Cashiers Battle on the Frontlines of Christmas

You don't know holidays until you've spent a season pounding at a register, says Alex Frankel, author of Punching In.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

You know, it's never easy to go back to work after a holiday.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Nope.

SMITH: But you've to pity the poor frontline retail workers on a morning like this.

STEWART: Yup.

SMITH: I mean, not only is it a huge busy week for Christmas sales, but you've got angry and frustrated people returning presents like Alison.

STEWART: Yeah.

SMITH: She's just - she gets in there, with that sweater that doesn't fit. It's terrible. All the while, these shop clerks have to keep the smile on their face and represent their corporate brands.

It's a tough job, and that's why journalist Alex Franke wanted to do it. He spent two years working the frontline at various places. He folded sweaters at the Gap. He had manned the counter at an Enterprise Rent-A-Car outlet. He took orders at Starbucks. And he wrote a book about the experience called "Punching In." I met him downtown in New York for a tour of some of his former employers.

So we're here at a Starbucks on Broadway. I guess it would be NoHo district. And when you come in to a Starbucks now, I mean, do you view the whole thing completely differently?

Mr. ALEX FRANKEL (Journalist; Author, "Punching In"): Pretty different, yes. The - I now know that there's timers going off, that the people behind that counter are on a schedule and moving to, you know, hit certain timeframes. And whether it's sweeping up, cleaning up, pick the areas where people eat. I came to think of the behind-the-counter as a rolling, an assembly line of sorts for these drinks. And, you know, they go - you, the customer put in your order on one side and the other side out springs your fancy beverage.

SMITH: You say assembly line, but part of the aesthetic of Starbucks is that there's an art to it. You're a barista, you know, of all things. You're not just putting a screw in a product; you're creating this little work of art.

Mr. FRANKEL: You know, that is the part where I did not necessarily - this deed with which they're working to get out these drinks precludes artisanship, craftsmanship, unless the barista behind the bar or the baristas - plural(ph) -are really, really good and careful. You know, there's a range of skill level which you're going to see there.

SMITH: And when somebody's nice to you now in an establishment like this, you must know that they are being graded on it?

Mr. FRANKEL: Well, they are and they aren't, you know. If it's not natural, it doesn't come from them genuinely, you know, you can tell as customers. So hopefully they're not going to be too overly nice. But the company does reward people for remembering customers' names and their drinks, which is a big thing here.

SMITH: So how did you decide to work frontline retail jobs for a couple of different years to get an inside in the business? Why did you do it?

Mr. FRANKEL: Well, I just - I grew more interested in the people who represent companies to the public and service the - on the frontlines between the customers and the company, and I figured from talking to, initially to a UPS driver that there's a lot vested in those people. The company really relies on, you know, a good company really relies on its frontline workers to represent itself to the world. So I knew that the only way that I could tell that story was to start applying of for jobs and working there. I knew I wouldn't get enough by simply interviewing people in the corporate headquarters.

SMITH: Now, just so people know, you did not admit you were a reporter. You got these jobs on your own merit, I take it. And it was often somewhat difficult to do.

Mr. FRANKEL: Yeah. I applied. I never, never told the folks where I was applying - that I was a reporter undercover. I want to get the most pure experience I could, so that was - that involved just applying as if I was walking off the street.

SMITH: So tell us about the jobs you did?

Mr. FRANKEL: Well, I started at UPS delivering as a driver's assistant at the holiday season a few years ago. Then I moved from there and worked at Starbucks. I worked at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Gap and concluded at the Apple Store.

SMITH: Were there indeed things that you learn that you couldn't have gotten just by viewing the organization from the outside?

Mr. FRANKEL: Absolutely. The first job I had working at UPS, the first day I walked in my street clothes, and I put on - I was given - I went down into the stock room, was given a UPS brown uniform, went into the locker room and I put it on. And immediately, looking in the mirror at the locker room, I could feel that I had shifted, that I wasn't the guy who walked in, that I joined the company, the culture in a big way.

SMITH: When you talk about it, in all these jobs there is a distinct culture and it's not an accident. I mean, the companies actually go after particular types of people and work to facilitate that culture.

Mr. FRANKEL: Absolutely. And nowhere is that more evident in the place like Starbucks where as a new hire you get a lot of materials that you read and you watch and you learn and you think about, and all these materials are geared to have you join the Starbucks culture, which is a distinct culture, you know, it's about 20-year-old culture but it's got its spirit.

