Stacking Shelves Ain’t Easy

I was watching the BBC news this morning, and grew increasing irritated about repeated comments of “it’s easy stacking shelves”.

These people have clearly never done it! This was presenters as well as guests brought on to talk about the topics, one for it and one against. They all seemed to say exactly that though, and it really raised my hackles.

I’ve worked in retail for a number of companies – most horrifically Asda, when I took a job with them as a Christmas temp to get off the dole. I quit there about 5 months later (I grafted so they kept me on after the immediate Christmas rush) and moved to Co-op as it didn’t involve a 30 mile bus commute – I could walk instead, and it was just over a mile.

The job was not easy!

Working in the alcohol department, stock is heavy, it attracts dust, things get broken and require cleaning. You have to manage stock levels, prioritise stock to get out when you have limited staff to put it out in busy periods (and need to focus on getting stuff out that sells). You have to make sure the products are laid out in a sensible way, with similar items, and you have to make sure that the bottles face forwards (you would not believe how many people used to find this hard!). I’m sure I’m forgetting some bits, particularly from Asda, as it was a job I hated, and I’ve blotted as much of it from my memory as possible.

I took the job because I didn’t want to be on the dole. There was nothing else available that I had any skills for. I was 18 – I didn’t have any skills back then. I commuted for nearly 90 minutes, on crappy smelly buses. It wasn’t a proud time in my life.

I then moved to the Co-op where I ran the frozen department of the Hayling Island store. That job was slight better, if only because I could walk to work. But, it was in freezers, at temperatures approximately -36 degrees. There wasn’t much in the way of specialist equipment. I used my own gloves for several months before finally convincing my employers to purchase some that were designed for that situation. I always used my own coat, as there wasn’t one provided.

You think its easy working at -36 degrees? Doing a stock take in there for 4-6 hours? Do me a favour!

Anticipating demand on sale stock. Making sure you ordered the products that ran low. Making sure your actual stock levels matched up with what the computers said. Locating stock that was hidden away at the back of the freezer. These things would still challenge me today!

I still clearly remember the day I passed my probation there. They told me I was an excellent prospect for management training, and that if I wanted to, I could start supervising at nights and weekends. I said that what I wanted in the future was a more typical job, perhaps not necessarily *just* 9-5, but where weekends were sacred. My manager said “that doesn’t exist any more”.

My response was thanks, but no, and I signed up to go back to college the very next day. Working at the Co-op and Asda spurred me into having some drive in my life. If that hadn’t happened, who knows, I might have been a manager of a Co-op by now. Would I be happy? Probably not, but I’d be employed.

I worked 35 hours a week minimum to put myself back through college. I’d broken my ankle the first time I went to college and didn’t have the grades to get in to University. So, I went and got them, working hard throughout both on my studies (well, sort of, the qualification was mostly stuff I “knew” but couldn’t prove) and at work. I paid my parents rent throughout this too – why should I get to live there for free, on a handout? They weren’t exactly rolling in the cash, and I ate a lot of food, so fair was fair!

I got to university and took a job at HMV. I loved this job, but it wasn’t that easy either. There were very defined section standards that were to be adhered to at all times. No more than 6 CDs per pocket, no more than 4 artists per pocket either.

Plenty of staff couldn’t grasp those simple rules years in to working there, as it was too easy to take short cuts. Chart walls were always to be laid out in particular ways. Store card sign ups (god I hated selling those, but sometimes people asked for them) involved some stupidly complex forms, and then involved using a crackly phone line to speak to someone in a really thick Scottish accent that I could barely understand.

Particularly at HMV, customer experience was paramount. You’d bend over backwards to help people find what they were looking for, suggest alternatives or additional recommendations. Manning the tills at Christmas time was bloody tough too. You try and serve 50 people per hour, every hour for an 8 hour shift and tell me that’s easy!

These are physically demanding jobs. They are mentally exhausting. Yes, they can be horrible. But, you know what – I am really glad I did them! I’ve worked labouring at a concrete construction yard and as a gardener too. They were pretty tiring as well, but “stacking shelves” was up there in being tough. It really shouldn’t be belittled in the way I am constantly seeing at the moment

I don’t really know enough of the details of these schemes to pass comment on them specifically, but I will say this. My experiences got me ready for the world of work that I find myself in today.

These days I am self motivated to get things done. I haven’t needed people to tell me what to do for years. I just do it – it gets done. It does seem to me that some people today “expect” to get given things on a plate without putting that graft in. But that perception of mine is almost certainly warped by the same media that irritated me to write this post

I don’t really know that people should be doing this work for free. The premise of doing 2-4 weeks work experience, giving you a chance to impress, work well in the team, learn some useful skills is a good one. My own experience from doing work experience at school for free suggests that this probably isn’t the reality of the situation. That’s sad, and probably why it’s getting so much media attention.

