Retail Workers: Unsung Heroes

Published March 28, 2020

“Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper and flushable wipes to 1 per guest. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Signs like this have appeared in stores nationwide during the coronavirus pandemic. In the process of researching my next book – a follow-up to Corporate Crap called Retail Crap: Tales from the Front – I have gained even more respect for retail workers and what they go through dealing with the public.

While most of us are being told to stay home, retail workers – at least those working in grocery, drug and department stores that sell food and sundries – remain on the front line. When you think of essential businesses, you think of hospitals and other medical providers, first-responders, firemen and police. You don’t usually think of workers at Costco, Walmart, Target, and other retail employees.

These people, most of whom make little more than minimum wage, are risking their lives and those of their loved ones to stock shelves, ring up groceries, and take unprecedented abuse from the buying public. My wife is a manager (or “team lead” as they’re called) at our local Target. At least she still has a job as we roar into a recession. But I worry if it’s worth the risk.

“We had over 9,000 visitors in our store the day the stay-at-home order took effect,” says one store employee. “I feel like my odds of winning the lottery are better than staying well.”

I would like to think people washed their produce before the pandemic, but it becomes even more important when half the public are imbeciles. “Saw a woman at our store taking grapes out of the clear plastic bag they come in with her bare hands and putting them back into circulation. When I asked what she was doing, she said, ‘Is that not allowed?’ as if that made it okay.”

Being married to a Target store manager, I hear all the stories first-hand of the grief retail employees put up with every day – and that’s when there isn’t a pandemic. But the coronavirus has really brought out the worst in people. It has caused people “to start buying everything up like the world was ending.” Then they berate the guy stacking potatoes because there’s no toilet paper.

“I know you have more in the back,” they snarl, as if every retailer not only has a ‘back’ but that it is filled with hidden merchandise. Or, “Can’t you check the warehouse?” as if there’s a replenishment center down the road. “Nor does ‘the back’ contain house elves able to miraculously produce the product you are looking for,” says one retailer.

Retail workers always must deal with shoplifters, who seem to believe they have a God-given right to take shit that doesn’t belong to them and then are indignant when they’re caught. But the coronavirus has made things even uglier.

“At the supermarket where I work there is a plastic hand sanitizer dispenser on the wall. A guy walked up to it, broke it open, took the bag of sanitizer out and walked out with it. Unfortunately, I’d have gotten in trouble if I’d gone after the scumbag. But geez!”

The whole toilet paper thing is particularly ugly. No, the coronavirus isn’t caused by a dirty ass. But you’d think it was. There have been fistfights in the aisles over toilet paper. Customers mugged in parking lots over toilet paper. Stories abound.

 “People broke into our back room through the back door to get toilet paper. A customer was telling people to go around back, that we were stashing toilet paper back there. There was almost a riot.”

Customers lucky enough to get toilet paper fear getting mugged in the parking lot.

“I bought two 18-packs of toilet paper at Walmart,” says one customer. “The cashier asked me if I wanted help out to my car. I said I could handle it. In retrospect, I think it was probably for the protection of myself and my daughter.”

“I am carrying mace daily,” says one retail worker. “I don’t know if I will ever be able to see people the same way again.”

“If it was up to me, I would just toss a pallet of toilet paper into the parking lot and let the animals maul themselves over it,” says another.

My wife’s biggest peeve has been all the people coming to her store to shop for non-essential items, and all the kids off of school who then go to Target and use it as a playground.

“Hey, parents out there,” she says. “I know your kids are off school, but turning them loose at the nearest Target to fill their time is plain irresponsible. What is the point of closing all the schools, libraries and restaurants if the kids are just hanging out at the stores with their friends – bouncing basketballs, riding scooters in the aisles, laughing, and knocking stuff over?”

Retail workers liken their situation to being in the band on the Titanic that kept playing while the ship was sinking. “All retail workers should be getting hazard pay.”