SMITH: In fact, you didn't get some jobs you applied for, an educated man that you are. What were the ones you couldn't get in?

Mr. FRANKEL: I did not get a job at Whole Foods, Best Buy, The Container Store, and a couple of others.

SMITH: Was this a little bit of a takedown to your ego, you couldn't get a job at Whole Foods?

Mr. FRANKEL: Not at all. I was - I left more impressed by the companies and their ability to screen and try and match the applicant pool to their needs.

SMITH: You think they saw that deep inside you really didn't want to sell electronics or sell groceries?

Mr. FRANKEL: Yeah. And nowhere was that more evident to me than at the Container Store where I applied in a group interview setting, which is a new in-vogue style of interviewing, so you got to see the people who'd been invited to that first cut. And I could see rapidly that the other nine people in my group of ten were much more passionate about selling containers than I was.

SMITH: So we're just a few blocks down from the Apple Store where you also worked at one of those in San Francisco, not this one, so we're going to go and look there. But before we go, you really felt like they had captured something.

Mr. FRANKEL: The Apple Store has matched the people they hire to the customers who come in so that - and the ideal interaction in Apple Store, the customer walks in. They're met by somebody who is knowledgeable, passionate and interested about the products, and the customer learns quite a bit and leaves either with the product or without, but leaves more knowledgeable than they came in. That's the ideal.

SMITH: All right. Let's go.

(Soundbite of door opening)

SMITH: So Alex Frankel and I walked down Broadway, Alison.

STEWART: Uh-huh.

SMITH: And this is amazing because he used to work for UPS. He was just talking about it, and he can spot a UPS worker from a mile away. And, you know - and he could tell the difference between the high-ranking ones have the sort of better fitting brown uniforms.

STEWART: Oh, really?

SMITH: And there are some who are temporary employees of the cheaper brown uniforms, and he pointed out something - the secret UPS van. Apparently, they have so many packages to deliver during the holidays…

STEWART: Yeah.

SMITH: …they just rent unmarked moving vans…

STEWART: No way.

SMITH: …to get to the city.

STEWART: Really?

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah. You'd expect the big brown ones. He's like, look at that, that's a secret UPS truck. And so he gave me this sort of - he showed the way you can't really - once you've worked in these places, you can't get rid of them.

STEWART: Right.

SMITH: They're in your head forever.

STEWART: You never see them the same again.

SMITH: Yeah. And so we made it to the Apple Store on Prince Street.

(Soundbite of crowd)

SMITH: So we've just walked in to the Apple Store here in SoHo, and it's a beautiful structure. I've never seen before. It's a gigantic skyline. It's an old Post Office, but this is pretty much the Apple Store aesthetic - lots of glass, lots of exposed rivets and just sleek lines, right?

Mr. FRANKEL: Well, certainly a lot of people are in here just to use the Internet and check their e-mail. But then beyond that, there are people who walk in the front of the stores called the Red Zone and that is where the people who work here are going to greet somebody walking in and try to ascertain what they're here for, are they interested in buying computer, can they help them. And assuming somebody says I am interested in buying a laptop, then that sales person will take them and probe further. Yeah.

SMITH: Well, you used the word probe. This is as technical term here at Apple Store…

Mr. FRANKEL: Yeah.

SMITH: …which is there is a technique to get in to the customer's head, right?

Mr. FRANKEL: Right. The Apple way of selling, as I was taught, it starts with a position, then permission and then probe. So those three parts are so I'm going to tell you why I'm going to ask you these questions, I'm going to get your permission to ask those questions and then I'm going to probe further to find out why you want what you want, you know? Are you somebody who needs more advance computer that can do video editing and graphics or do you just need a basic machine to, you know, that kind of thing.

SMITH: Now, it sounds he's like a cool guy talking to you about, hey man, I'm just interested in your needs, but there's sales metrics. There's add-ons they want to sell. I mean, there's an actual charts and pressure, right?

Mr. FRANKEL: Yeah. I mean, Apple Store - I have to hand it to the corporation has - they've changed the way they do things and, for me, it's the store in a subtle way. And that includes, as you mentioned, that includes so-called attachments so that as a sales person, I'm going to try to sell these so-called attachments which speak to the nature of attaching the customer to the store in the future, intangibles that will get them coming back again and again.

