The mention of the word ‘inventory’ is the equivalent of saying Beetlejuice or Bloody Mary three times, only without the fun and hilarity that will soon follow with those two examples. Inventory is a word best left unspoken but unfortunately it is a necessity, so it must be said and preparations must be made for it.

I can remember working in shoes and being told that inventory would be happening soon. I really didn’t think much of it, but soon I understood why the word is one of the most hated words in the world of retail.

It sounds simple enough, but then again, when is anything ever simple when it comes to the retail world? Inventory involves someone coming in (usually a 3rd party company) who walks down each aisle and counts every item on the shelf based on the price tag that is attached to the item. The items and values are counted, a total is tallied and you can see what your total inventory is vs. what your shrink is (shrink being the difference in what you have vs. what you should have, which can be attributed to loss, theft, or other reasons that something would not be in your department). All of that sounds easy, and does not paint an accurate picture of just how bad inventory can and will be.

You see, before the crew can come in and break the store down into sections, marking them with little white pieces of paper and scribbled notations on them, the employees must do their part, and that is where it gets ugly.

When I worked in shoes that meant every shoe on the sales floor had to be in the right box, marked clearly with size and stock number; then inside each box, the shoes had to be put a certain way with the price tag, containing the stock number, size, and price clearly visible to the inventory crew. Did I mention that the inventory crew will not look for the tag, even going so far as to not turn it over in order to scan it? Hold your breath, that part is coming up. Once the entire department is done, and hopefully no customers have torn the tags off the night before the inventory takes place, then you are done right?

Oh no, not even close. You have to check all locations in the store to make sure that there are no shoes there, and return them to the department for inspection and tag attachment. What really stunk about this mission was having to look in all nooks and crannies to find anywhere and everywhere someone might have put shoes and bring them back to the department. After doing this, you had to hope that the women in the layaway department did not pull the ever popular trick which was to wait until your shift was almost over and then surprise you with a cart or two or six of shoes that had once been on layaway and now were no longer wanted by the customers. These carts could contain shoes that were out of season, or on clearance, which meant you had to mark the tickets and then find a place in the department for them.

After all of this was done, you would think that you were set for inventory and there was nothing more for you to do, and you would be wrong. The fun was actually just starting. After working late the night before, you now had to return to work at 6 am the next morning, and for what you ask! Seeing that everything should now be in the hands of the inventory crew and you should have nothing left to do but wait for them to leave. Sadly you would be mistaken. You see, someone has to supervise the crew and listen to the 10-13 people who filled your department, who would find the one pair of shoes with a tag that wouldn’t scan, or a price that was missing, or a tag that they couldn’t find (even though it was on top of the shoes but turned over, and them lacking the ability to turn things over would call you to do just that for them). So your morning, maybe 4.5 hours of it, would alternate between listening to the clicks and clacks and beeps of their machines and the silence that would occur when they stopped and called for help. It was your job to recognize voices, and know which one of the 13 people had called you, see what they want, fix it, and go back to walking back and forth among the shoes, waiting for the next work stoppage and interruption. All the while retail life goes on; there are customers to serve, phones to answer, and things to pick off the floor and put where they can be counted and recounted.

Okay, 5 hours have passed, and the crew is getting ready to leave, your mission is done; well you wish it was done, but now the fun begins. You now need to walk behind them and count the shoes that they counted and compare numbers with their numbers, if they match, good, if not, and at times they would not, then you needed to figure out why, find the person who made the mistake, and then correct it. When this herculean task was finished, all that remained was to take down the white slips of paper (which of course, the inventory people could not do, seeing that their work order stated that they could only place the papers on the shelf, but had no authority to take them down and throw them in the trash), and wait another year for this all to happen again. What I should mention here, is that when I started in shoes, there were two inventories a year, but that didn’t last long, probably because the company knew that people would revolt if they had to do this twice in one calendar year.

Helena Perez García via Flickr

The company that I work for now, also has inventory once a year, and has an outside crew come in, to put up the little pieces of paper, and to count every item in the store, again all of which sounds easy enough, but as you have already seen, it is far from it.

A month before the crew came, you had to start tearing apart the stockroom, find every item that could and would and should be sold, and make sure it is cleared marked and tagged and put where it belongs and where it can be counted by the counters. If it came in a box, the count had to be written on the outside of the box, with the quantity in black marker, circled and then left untouched until that day. Again, it doesn’t sound too bad, but you would only say that if you have never counted and organized by soft hard or medium, a 100 or more toothbrushes, each with its own item number. Did I mention that you needed to walk down the aisles, and turn the first of each and every product over so that the barcode was facing out, allowing for quick and easy scanning?

Who am I kidding? There was nothing quick and easy about any of this.

The worst job when it came to inventory prep was preparing the cooler and the freezer, which most of the time fell on the person who spent the most time in them, which of course would be yours truly.  Again, everyone should have the chance once in their life to go into a walk in freezer with a black sharpie and mark boxes of frozen food that will need to be counted. Now if you want to hear something funny, you should hear how they decide which of the crew gets to count the cooler and freezer, a task that no one wants to do. It involves an intense game of rock-paper-scissors, with the person who wins best 2 out of 3 not having to do it. I did see someone break the sacred rules of rock, paper, scissors once by using the seldom seen and not sanctioned atomic bomb move which beats everything, as it should and therefore got out of going in the cooler/freezer.

Okay. Once the counting has been done, it should be all over, but you already know the answer to that. Now it is up to you to be an honorary member of the crew. Someone gives you 30 seconds of training on how to operate their precious machines and now you count. You walk from section to section, scanning and counting and verifying to make sure that their numbers are correct. If so, and heaven help you if they are not, you submit your numbers to the master computer, which tallies up just how much of the counts have been recounted. It is only after this, that the crew heads out, once again leaving behind the little white papers as reminders of the time you just wasted and will never get back, and shouldn’t for that matter, because after all, you chose the life of retail.

Retail has many faces and facets to it, and inventory has to be the ugliest one.

Cover image courtesy of hnt6581 via Flickr