Long hours, little respect Managers: They toil more during the holiday retail season, when the biggest chunk of annual profit is made.

November 25, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

When Marcia Sheppard leaves her tiny office in the storage room of the KB Toys store in Marley Station Mall, she walks past a sign that reads: "Through these doors walks the greatest sales force in the toy industry."

That credo takes on new meaning during the holiday retail season.

That's because Sheppard is a store manager. And store managers both sell and manage the sales force, the checkout clerks, everything that goes into -- and out of -- a store. They are the people who pop out of nowhere when summoned by phone or checkout bell. Between those appearances, they are not relaxing.

During the seasonal crunch, they can count on 12-hour workdays: stocking merchandise, straightening the store during and after hours, supervising employees, filling out a befuddling array of paperwork, monitoring the sales by day and sometimes by hour and keeping in contact with company higher-ups.

They also show up at the checkout counter to override a balky register, to listen to a complaint, to approve a check. As one of that legion of hardy workers, Sheppard seems to live in KB Toys, always with a smile, selling the season's hottest toys -- Sing & Snore Ernies, Actimates Barneys, "Star Wars" figures, laser tag games and Holiday Barbies.

Retailers such as KB Toys expect to make about a quarter of their annual sales and up to half of their annual profits in the last two months of the year. They count on their managers -- their front lines -- to pull it off. So for people like Sheppard, this is nail-biting time.

The first moment of truth is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year; for merchants the most important opportunity to land on the black side of the ledger.

"I thrive off this time of year," Sheppard says. "But it takes a lot to be ready for that Friday. The most important thing for me is to show my staff that I'm willing to work hard, too."

Preparations begin months beforehand.

For managers like Sheppard, Ron Burge of Edward Arthur Jewelers and Art Miller of MJDesigns, the five-day workweek turns into seven days and good chunks of the nights.

Trying to beat last year's sales, the managers review the day's sales every night and think how to improve them. Every time their store "makes day," or meets that day's sales goals set by the home office, it contributes to the company's success -- and their own.

Not everyone does it well.

"It takes a natural talent to be in retail," says Randy Brooks, owner of Edward Arthur Jewelers. "When they step in the batter's box, they either hit it or strike out. I can tell in a week if someone can make it in the business or not."

To compensate store managers for the grueling hours and the expectations they must meet, companies more often than not reward them with 401(k)s, retirement plans, medical benefits and paid vacations.

They get little respect, though, from the customers.

Then there are the indignities of having only a 15-minute break for every four hours of work, and intermittent bathroom and water fountain breaks determined by the ebb and flow of customers.

"There are a lot of negatives associated with working in retailing," says Michael Tesler, a marketing professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts and president of Retail Concepts Inc., a consulting firm.

"Customers have such low expectations," he says. "They think of a manager as someone with no desk and with no meaningful title doing a job where you don't need to be a rocket scientist."

Customers rarely understand that these are the people who are responsible for inventory worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, for a payroll for a few dozen employees, and for the all-important customer satisfaction.

Sheppard, at the young age of 23, has more than met expectations. About 18 months ago, she was rewarded with a promotion to manager of Marley Station KB Toys in Glen Burnie, a newly remodeled store with a high volume of merchandise and sales.

"People wonder how I've become a manager at my age," says Sheppard. "It's because I enjoy how the company treats me."

KB hired her as seasonal help when she was 16. At 19, she was an assistant manager. For four years she was a manager at stores in Virginia before being moved to the store in Anne Arundel County.

Sheppard -- who often wears to work a leather bomber jacket with the KB Toys insignia stitched on the back -- has the demeanor of a cheerleader, confident and spirited.

Married with no children, Sheppard commutes 50 minutes each day from her home in Frederick. Her husband usually doesn't mind her long days. "He knows I enjoy it," Sheppard says. "He has worked in retail, so he knows how it goes."

Dozens of times a day Sheppard walks every square inch of the store. She straightens the store between customer rushes. When a customer has a question, she assists by pulling out a ladder and searching the shelves of Barbie dolls.

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