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Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Black Friday

Arriving at 11:50pm to start my Black Friday shift, I was unable to park anywhere near my usual location, and ended up in a far flung lot usually occupied by RVs. I've never seen the carpark so full; clearly this was not going to be a normal day's work.

I walked in chatting with another employee who had similarly parked, and passing a line of people queuing inside the door. The store is open 24 hours, so there was no need for them to queue, but I needed to clock in and meet my supervisor, so I passed on. My shift had originally been scheduled for a 2am start, but a couple of days earlier it was changed (verbally) to midnight, along with all the other 2am starts. That suited me as I would be out earlier, and I wasn't going to get any rest between midnight and 2am anyway. Management had failed to update our shifts on the timeclock, so it took ten times longer than usual to clock in. I then joined the rest of the midnight starters in a brief meeting, and my "A Team" set off for our queue line.

Our WalMart is open 24 hours, so in order to try to calm things down some sales items weren't available until later in the day, 5am in the case of the Electronics department. We also had a dozen or so "Hot Items", for which people would have to queue, and my assignment was the first hot item, which turned out to be a 32" Emerson HDTV, on sale for $198. Customers were already waiting when we set up the queue start point, and within five minutes we had thirty people lined up waiting. They rapidly and calmly passed along to the queue area, which was between two freezer units of ice cream and frozen dinners. My duty was to ensure people didn't skip across some caution tape and try to queue jump.

It soon became clear that I had very little to do. A new person would join the line every few minutes, but I was able to inform people that we had 82 TVs, so everyone so far in line would get theirs, and there was no need for concern. In fact we would allow up to six TV sets to a person, and my supervisor passed along the line handing out queue tickets with a number circled to indicate how many TVs everyone wanted. Some customers who had come in teams were able to release all but one queueholder, and go shopping elsewhere. A few aisles up from me, within sight but outside of speaking distance, the "B Team" were having a quieter time. Their item was a 32" Samsung TV at $328, and it was clear that most people prefer price over quality, because they only had four people in their queue. An Emerson is an OK TV, but a cursory examination of the TVs on offer shows anyone who cares that they occupy the lower end of the spectrum.

Thus passed the first quarter of my shift. One member of our team from the night crew (who start at ten) had to leave around 1:30am for their lunch break, and I moved further up the line to maintain order. Nobody was misbehaving and I chatted amiably with several customers, waiting for 2am when we would hand out wristbands and disperse the queue.  2am arrived, we handed out wristbands, the queue dispersed, and I was free to take a short break. I looked in briefly on my colleagues in Electronics, where it had been two hours of near-chaos. Several PDQs (temporary display units) had been set up with DVDs and Blu-Rays at bargain prices, but due to the average shopper's inability to put an item back where they found it if they decide not to purchase, the DVDs were wandering everywhere. I spent a few minutes trying to zone (i.e. tidy up), but I was fighting the tide, and having learnt from King Cnut I decided to retreat to the relative calm of the break room.

Returning to my station, we had the task of handing out the remaining wristbands (we had plenty left) to any latecomers, and guarding several pallets of Emerson TVs which were wheeled out at about 3am ready for distribution to the customers. As nobody else was stepping up to the plate I went back to guard the TVs. This was the most boring part of the day for me, as the TVs were not going anywhere and I had nobody to talk to, apart from the odd shopper who thought that 3am on Black Friday was the perfect time to buy bananas. I was relieved about 4:20am so I could take my 1/2 hour lunch break and be ready for the handout to start at 5am. Normally we get an hour (off the clock) for lunch, but this time it was shortened, so I stayed in the break room and chatted with colleagues about our day so far. I learnt that the C Team had had a much harder time. Their item was a laptop computer for around $200, and they had less than 20 to allocate, so many customers were disappointed. Moreover, some of these were the people I had seen queuing, who thought (had been told?) they had to wait for a map before progressing to their chosen item. There was a general ruckus, and Management had to come mob-handed and sort it out.

5am, and the time came to hand out the TVs. I alternated with my supervisor cutting off wristbands with blunt-nosed scizzors, and a team of three manouvered the TVs off the pallets and into people's shopping carts. I tried to ensude they put them in with the UPC and serial number visible for the cashiers to scan. A few people had not brought a cart (d'uh), or only one and needed a second, but we had prepared for that by lining up a few spares, so no worries. As an aside, if you go to a WalMart to buy a TV, think about how that TV is going to exit the store, get to, and fit into your vehicle. It is astounding how many people don't.

