I realize Christmas is over (I hope you all had a good one), but I still have retail on my mind. First, a quick lesson on retail advertising, then a story about when I worked retail at Tower Records.
When I first started freelancing, I got booked at a place with a pretty smart Creative Director who explained retail to me. I had never worked on a retail account, and admittedly, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. There’s not a lot of opportunity to be creative.
Creatives who have never worked on a retail account tend to look at the work and think, “Wow, lots of opportunity there. If I worked on the account, I’d have some fun with it and bring some personality to it, instead of just saying stuff like ‘On sale now!’ and showing big prices.”
That’s what I thought, and in my first meeting with the CD, we discussed that. He said that’s exactly what he thought when he first started working on the account. And he did exactly that. He got rid of the huge prices and exclamation points. He did these beautiful ads showing the product (sofas) and explaining the quality and comfort and all the reasons to buy, in a smart and inviting style.
And sales promptly went down.
So he started introducing some pricing back into the ads. And sales started coming back up.
As the smart headlines and clever copy and conceptual design got smaller and smaller, and as the prices and promotional language got larger, sales rose.
Eventually, the advertising ended up back where it originally started, and sales were strong once again.
I leave it to you to speculate on why retail advertising works, but the fact remains, it does. I suspect it has something to do with mindset and context and perception, but it doesn’t really matter. As long as you understand that it isn’t broken, so don’t bother trying to fix it.
On to my Tower story.
I worked at several retail places when I was young, but Tower Records was the best. I worked at Licorice Pizza and Music Plus too (and Miller’s Outpost and Del Taco), just by way of comparison.
What made Tower great were the selection and the culture. Licorice Pizza had great culture, but they were small. One time I tried to order in a bunch of 45s to improve our selection and was soundly discouraged from doing so (no pun intended). Music Plus was also small, and way too corporate. It was music, and it was fun, but the atmosphere was a bit stifling.
But Tower…there was a reason they were the best. They couldn’t carry everything, of course, but their vast selection was second to none. And the culture was the best. There was no dress code. At all. I would come to work in my board shorts, flip-flops and a t-shirt in the summertime.
Most of the people I worked with were awesome, too. Fellow music-lovers who also happened to be nice people. Of course, there were those who abused the anything-goes culture. I grew up treating people respectfully, but not everyone did. Tower had a reputation for clerks who were aloof and just generally jerks. On more than one occasion, I heard a clerk being rude to customers, and when I asked the clerks about it, they said, “So what? They’ll come back. Where are they going to go? Music Plus?”
Rudeness goes both ways, of course. There are plenty of rude people in the world, on both sides of the retail counter. I did my best to always be polite and helpful and friendly, but if someone was rude to me, I knew I didn’t have to take it. This was Tower, after all. Where were they gonna go, Music Plus?
During the Christmas season, as you might imagine, we were slammed. We would bring in extra registers and we were moving fast, but we would still have lines backed up.
One Saturday afternoon before Christmas, I was ringing someone up. He had a stack of stuff, and at the end of it, he remembered he needed one other album he forgot to get. I hesitated, looked at my long line, and decided I couldn’t make him wait in that line again, so I said, “Go grab it real fast.” Off he went. Next in line was a high-school age kid. I apologetically shrugged and said, “Sorry, I can’t do anything till he gets back.”
He said, “No problem” and we both just stood there waiting. A calm moment in the midst of the storm of Christmas retail madness at the other registers around us.
At this point, his older sister comes storming up. She was angry even before she approached us. About what, I don’t know. Some people are just like that. They walk around with paper-thin skin, just looking for ways to be self-righteously offended. I try to steer clear of people like that, but when you’re working register, there’s not much you can do. Unless you work at Tower.
She said to him, “What’s going on?” She turned to me and asked sternly, “Why aren’t you ringing him up?”
