Retail Anthropology

If nothing else, working retail gives me plenty of time to observe people. But that observation is not just limited to the customers. Sure, you get to know the different types of customer: which ones need a bit more help, which ones will talk your ear off, and which ones to avoid like the plague. And yeah, you get to observe your coworkers: the energetic one, the cynical one, the petty one, the one who’s just there to do their job adequately and move on. But for me, the real interest is in watching the managers.

Managers are in a different class than the rest of us working peons, as they have the capability to make decisions that actually have an effect on things in the store. At my job, I regularly encounter a few layers of management: department, senior, and store. Department managers are responsible for a certain section of the store. Senior managers oversee several department managers in a task group. Store managers, obviously, are in charge of the store (I’m including assistant store managers in this group).

I get on well enough with my department manager. I appreciate that they’re on the ground working with me most mornings, and that they value my feedback to a certain extent. For instance, I’ll be asked for advice on where to put things, as well as asked to help with some short-range planning tasks. There is a power differential, true, but I still feel respected. Plus, even if I advise them, the final decision (and responsibility is theirs.

Senior managers are a slightly different story. Because they have to oversee multiple departments, they are by necessity a little more detached from the day-to-day workings of the department. You’re more likely to hear something to the effect of “Do this, this, and that” from these managers, without them taking into account (in my opinion) the necessities of what those changes would entail. They swoop in, shake things up, and then move on, leaving other people to “work out the details” (read: clean up their mess).

I don’t interact much with the store managers, but they seem like nice enough people. They are, again by necessity, a bit more removed from the day-to-day workings, but the ones at my job seem fairly in tune with what needs to be done to meet their requests. I admire their ability to keep so many details of the business in their head at a time.

But for me, what’s really interesting is seeing managers interact with other managers that outrank them. A department manager, while nearly master of their domain, is still subjected to veto from a senior manager. As such, care must often be taken when presenting an idea to a senior manager lest they decide to change things to feel useful.

That may have been a bit uncharitable. But if you’ve dealt with middle management, you know how pointy their hair can get.

The real entertainment comes when senior managers interact with the store managers. For some reason, I can’t help but picture a dog rolling up on its belly before the pack alpha. Their whole demeanor changes: rather than making decisions from on high, they become much more appeasing and willing to please. They become subordinates, which is not a position grunts like me normally see them in.

I’m sure my girlfriend, with her background in anthropology, would have a field day with this sort of thing. But even I have enough insight to see things that amuse me. Has anyone else noticed anything similar? I can see it happening in any work environment that has multiple levels of authority.