In the queue for TV pickup were a few people who had not got wristbands so we had to turn them away, with the understanding that if by 6:30am any TVs were unclaimed by wristbandees, they were up for grabs again. I could not fully blame these latecomers, as the wristband system was not widely explained to customers (I never saw a poster or other information source except a sheet I had been given at a meeting several weeks earlier), while TV adverts had been proclaiming a 5am start for the Electronics sale. Most of these people accepted that they would have to wait quietly, but one especially obnoxious lady insisted she was first in the queue, marched up to the front of the queueing area, partly blocking the aisle for others, and then yammered on about how she was first. She wasn't as it happens, and the man who was naturally came forward and got in front of her, and they went at it for a while. We more or less left them to it, and the matter resolved itself without fisticuffs.

We continued to hand out TVs to wristbandees, while the half a dozen non-wristbandees stood waiting in the hopes of a TV. We only had seven or eight left to allocate by this time, and as there were already four other staff present I suggested to my supervisor that I should return to my department to help my colleagues there, and she concurred. Thus I missed the denouement, but learnt later that enough people with wristbands failed to return that everyone present when I left got a TV, so that was lucky. Why anyone would queue for a wristband and NOT come back for the TV is beyond me, but there you go.

Back on my home turf in Electronics, my Department Manager was now present so I reported to her for orders. My first task was to get some more store gift cards which were running low. As part of the sale many items were offering a gift card with the purchase (e.g. an 8GB iPod Touch, normally $225, was still $225 but now came with a $50 gift card. Thus we keep the money in store). I zoomed up to the front registers, collected about 200 gift cards, and took them back to our registers. My next task was to help TV purchasers at the TV Wall, and we had a particular 32" Vizio TV that everyone was asking for. After my boss and I sold six in quick succession, alternately serving customers, a backroom colleage suggested we bring out the whole pallet and set it on the floor, so after checking with management I did just that, with a bit of rearrangement of the existing displays.

Time for my last break, and then to plunge into the remainder of my shift. Having had about two hours sleep in the last 26 hours, and 13 hours worked of the last 21, this passed in an exhausted blur fuelled mostly by adrenaline. One lady bought a 37" Vizio TV that she could have had the following day for $130 less, as we had another sale coming (more on that below), but as she was leaving the area she couldn't wait. I helped her get it into her car (we do this with the bigger TVs and more fragile customers) and she offered me a $5 tip which I refused gently, asking her to give it to charity. I'm not sure if WalMart have a policy against tips but they probably do. That trip to the parking lot gave me a chance for a breath of fresh air and to see some daylight, and it took about 20 minutes to complete the sale. At 9am I bid my colleagues a cheery and weary farewell, and headed home for a shower and couple of hours sleep.


Now, my apologies to people who have been waiting for this report, but my Black Friday was followed by a 7am start on Grey Saturday (a second smaller sale for those who missed Black Friday), another 7am start on Off-White Sunday, and a 10am start on Almost Normal Monday, all full 8-hour shifts, so I haven't had much time or energy for my blog. Shortly before I left work at 7pm yesterday things still weren't 100% straight after BF, and I was informed that the Regional Manager would be coming round Tuesday for a walk round and we had to have everything shop shape. We had been trying to get straight since Saturday morning, but even Monday was far busier with customers than usual, and it's the day we have to reset a number of DVD, Blu-Ray and games modules ready for new titles that come out at Midnight. When it comes to customer service vs. anything else we are supposed to do, customer service always comes first, even if I'm on my hands and knees trying to rescue DVDs that have fallen behind the stacks and the enquiry is for some obscure film that hasn't been seen by more than three people not directly involved in its production. ahem.

I'll be in again this evening, my 6th consecutive day with a shift, but by then the regional visit will be over, and Tuesday evenings are not known for their extreme liveliness.

Black Friday, by the way, is NOT the official WalMart term for this day of shopping madness, but it is the name everyone uses, shoppers and staff, across the country. It refers to the fact that most shopping occurs before sunrise, and is not in any way a racial slur, though some people think that the word Black used in any context is inherently bad. It isn't. WalMart officially referred to this day as "The Event", but that term is neither especially descriptive nor understood, nor is this term passed on to the customers and is thus inevitably ignored.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tea

 Late April 2004

A young man is wandering the hallways of O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. It is his first visit to the USA. After a long flight, and further period processing through immigration, he is very thirsty and desperate for a cup of tea in the fast-vanishing minutes before boarding another flight to Seattle. He is about to discover two inconvenient truths.