If I had one message to the younger than me folks of today though, it would be this. Don’t turn your nose up at any opportunities. Take them, excel at them – get what you can from it. Move on and develop. It’s all down to you though, no one is going to “give” it to you.

UPDATE: Based on some conversation I’ve had on Facebook, I should clarify I lived in a comfortable house with my parents throughout most of this period. I mostly used the money for entertaining myself. If you define “easy” for a job in a way that means “if most people could do that job” then yes, stacking shelves is probably easy. I just don’t think its helpful to belittle the effort that people put in to work hard in these roles.

7 thoughts on “Stacking Shelves Ain’t Easy

  1. Pete, I completely agree.

    I grew up in a family of retailers so it was ingrained in me since childhood. If you think it’s easy try unloading a lorry full of pallets loaded with baked beans.

    Then try to take those same pallets and fill the shelves.

    Having said that dealing with the public is amazing and something I truly wish every online marketer NEEDS to go through. Work with your prospects, face to face, on the shop floor. You’l learn a lot!

  2. Definitely – my first experiences of working as an online marketer is that everyone hid behind emails rather than talking to their customers. 

    Giving good customer service is remarkably easy once you know how, and its deeply ingrained within me these days – it comes without even thinking about it

  3. Oh pete, where to begin…

    I worked at the mighty Budgens for a year or so. There is nothing difficult about stacking shelves, except maybe making sure you don’t fall asleep mid shelf.

    People aren’t doing the work for free. They still receive their JSA whilst they do it. Personally, I think we should force the work shy little fecks to earn their benefits.

    I do find something slightly odd about your ending note though “Don’t turn your nose up at any opportunities. Take them, excel at them – get what you can from it”. Isn’t turning your nose up at it exactly what you did when you turned down their management scheme? 😉

  4. fair points mate… I’ll be honest though, I did find working in shops a graft at times; it wasn’t pleasant, but I worked bloody hard at it, and knew I’d done a days work most of the time. I learnt plenty of lessons from retail. 

    “Isn’t turning your nose up at it exactly what you did when you turned down their management scheme?”

    I used that as motivation to get out more than anything, but I can see why that looks hypocritical. I guess the point I was trying to make is that you take what you can from the experiences and use them to spur you on to do things to better yourself. For some that might mean management training – for me, it meant going and getting the qualifications I’d need to get the sort of job I wanted in the longer term.I don’t know enough about the scheme to pass too much judgement. I think the work experience concept is a good one, I just suspect that the reality of how it all works is rather different. 

  5. Nice blog post Pete – I think we can take from this that people have so many pre-conceived ideas of how jobs are done. From shelf stackers to gardeners, drivers to SEO experts – people probably think that your job is easy – sat behind a computer all day performing “dark magic” to get sites ranking!

    All have their pros and all have their cons. I personally find it more tiring sat behind a computer all day as it is mentally tiring – I’ve done my fair share of manual labour – digging fish ponds, order picking in a warehouse to get me through college, working on farms, etc – all were knackering, but I was always able to nip for a pint and be alert mentally – where as now I feel a tad jaded on an evening and very rarely pop in for a pint. 

    It all comes down to peoples aspirations and if any particular experience spurs you on to better yourself, then I think it’s a good experience. 

  6. Amen, Peter. All seems part of the ongoing trends to portray the lower social classes as dumb, lazy, and somehow ‘lesser’ human beings. It’s a disgusting trend and one that is, I believe, responsible for the fairly recent social unrest in some parts of Britain.

    I stacked shelves for years during my late highschool and early college years. I’ve had a job for every single day of my life from the age of 15 onwards, starting with early morning newspaper deliveries (5:30 AM starts every weekday, 6:30 AM on Saturdays), stacking shelves at a local supermarket, then at the till at the same supermarket (before we had barcode scanners, so I had to memorise 2500 prices), stacking pallets at a local fruit & veg auction (put my back out doing that at age 17, that injury has haunted me ever since), before my affinity with technology landed me a job at a technical call centre after school hours.

    I was unemployed once for three months in my early twenties, but after the first week I took up a part-time gig at a local taxi company as a backup driver and emergency parcel delivery guy, and I worked the much-loathed evening & weekend shifts at the same taxi company, until I got my career back on track with a job at Philips’s internet department.

    Never sneeze at the low paying jobs. They’re not always as easy as you’d think, and there’s genuine pride to be had from doing those jobs well. The only reason I’m not still in a low paying job is because I’ve got a brain the size of a small planet. That totally random fact alone determined my later status in life.

    Never judge anyone on what they do for a living. Except bankers. They’re parasites.

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