I started to explain that I couldn’t because my register still had the other guy’s transaction on it and we were waiting for him, but I don’t think I got more than two or three words out. She turned on me in a fury. “You ring him up right now!” I tried again to explain, but she cut me off and kept going. “You put your hands on that register and you start pushing buttons, and you ring him up right now! Don’t just stand there doing nothing!” To her brother, she demanded, “Here, give him your albums!” Her brother was thoroughly embarrassed and just stood there.
Not many things are more infuriating than trying to answer someone reasonably and they just cut you off without giving you a chance to explain. I lost my temper.
By this time, the first guy had come back. As I rang him up, I said to her angrily, “I’m not helping him (I nodded to her brother) until you leave the store. Get out.” She stood there glaring at me. I finished helping the first guy, then looked past her brother at the next guy in line. I called out “Next!” and waved the next guy forward. The brother just stood there embarrassed as the guy behind him stepped past him up to my register, and I started ringing the guy up.
This enraged the sister, of course. She yelled, “You help my brother next! It’s his turn!”
Without looking at her, I said, “Not until you leave the store.” And I kept ringing up the guy at my register.
She stood there a second, then yelled, “I’m getting the manager!” and stormed off.
This is my wife’s favorite Tower story, by the way. She has me tell it all the time.
A couple more customers later, she returns, manager reluctantly in tow. The manager’s name was Bob. Bob intimidated people. All the new employees were afraid of Bob. Bob took no crap from anyone. Tower West Covina (where this all took place) was a huge store, and from there, Bob would go on to manage Tower Sunset, and from there, become District Manager, then whatever was beyond that. West Coast Sales Director or something similar.
So anyway. She comes up with Bob dragging behind her and points to me and triumphantly yells, “That’s him!” Bob had an expression on his face that was a combination of boredom and annoyance. A kind of pissed off “what now?” kind of look. A look that said he was busy and the last thing he wanted was to be dragged up front to deal with this. He looked at me.
I shrugged and said simply, “She was being rude to me and I told her I wouldn’t help her brother until she left the store.”
Every customer in all five lines was watching, of course, and the girl couldn’t wait for Bob to go off on me and fire me in front of everyone.
Bob slowly rolled his eyes, shook his head, and without a word, turned around and walked off.
The girl was stunned, the brother was even more embarrassed, and I just smiled. She gave an enraged snort, turned, and she and her dignity left the store. I held out my hand to take the brother’s records. “Sorry about that”, I smiled.
He said, “No problem. I’m sorry about my sister.” I think I gave him sale price on all of his albums.
No matter what your job, it’s always nice to know your boss has your back. And…oh wait. Did I forget to mention that Bob was my roommate?
I met Bob when he was the manager of Tower Brea. He hired me when I left Music Plus, and was all gruff and stuff, but I would always joke around with him anyway and talk to him even when he didn’t talk back. We eventually became friends, and I found out that Bob was actually a really funny and warm guy. He didn’t like to get too close to employees, though, in case he had to fire them. Plus he liked when they were afraid of him. Kept them on their toes.
After a year or so, Bob got promoted and went to run Tower West Covina, a much larger and more prominent store. My new manager was a nice guy, but he wasn’t Bob. I called Bob one day to see how it was going down there. We talked for awhile, and I finally blurted out, “Hire me down there, man!”
He said, “You want to work here? Are you asking me if you can work here?”
I said, “Yeah, I’d love to!”
He said, “Then come on down! I wasn’t allowed to ask you. You had to ask me. I was hoping you would.”
So I put in for a transfer, and did the commute from Fullerton, where I had just graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a BA in Communications, with an emphasis in Advertising.
A month or two later, Bob said, “Hey, one of my roommates is moving out. Are you interested?”
So I moved down there, and of course I was one of Bob’s most trusted employees, if not his most trusted.
I lived with Bob and a couple of other guys while working simultaneously at Tower and part-time at my first job in advertising. Between the two jobs, I worked seven days a week for a year, until I was finally hired at the agency full-time and sadly said goodbye to Bob, Tower Records and all my buddies.
But the start of my advertising career is another story for another day.