SMITH: You know, even working at a cool place like the Apple Store when it gets busy, when you have annoying customers, does it become just like any other sales job at some point? Do you stay in the back and complain and just go, oh, you know, I can't believe it. Does it become a grind?

Mr. FRANKEL: You know, I didn't work long enough to make it a grind. It was still interesting to me but, I think, the people who excel in this workplace are people who enjoy doing it and then, for them, you know, selling five computers in a day is a form of a buzz, right? So that, you know, it has its rewards, shall we say.

Unidentified Man: I'm sorry to interrupt you. Are you guys waiting for support here or?

Mr. FRANKEL: We're just waiting for a friend. He's almost done.

SMITH: Have you finally gotten better at lying? I mean, you kind of spent two years of your life lying a lot of the time.

Mr. FRANKEL: I like to think acting. I became a better actor, shall we say.

SMITH: The problem with reading your book and seeing all these stuff that happens behind the scenes at a company, how calculated it is, is that now when someone comes and asks me hey, how is it going, you know, do you need any help? Now, I just feel like they're just - they're spouting lines. They don't actually care about me. I mean, I should have known that anyway, right?

Mr. FRANKEL: I think the best of these companies, there is a genuine interest in the customer. When it comes to these pasted on smiles and scripted lines that some companies do have, I mean, it's up to each customer where they judge, where they draw the line and how they feel. But at a grocery store near my house, you know, they'd say your last name when you buy and, you know, ask if you'd like to be help out to the car, and these kinds of things which to me don't seem really genuine. It's more of what the corporation is telling what to do.

SMITH: All right. They really want to sell us something so let's get outside before we continue talking.

You know, in some ways you're definitely a tourist going through these. You didn't rely on these jobs. This was not your lifelong ambition. It reminded me a little bit of the university students who spend the night out for a night to see what it's like to be homeless. Did you feel like you actually got to touch what it's like to be a retail worker, that your life and your livelihood, really, the rest of your life depends on promotions and these sort of things, that you kind of make fun of it a little bit in the book?

Mr. FRANKEL: You know, there is a limit to how much I could feel as that part, you know, limited engagement employee. So I don't pretend to have understood everything of - and that wasn't my goal. My goal is to really see how does the company transform me into someone who can either believe in what they're doing or not.

SMITH: And did they ever do that? Were there times at which you forgot that you were doing this book project and you were a part - you work hard at the machine?

Mr. FRANKEL: Yeah. The two memorable occasions were at UPS where there would be long days in which I work and work and work, and rain would come and we deliver packages in the dark. And I would definitely have completely forgotten that this is an ulterior project. And, similarly, at Starbucks, there was a day a couple of weeks into my stint there where, you know, we were crushed with customers and understaffed, and there are three of us serving a long line of customers.

But it wasn't until I'd gone home that night did I reflect and think, wow, you know, I was really working as hard as I could based on the knowledge I have of the job and it never - I never stop to think, hey, this is just a temporary gig.

SMITH: Journalist Alex Frankel. The new book is "Punching In."

Thanks for coming to the stores with me. I appreciate it.

Mr. FRANKEL: Hey, that was fun, Robert.

SMITH: And you know what? Afterwards he said that none of the stores ever contacted him and said, hey, what were you doing?

STEWART: Yeah.

SMITH: Sneaking into our stores? They just are pretending it didn't happened.

STEWART: Did you ever work retail?

SMITH: I've never worked retail. I worked behind the scenes as a stock boy.

STEWART: Oh.

SMITH: That's what I like.

STEWART: Yeah. I never had it, anyway, I mean. I was just a waitress, but never the retail thing. Those people are strong. It's all I got to say. Great reporting, Robert.

SMITH: Thank you.

STEWART: Enjoyed it very much.

Hey, coming up, I know you're looking forward to this. You like Make magazine.

SMITH: Love it.

STEWART: We are going to continue our Best of the Best of list today with the best do-it-yourself projects from Make magazine. You got…

SMITH: I'll get my soldering iron out…

STEWART: Yeah.

SMITH: …and get ready to go.

STEWART: Yeah. You got an old VCR? It could be a cat feeder, really.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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