on a bag with the customer’s information and bring it up to the BOPIS register, where it goes on a numbered shelf.

Old Navy at Christmastime is like Old Navy only more so — more people, more shirts and sweaters and Rockstar jeans stacked high or lying in picked-over piles sprawling off the shelves and hangers, more exclamation points. “Jingle! Jolt! Jam!” reads a sign above the women’s pajamas. “Zip. Zap. Gifts!!” “S¡ze Yes!” “Giftastic!”

The work revs up, too. During peak hours, said Jennifer Oberle Eyler, the store director at 18th Street, one associate might be dedicated to watching for the red dot on the In Stock On Shelf App that tells workers to bring out more items in that size. Another might take orders from the Ship From Store app, which effectively turns the store into an auxiliary warehouse that fulfills online purchases from store inventory rather than from distribution centers in the name of efficiency.

Christmas cheer aside, it’s a grim moment for physical retail. The nation’s offramps are littered with the skeletons of defunct malls. In New York City, retail clothing jobs declined by 9% from 2013 to 2018, even as overall employment in the city jumped about 14%. A report last week by the Center for an Urban Future found that the number of national retail chain stores in the city shrank 4% this year, the biggest drop since at least 2008.

Old Navy hopes to buck the trend. It has performed so much better than its sister chains in the Gap empire that Gap Inc. decided in February to spin off Old Navy into its own company — one that plans to open 800 new stores, despite a dip in sales this year.

But to compete in a world where Amazon moves mountains of merchandise without a retail sales force takes a particular focus, said Saravanan Kesavan, associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“Retail for the most part is not a place where they’re looking for salespeople,” he said. “They’re looking for retail transaction enablers.”

At every shift, each Old Navy store employee on the sales floor is issued a “Ticket To Win,” which the company describes as “a contest-driven tool” to help managers and associates “focus on how best to serve the customer and drive business results.”

“It’s a little paper that we carry,” Tecotl said, “where we put our goals on it and it shows the main focuses we have.”

Tecotl, the Manhattan-born daughter of a maid and a chimney cleaner who immigrated from Mexico, embraces the multitasking with the unswervable cheerfulness of a retail professional. “All the technology we have also helps me stay organized and do my job quickly,” she said.

In addition to working full time, she is studying at Hunter College, majoring in human biology with a minor in psychology.

The other day, she spent her lunch break at work finishing a presentation about human evolution. Sometimes, she said, “you get a little stressed out. But then you end up liking what you’re doing.”

In 1995, when the 18th Street Old Navy opened as the fledgling chain’s first outpost in New York City, the store was like a walk-through, shop-through museum of feel-good kitsch and knowing whimsy.

The store sold Schwinn classic cruiser bikes, and an old-fashioned lunch counter dished out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sugar doughnuts.

Those extras are gone, replaced, in part, by features that bow to the gods of e-commerce. The first sign a customer sees, hanging over a mannequin display, advertises Old Navy’s Order In Store service. “Can’t find a size?” it says. “Order and Ship Free. Ask an Associate.”

A few feet away is an Easy Online Order Return station with a handle like a library book drop. “This kiosk doesn’t accept items purchased in store,” the screen announces.

Arrows on the floor point the way to the Buy Online Pickup In Store register. As patrons leave, they’re confronted with a sign that seems to encourage them to skip the sales floor altogether: “Want your fashion in a flash? Next time try Buy Online Pickup In Store. Fun, fast, free!”

On a recent Thursday, the afternoon shift at 18th Street started as it always does, with a team huddle. The human resources general manager, Nicole Salzman, asked for a round of applause for the associates of the month — “Yes, Lincoln!” someone called.

The metrics got a shout-out, too. Jasmine Ramos, a customer operations manager, reminded the associates of the targets for Customer Information Capture — signing people up to receive notifications for things like Today-Only specials. “We can do it!” someone said.

The huddle closed with everyone putting their hands in the middle.

“One, two, three, Greateenth!” everyone yelled.

“We always bring it into something positive and cheery,” Tecotl said.

The store director, Eyler, explained: “This store is known in the company as 18th Street, but we call it Greateenth because we’re great. And we expect greatness.”

Tecotl made the rounds, checking in with associates about new merchandise.

“I executed a minor move,” one of the children’s floor leads, Destyni Johnson, told Tecotl. A shipment of boys’ flex pants had arrived in new colors, Johnson explained, so she shifted a rack of bomber jackets “to bring symmetry back to the wall.” Tecotl approved.

By 5:30, after-work shoppers had swelled the checkout line. Salzman got out a stepladder and a megaphone to offer a special available only in-store.

“I’ve got snacks and jelly beans!” she shouted. “Who wants to play a game? First question, who is actually wearing Old Navy right now? Woo!” A man pulled open his coat to reveal a red fleece jacket.

Eyler handed out prizes — a bag of 10 jelly beans and a $1 coupon.

“Who can name all seven dwarves?” Salzman asked. More answers, more prizes.

“All right, guys!” Salzman said. “Who can be the first one to high-five the person in line next to them?” A woman extended her hand to a man in a newsboy cap behind her.

“Who’s already started watching holiday movies?”

“Elf!” the high-five woman called out.

“Oh, that’s my favorite one!” Salzman said.

Shortly before 7, the line was building up again. Tecotl hopped on a register.

“I can take the following guest,” she said. She rang up a woman’s shoes and shirts and tried to interest her in an Old Navy credit card — “20% off your order if you get approved.” No thanks, the woman said. But she did agree to get her receipt by email: one more Customer Information Capture.

The jam at the registers was over. “And there, we got the line,” Tecotl said, and headed back to the sales floor.

©2019 New York Times News Service