1) Sales Tax* messes up every retail purchase for someone used to paying the price shown on an item.
2) Americans don't understand tea.



I was that young man.


As soon as possible after landing in Seattle and meeting up with Beth, I bought a small travel kettle at a Target store. I already had my own teabags in my suitcase, so for the rest of that trip and further visits over the next five years, with Beth passing through the stages of friend, girlfriend, fiance and eventually wife, I was able to brew my own tea, though slowly as the travel kettle would take many minutes to boil. Milk was occasionally a problem, as pints are nearly unheard of, quarts and gallons being the more usual US measure. Just once I was able to get a 1/4 pint of skimmed milk at McDonalds. Most US motels and hotels have a mini-fridge, but I'd usually have to discard unused milk in the morning and get a fresh carton the next evening when we were on roadtrips.

Fast forward to Autumn 2009, and I'm preparing for a permanent move to the US, so I stock up on Typhoo Teabags from the local Pound Store, at 1p a bag. I buy about 25 GBP of tea, most going in our shipped supplies, and enough packed in my suitcase to last until the shipping arrives. It's not that you can't buy tea in the US, but it is more expensive, presumably due to some form of tax. I calculated that at my usual rate of use, I'd have about six months supply, and then I'd have to fall back on the local offerings.



Oops. Due to a slight miscalculation, or maybe a reduction in my tea drinking, I still have about 1,000 bags remaining which are too stale to make a good cuppa. These are how I packed them for shipping, 50 bags in a foil wrap, each in a separate ziplock bag.

So now I have to buy tea in the US, and I've discovered the option most similar to my UK preference. These retail at around $2.50 a box of 80.


* There is no Sales Tax in Oregon.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Beth's Bench

For several weeks Beth has been attending a woodworking class, and a couple of days ago she brough home her finished project.



We wanted a small bench to put in the hallway, so we had something to sit on while putting on or taking off shoes and boots. We worked out the dimensions, and Beth had to make small adjustments to the original plan.


The bench also has a storage compartment inside, useful for gloves and scarves.



We still need to oil the wood to seal it, and it will darken over time through exposure to sunlight.

Winterizing

Eugene is not subject to the extremes of cold and snow that can be found further north in the US, or indeed higher in the hills and mountains nearby, but it's as well to be prepared for the occasional freeze, and this winter is predicted to be a cold one.

Thus yesterday my neighbour Robert showed me how to cut off the water supply to our garden sprinklers, and drain down the system.

   
At the front corner of every property in the neighbourhood is a clutch of service points. I can't call them manhole covers because they're too small for a man.



The larger cover reveals the mains cut off for water supply to the whole house, with a yellow handle, and the water meter.

Last year while still in London Beth and I saw an unoccupied house for sale or rent at the corner of my parents' road which had flooded, with a huge icicle down the side of the house, and water cascading down the stairs (we looked through the letterbox). Luckily we were able to shut off the mains water from outside to prevent further flooding and inform the Estate Agency responsible for the property, but a lot of damage had already been done.


The next cover reveals the cutoff for the garden sprinkler system, and two one-way valves to prevent backflow of water into the mains system. These valves are checked annually to ensure they care still functioning. The tap at the top of the white pipe drains down the system. These are sometimes tucked underground, but ours also acts as a hose connection point.

Soil has washed down into these and other water service holes, so I need to dig them clean at some point. In addition to cutting off the water, we should stuff the holes with cloth or other insulation. Our outside taps we have already covered with specially designed expanded polystyrene boxes, which can be bought at any gardening outlet for a couple of dollars.



Another task we need to tackle is clearing moss off the roof, especially the north facing areas. This is the roof of the toolshed, and you can see the moss collecting at the joints of the composite tiling. The tile is 20-year grade and the roof only 10 years old, but it is wise to keep it in good condition with bi-annual moss clearing. A lot of houses under tall trees have a buildup of leaves and twigs on their roofs, so we're lucky to have no tall trees near the house.

