Intentional Observation: Working retail

These are a few observations so far from the part-time retail job I took a couple months ago at Kohl’s.

Wastefulness: Kohl’s gives stewardship of our environment a lot of attention. They recycle cardboard, paper and plastic, lights are on timers or motion sensors and a number of stores run on solar power (all of which is not just good stewardship, but smart business). However, as a highly trained professional [box unloader] I get to see first hand how ridiculously some of the merch is packaged by the manufacturers for shipping to the stores.

Some of the objects I so professionally unbox — though not most in my opinion — warrant very careful packing. Damage during shipping is not good business. There are a select few of the items I so professionally unpack that are wrapped in plastic, inserted into styrofoam, taped together, put in a box and then put in another box represent what I’ve come to see as an endemic wastefulness in American culture (Granted, some of these things maybe packaged in China.).

What I can’t figure out is why a manufacturer would do this. A company would be more profitable (which of course is the end-all in our corporate cultures) if they didn’t purchase superfluous packaging and then pay wages to the person who’s packing up the products. I don’t understand; any company worth its salt will have researched just how many packing peanuts or layers of bubble wrap are required to protect their products during shipping. So maybe I’m wrong about these objects being excessively wrapped and taped and styrofoamed.

But I don’t think so.

Management: Management and coworkers make all the difference, and Dilbert is much too close to the truth in so many of our workplaces. I already knew this and so did you, but it’s worth repeating. So many people I know work retail jobs they are not very happy with, mainly because of the attitudes and ignorance of their managers and coworkers. The people I work with happen to be very easy to get along with and quite helpful, to customers and other employees. Proverbs chapter 17 reminds us that “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife.”

Consumerism: The retail world screams materialism, consumerism to me. It’s somewhat ironic in my mind that I’m working retail at all, as an aspiring artist who plugs all things handmade.

In and of itself, mass production — and big box retailers which seem to have grown out of the assembly line — isn’t evil. Finding ways to work more efficiently is, I think, virtuous. So much of the industrial and technological revolutions, though, end up as integral parts of our daily lives before any of us stop to think about how they will change us as individuals and as a culture. Any potential consequences be damned in favor of progress (whatever that really is) and the almighty dollar!

Buy-in: As a bit of a side note, I’ve been surprised that nothing has allowed me to really buy into Kohl’s as an employee. I suppose this isn’t something a lot of people working part-time retail jobs expect at their workplace, but I’m learning that I’m the kind of guy who wants to be involved mentally, not just as a grunt.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind the grunt work. It’s actually nice to be on my feet a little after a few years behind a desk for eight hours a day. But I’d like a deeper reason to be involved with the company, and so far it hasn’t presented itself.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to Intentional Observation: Working retail

  1. Sarah Jane says:

    That sounds pretty similar to my experience working retail some years back. Well, except for the environmental stewardship part; I worked for a store whose loss-prevention policies prohibited recycling on the grounds that it would be easier to steal things by taking them out with the recycling than by throwing them away into a locked dumpster. Working the other side of the counter was really enlightening for me — it opened up a completely different way of understanding materialism and consumption. I don’t miss it, but that experience was a lot more valuable than the $6/hour they were paying me!

  2. jim janknegt says:

    I just finished reading Shopcraft as Soulcraft-

    It is a really good read about the value of work. He recommends learning a trade as a trade cannot be shipped overseas, it must stay local. I like his idea. I always thought artist should be taught a trade along with their art.

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