I received a comment from Chris, who had a lot to say about Zellers. In fact, so much so that the comment was really too long. So I asked Chris if I could use the comment for a guest post. I’ve edited it a bit and toned down the language but here’s my first guest blogger.
I worked in two different Zellers stores from 1991 to 1997 and have always had fairly strong opinions on why the chain would fail. In the early days of my employment I was working in a very recently converted former Towers store. Immediately I was thrust into an environment full of grumpy employees who were taken over as well, who had their wages frozen indefinitely as the pay scales of Zellers were less generous of those at Towers. It is quite possible that some of these folks were just plain overpaid to begin with, and maybe that’s what killed the Towers chain amongst many other things. Anyways, Zellers did not seem to bring any sense of excitement to anyone. Many felt they were a small fish being gobbled up by a whale. I once overheard a former Towers assistant store manager say that the takeover was handled badly, with no regard for the employees. Surprise surprise.
I was hired as a cashier. Before long a full-time position opened up in the Housewares department of the store. I found myself inheriting a complete disaster. Boxes had been opened, were torn and tattered, merchandise was strewn across the floors, display models were incomplete, missing, or existed for items no longer sold, and items were not where they should have been on the shelves. At first I was shocked, but as time wore on, I realized that I was only expected to have things picked up off the floor and thrown back on the shelf each night, so that the cleaners could mop the floors. This was a far cry from my previous job in a grocery store where we could not leave the store until everything looked good. This included “facing” items on the shelves- retail lingo for bringing things to the front so that merchandise was accessible and made the shelf look full even if it wasn’t. At Zellers the only time this practice was followed was prior to what we called “Royal Visits,” when managers above the district manager level would visit. Why didn’t these people leave the visits unannounced, show up dressed like regular joes, and see what the front lines actually looked like on a normal basis? These guys, and yes, they were ALL mostly grey haired tall men in impeccable suits, wanted everyone to make a huge fuss over them.
The sad part was the way the store and department managers were treated. They were essentially given no budget, yet were expected to have things looking spic and span at all times. Sometimes the upper management guys would force a store manager to clean up a department himself while his shocked employees looked on. It was a real power trip for these bullies.
Oddly enough, I was encouraged to apply for the store management program, and being a high-school educated kid with nothing to lose, I took them up on the offer. In late 1993 I started my first assignment in another store, and for some time was pleased to be amongst employees that seemed more positive. I was told almost immediately that the store I was now working in had not seen the salary cuts of the previous store, but that they were coming. Almost overnight the location went from being a decent place, to the same as the first store. Somehow they thought that less employees would save them enough money to make the store more profitable. I learned many things about how the company operated:
- Aisles cluttered with junky unappealing items that were old, tattered or had been returned. We were told NOT to reduce these items. The end result is that they never sold and wasted space. The stationery department was one of the worst.
- Sale items were never in stock. In fact, the store had stock, but the merchandise was on a pallet deep in the stockroom where no one could get it. The stockroom was tiny, so tiny, in fact, that in stuffing it with more pallets, the aisles between the rows of pallets were eliminated. Essentially we had a block of pallets about 8 across and 10 deep, the only way anyone would find the merchandise would be if they hauled each pallet out and stuck it in the aisles of the store. This, of course, was forbidden.
- Outdated computerized inventory system. I’m not sure if it was replaced, but up to 1997 the PIMS system was in place. This system, developed in the 70’s, was supposed to automatically re-order items as they got low. Someone had the great idea of building a little caveat into the system. If the number of items went into a negative, the item would not be re-ordered and a problem would be flagged.This kept happening on stuff like sewing items, and since the store didn’t have anyone investigating the problem, entire aisles were full of empty shelves and pegs. Customers came back time and time again asking for items. We essentially looked like idiots when we told them we didn’t know.
- Poor quality merchandise. The worst by far was the crappy Permatech/Eurotech line of small appliances. Sure they were cheaply priced, but even for $10 I would expect a toaster to work when I plugged it in. We saw the same garbage returned over and over for years, but they kept selling the junk.