Near the top right of the last photo you might just make out a grey box, which is another outside electric point. This one is placed ready for Christmas lights to be strung round the porch, and though I don't want to go into massive Griswoldry, I think we'll have some outside lights this year.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Visit to Springfield Museum

Springfield is Eugene's smaller neighbor, with about 1/3 the population. Nowadays Eugene-Springfield forms one big metropolis, and the two cities share some amenities, but there is a long-standing rivalry between the two, as I discovered during my visit.

Eugene's first settler was Eugene Skinner who built his cabin on the West side of the Willamette in 1846 near what became known as Skinner's Butte, while Elias Briggs built his cabin on the East side of the Willamette river in 1848, next to a natural spring in a field, and so the town that grew up round his plot became Springfield.

Eugene was founded in 1862, when the town plan was laid out and the roads paved (I think), with Skinner and several other landowners donating land to form the city center, which is now the Downtown area. Springfield was not paved until 1872, and incorporated in 1885 when their first Mayor, Albert Walker, a local blacksmith, was elected.

In 1871 the Oregon and California Railroad wanted to lay their tracks through the Willamette Valley, and a group of Eugene businessmen allegedly bribed the leading financier to put the rails on their side of the river. The increased connectivity caused Eugene to begin to grow faster, and Springfield to become a slight backwater.



Nevertheless Springfield continued to prosper in a slightly sleepy way, with lumber being the main industry, employing half the town's male population by 1911. Hazelnuts (known locally as Filberts) were another major industry, and 98% of the USA's homegrown hazelnuts are still grown here in the Willamette valley.

The main downtown streets in Springfield were paved in 1872, with Main street running East/West. Showing a shocking lack of imagination, the streets to the north were labelled A Street, B Street, C street etc, and to the south, South A Street, South B street etc. The road nearest the river were Water Street, Garden Street and Mill Street, and then once again imagination flagged and they went with  2nd Street, 3rd street etc numbering from West to East. etc.



A modern map of Downtown Springfield shows this mostly unchanged, with alleys running East-West across the blocks to serve the backdoors of businesses, just as they did in 1872. Looking at a Google Map, 2nd and 3rd Street have become Pioneer Parkway West and East for most of their length, while the street numbers to the East now reach 79th Street. South A Street and its companions are much diminished, with most development pushing to the North and East of Downtown. The Western edge of Springfield is fixed by the river and the I5 Interstate which separates it from Eugene.

Returning to our history lesson, by 1911 half the City was working for the Booth-Kelly lumber mill, so it was an unparalleled tragedy when it burned to the ground. This could have destroyed the City, but the company swiftly rebuilt the mill, and Springfield survived.  


Between 1908 and 1913 a major contribution to the city's coffers was sale of alcohol. Eugene went "dry" in 1908, so Eugenians travelled to Springfield, often on the trains that now ran there, to get their cheers. There were more bars in Springfield than churches for a few years, until in 1913 Springfield also went dry. I can only assume that the city was getting a bad reputation, or maybe too much property damage, to continue acting as Eugene's nightclub.

In the 1920s those sharp practising Eugenians pulled another fast one when they sold a plot of land to become a Southern Pacific train terminal for $1 - it had cost local businessmen $250,000. This pretty much killed Junction City to the North of Eugene, which had named iteself for the rail junction it never got, and Springfieldians were't too chipper about it either.



Sprignfield has retained a degree of that small town feel that Eugene has mostly lost, and during a walk along Main Street in the Fall sunshine I came across several Antique and Junk shops, remeniscent of Hungerford in Berkshire. Springfield has its own shopping Mall, the Gateway Mall, and several large bog box stores, all nestled against the I5 to grab passing trade, but it retains a certain charm that Eugene's Downtown area is currently struggling to regain.

Springfield has one great claim to fame - it is the (unofficial) home of The Simpsons.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The Fog


Fog is a very common event in Eugene during the damper months, and more often than not over the last few weeks we've woken to 100 yard visibility. This burns off if as the sun gets to it, usually between 10am and 1pm, and we have a few golden hours before darkness falls and the fog starts to enclose us again.


This picture taken on a joint cycle ride shows some of the gorgeous colors of the trees in Fall. The fallen leaves, as in London, can become a nuisance and block gutters and drains, so residents are encouraged to rake them up or use leaf blowers to assemble them in piles, which are collected by the city at intervals. Luckily we don't get high winds often, so the piles of damp leaves have mostly remained piles.


