Originally posted: December 2000
In a previous life, I worked in a plumbing store. I have had time to think about my experiences, both good and bad. Although there are many virtues to working in a store where you can learn about fixing things (especially the one thing that most people really dislike to work on), I also had my share of problems.
Let me start with the benefits. The plumbing store was a retail store, so I was fortunate to have dealt with the general public. I’ve heard many people complain about having to deal with difficult customers, and I’ll admit that I’ve had my share. But I rarely hear about the grateful customers that have returned to say, “hey, thanks for your help.” So, here’s to those that have done that for me. And it hasn’t happened only once or twice. I remember the gentleman who returned after four or five years and told me about how the pipe I made for him was used in an Air Force bomber, marked as good, and is still in service (anything to do my duty to my country). Then there’s the elderly lady who listened to me on how to replace her lavatory pop-up drain (something her late husband normally would’ve done). She returned a couple of months later and told me how wonderful it was to follow my directions and watch it work… perfectly. And there was the regular customer who owned some apartments and hated to see me go (after five years, you think I’d learn his name… sorry).
I also learned about ordering merchandise and dealing with suppliers. I learned how to order a year into the job. As I moved up in seniority (others left and allowed me to move up… if you want to call it a move up), I was given more authority in ordering and dealing with employees. I learned how to order how much, what sold quickly, and how often to order something. It also allowed me to learn what we really had on the shelves and in surplus.
I also learned how to order special items for customers. I sold new fixtures and faucets as well (the store is a Kohler registered showroom). I dealt with people that wanted a variety of styles, all from basic to traditional to Victorian to contemporary. I also learned how to get the products as soon as possible (more on this in a bit).
The most important thing I learned while working there was how to install and repair plumbing. Selling products and parts included teaching customers how to perform the install or repair. There are many different faucets, toilets and other fixtures out there, meaning that each has a unique way of being fixed. And I’ve learned how to identify a part just by looking at it (well, many parts, not all of them). Installing is also important, because it’s important to know when to give up fixing something. This just doesn’t include faucets and fixtures; it’s also important to know some of the dynamics (and codes) when installing pipe and other plumbing items.
I also had the opportunity to learn about new technology and decorating trends. With this knowledge comes the ability to learn about what works well and what doesn’t in certain settings. The technology aspect is especially important, seeing how many toilets and faucets are now designed to use less water than years ago. If you want to know which toilet will flush properly, or which showerhead offers a decent spray, I would be able to tell you.
Despite all of these benefits I’ve discovered working in a plumbing store, I have also discovered some downsides as well. Most of these relate to the store that I worked in.
The store was family-run. This meant working with the boss’ sister-in-law, his son, his neighbor’s kid, his son’s friend; it was quite a circus at times. Don’t get me wrong; his sister-in-law was really cool to work with, when she wasn’t on the phone. As for the rest of them, I can now see why so many people shun at the concept of nepotism, especially when these people don’t know how to deal with customers or give out the wrong information. And speak of a lack of motivation! When they weren’t busy helping customers, they spent a good deal of time sitting and wasting time.
I especially had a problem with the level of discipline at the store. The boss’ son and his friend seemed to have a schedule in a different time zone, because they would come in two, three, or even four hours late. That increased the workload for the rest of us. Yet these two were never disciplined for it. At one time, I was appointed to employee supervisor; big deal, right? I was told that I was responsible for telling the others what to do if they weren’t busy. Not long after that, I told the boss’ son’s friend to perform something, and he said, “no.” I wanted to fire him, but I didn’t have that kind of authority. I wondered why I was given this “supervisor” position if I had no recourse for problem employees.
Another thing I learned was to not put all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak. It seemed that the boss always ordered special-order items from one particular warehouse, probably because he could chat with the woman that he called all the time (I won’t say it’s flirting because it didn’t sound like it).
Customers who were told that a special-order could be available in as soon as two weeks would call me a month later and ask why it wasn’t available yet. I’d check around, find out the same item was available at a different warehouse, and get the item for them in a day. Although this didn’t always occur, it did occur more often than I care to remember, which, from a customer service standpoint, I think is too often.
I also had trouble with another aspect of ordering. We had too many people ordering, so when it came time to order something, there was no control. There were times that person A didn’t check in with person B about what was or was not ordered. This resulted in some overhead issues, as well as an increase in cost. Also, some employees felt that they could order something for display or for stock without really evaluating any cost-benefit of it. For example, someone thought it would be a good idea to stock PEX pipe; before we knew it was approved by state code. I left before finding out whether PEX really sold in the store or not. Another example was getting a Toto toilet in for display. That angered the regional Kohler sales representative, who threatened to pull our showroom certificate if we didn’t get rid of the toilet. Living in Wisconsin, being a Registered Kohler Showroom brings in business, and lots of it. Losing that registration could’ve been detrimental.
Finally, we had more items to sell than we had space. We built additional shelving and such, but everything was dispersed throughout the store. The building was an old restaurant/deli that was converted into a retail/hardware store. Space needs were certainly an issue, but it never became a real problem. We made due with the space we had, even if it meant less space in our break room.
But looking in hindsight, I think that I really learned much about working in retail and working for a small organization. I missed helping people, so I found work in another retail store. I probably won’t have the home-like feeling I had at the plumbing store, which is something that I miss. But then again, who needs the headaches of arguing with your “siblings?”