- Credit. These jerks made 30% of their profit on credit. You know, the kind of profit that requires people to be slow on their payments so they can reap huge interest charges. Cashiers were hounded to push this on everyone, to the point that they were giving long spiels to customers, like a Jehovah Witness at your door. Even worse, Zellers willfully declined to use debit machines in their stores for fear that people would stop using their credit cards. They finally made the switch sometime after 1997, likely due to customers leaving merchandise at the register and leaving in a huff.
- Lack of staff. Did you know that in the 1960’s, American railroad companies tried to save money by deferring maintenance projects? The result was bad track with slow trains, and a mess that ended up costing a fortune to fix, unless of course, they went bankrupt first as customers turned to trucks. Zellers somehow thought they could run stores without those pesky employees gobbling up their profits. A prime example was how they let one employee be in charge of helping customers in a 30,000 square foot area on a Sunday afternoon. Most times there was no one to cover lunches. Other staff had to abandon ship at a second’s notice to open another cash registers to reduce exorbitantly long lineups. Cashiers were getting lunch breaks at 2 and 3 in the afternoon “because it was just too busy”. They were made to feel that they were part of some sort of important struggle to help their comrades survive or something. Customers in the meanwhile were looking for help in the aisles, and nobody was there to give it.
- Cheesy gimmicks. Zellers was a firm believer in this 1950’s corny style of advertising and promotions. Instead of trying to sell cool stuff, they resorted to silly balloon drops, flashy flyers, Zeddy, and good old “Zellers Radio”. What was Zellers Radio, you ask? A stupid tape message that would play every 10 minutes that usually began with “Shhhhhaaaappers!!” The elevator music was no better. It seemed they did not want to deviate from the practice of appealing to the senior citizen crowd. The TV ads weren’t any better. For the longest time they were a televised version of the weekly flyer. Later on they got some Hillary Duff clothes in their stores and managed to get some decent ads going. This did not last, and an ad campaign was launched with purported Zellers employees saying “we’re getting better and better”. Wow. Talk about admitting you suck.
- Ridiculous policies for shoppers. Come on, if someone isn’t satisfied, give them their money back. People usually got store credits after getting the runaround and waiting in long lineups. Supervisors would tell their employees to enforce these policies until someone really lost it. What then? Give the customer what they wanted and make the employee look like a complete asshole in front of them. Seems these little Hitlers didn’t have the balls to enforce these policies themselves.
- Clueless upper management. The only way these morons knew how to react was to fire people. It seemed like management shuffles were happening constantly as someone got the boot for underperforming. And do you know who didn’t get fired? Guys like the Regional Director of Stores who showed up on the front lines during a “Royal Visit” and yelled at people.
- Panic at the sight of Walmart, but reacting like a deer in the headlights. Instead of trying to figure out what makes Walmart a generally better place to shop, Zellers instead tried to undercut them on many items, and lost an arm and a leg in doing so. Walmart isn’t just about price. It was also about the “shopping experience” that Zellers never seemed to be able to figure out.
- Morning meetings. The dreaded daily “pep talk” was nothing more than an attempt into performing better OR ELSE. What was discussed? The weeks sales, which didn’t really register in most people’s minds, and a couple of minutes of badgering employees to get more credit card customers, and just generally work harder if sales were supposed to get better. One time our store manager decided to go off on a rant about employee morale and how the employees had only themselves to blame for it. In his mind the skeleton crew often appointed to run the place should work twice as hard to achieve the results of double the people. He couldn’t understand why people were not motivated to shed blood, sweat and tears at minimum wage.
I left the company fifteen years ago. I had always wondered if things had improved after I left, and after reading other people’s blogs posted since the announcement that Target was acquiring Zellers leases, it was obvious they barely changed at all. It was eerie to read what employees were saying about the company as it was so familiar.
Shame on you, Zellers, and good riddance. It’s sad that the employees of the companies are the ones to suffer, while the upper management folks will all leave with a huge chunk of change. Pathetic.