Two other features of a walk or cycle ride in the morning are the spider webs and the fungi. The spiders are busy overnight stringing their webs everywhere on trees and bushes, and especially on cars and trucks parked under the trees. We have several large and handsome webs hanging off lamps and eaves, and the spiders are encouraged to remain outside.


This mushroom (or is it a toadstool?) provides another splash of color a couple of houses along from us, and I've taken pictures of several other types on my walks with the vague hope of later identification. Eventually I'll do a post just about the mushrooms (and possibly the spiders), which people can skip if it's boring to them. My aunt Susan is a keen botanist and I've absorbed a fascination for fungi from her, though in my case it is backed by a refreshingly broad absense of knowledge. I like their colors and shapes. The keys are for scale.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Restraint of Beasts

The next US Holiday in the Calender after Halloween is Thanksgiving, which falls on the 4th Thursday in November. This won't be my first Thanksgiving in the US, I had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday at my BIL Chris and and SIL Maureen's house in Texas, but it'll be the first in my own US home.

I like Thanksgiving as a Holiday. The focus is not gifts or chocolate, carols or cheesy songs, greetings cards or decorations, but simply getting together with family and friends, eating a meal and spending time together and being grateful for the good things we have, celebrating a (hopefully) successful harvest and surviving another year. The Retail industry can't make much money out of that however, even American families can only eat so much roast turkey and pumpkin pie, so they invented Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, a day of Sales mayhem and misery for retail staff.

Two years ago a WalMart employee was killed by a stampeding crowd, while protecting a pregnant customer who had been knocked to the floor. As a consequence of this, WalMart has employed crowd control specialists (who have worked the Superbowl for years as well as thousands of smaller events) to organise and assist in "The Event", as this sales day is dubbed at WalMart.

All this is of particular relevence to me, as I have been selected to be on the Crowd Management A Team in my store. Our store is open 24 hours so we don't have quite the same mad rush and panic when the doors open, but there's still potential for injury to customers and staff, so our job is to guide customers through the store, ensure orderly queuing, controlled but steady movement along the designated queuing aisles, and to keep customers calm and moderately happy while they queue.

The store will have "Hot Items" on sale, such as big screen TVs and other expensive items, and the A Team get the hottest item of the lot. When that's sold out we split up and reinforce the other teams (B through J), and so on. Queuing starts at midnight and ends at 5am, so I'll most likely be starting my shift at midnight, which is bound to put a dent in my Thanksgiving dinner - assuming I'm not working that day anyway.

Large items that cannot safely be manouvered  through the crowd and out of the store will be collected at a special pick-up point between 5am and 6am. If I start my shift at midnight I'll be done by 9am, by which time the second rush of customers starts, those people who were at other stores for their initial purchases.

It may all sound a bit of a grind, but I'm looking forward to it with interest. Part of my enjoyment of living as an immigrant in the US comes from doing new things and having new experiences, and this will certainly be a new experience. I know that I've been selected for my track record of reliability, responsibility and maturity, and willingness to take on any task set for me with enthusiasm, and I'm determined to perform at my best.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Halloween

Yesterday was 31st October, and the day I finally got to dress up and scare the local kids.



Actually very few were scared, though I did get a compliments from the various pirates, Transformers, clowns, fairies, superheroes, cats, crayons (!), sharks, and whomever and whatever else came round.  


Our first visitors came round just before 5pm, before dark, and that set the trend for a few visitors every hour. We had plenty of time in between visits, during which I practised my spooking routine and adjusted my uncomfortable costume, and we took occasional walks up the road to see if we could drum up any more interest.


My $20 Walmart costume was supplemented by black jeans, sneakers and t-shirt. The bony chestplate had a "dripping blood" pump, but it didn't really work, and trying to fill it I got red dye all over my hands. Another time I'll ignore the pump and just leave it dry.  


I invite victims visitors to "reach into the bowl of death".

Sometimes Beth had candy duty and sometimes I did. Beth wore her "Budget Ninja" t-shirt, which glowed in the dark. Overall we had a lot of fun, though it was quieter than some years. Today our neighbour Judy told me she had 31 visitors (in groups of 2 or more), compared to over 70 last year. We think that being a Sunday evening quietened things down, as the kids had to be in school the next day.

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