Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Buyer Stuff

 As a Belk store buyer, I had a little freedom into what to buy for my departments.  The corporate office had guidelines into what to buy, and they bought goods that would be advertised in mailouts and special yearly sales, but we could buy merchandise that would be sold in the stores on a daily basis and be advertised in our local newspapers.  The concept was to tailor the merchandise to the individual markets.
 I had a steady stream of vendors coming into the store to pitch their wares to me.  Some vendors were slick, but I came from a sales background, so I knew their tricks.  One vendor brought in water purifiers.  I asked her where she sold the most, and she said at the beaches.  I didn't buy any from her, as she was too honest with me.  Another vendor wanted to sell me some vibrators.  A great idea for sore muscles, but we were a family store, and I just didn't like the connotation, so I passed on her.  I did buy some picture frames from a guy who drove a Gremlin.  I felt he needed the money.  One thing I did, when I didn't know how well something would sell would be to give the vendor a certain amount of money and a purchase order form.  They would fill out the form with their best selling product.  If the product didn't sell, I wouldn't reorder from them.  It was in their best interest to pick some good stuff for me.  One vendor brought in some baby seals plush toys.  If we sold them, a portion of the sale would go to the World Wildlife Fund.  That seemed like a good idea and would make great advertising for the store.  That was until I asked the vendor how much of the $19.99 seal would go to the fund.  They told me 5 cents.  I didn't buy the seals.
 In the Gifts Department, I tried to find items that had been advertised on TV.  I watched a lot of infomercials.  My goal was to find something like what was advertised and bring it in to sell.  My crown jewel was Tummy Toners.  This was an item that had stirrups for your feet and a handle, separated by a tight spring.  One would pull up on the handle and the exercise would work on one's abs.  I found a vendor who sold them for $5/each.  I bought 100 of them and retailed them at $19.99 as seen on TV, and then put them on sale for $12.99 or $9.99.  We sold out of the first 100 in a day.  I had to reorder.  In all, I bought 10,000 units and sold them all within 6 weeks.  I was reordering them on a daily basis in increments of 1000 per order.  We had to stop selling them though when a man, weighing more than the recommended weight for the use of the item, pulled up on the spring and the plastic stirrups broke, putting a gash in his leg.  He tried to sue the store, and we agreed to stop selling the Tummy Toners, but we had made a lot of money for the store.
 Another success story was Jelly Belly jelly beans.  I worked off of the fact that Ronald Reagan loved them, so I used that in the promotion.  We sold more Jelly Bellies than any other Belk store.  I got exclusive Jelly Belly fixtures, and I was written up in their corporate newsletter.  The company also sent our store some artwork made from jelly beans.  They were framed and we had to have security there every day they were on display.  The "pictures" included the Mona Lisa and the Statue of Liberty.  We were the only store in the Belk company to show them at that time.
 With my successes also came gambles that didn't work.  One was the Snuggies Bear.  It was used in the TV advertising for the fabric softener, so I bought 200 units for the Toy Department.  They sat on the shelves.  No one wanted them.  I ended up having to mark them down to clearance.  It took a year to sell them out.
 I did have one success story that was my favorite.  It was called Best Luggage.  A couple of guys from Miami came to see me one day.  I had one of the best luggage departments in the company, and my sales had been noticed by this company.  They imported cheap luggage from overseas.  The one item that interested me was an attache case.  It was made of a wood frame with a leather exterior.  It also had a brass combination lock.  If I bought them in bulk, they would cost us $12/each.  I bought 25 and spread them out between our two stores.  They came in black and brown.  We sold them at a retail price of $99.99 and a sale price of $49.99 or $59.99.  We sold out almost immediately.  I reordered 100 units and used them as a doorbuster.  They blew out.  They sold better than Samsonite or American Tourister.  The Belk corporate office took notice of them, and they bought from Best Luggage for all of the Belk stores.  It was a huge success for a small company, and I would like to think I started them on the path to success.
 I got numerous sales awards from Belk, and I was named the Best Buyer in our store.  My merchandise manager also took notice and thought we should do something that no other department store had done.  A videotape rental business like what Blockbuster was doing.  I researched it and found a company that would be our distributor.  We put together some rules concerning what kind of tapes we would rent.  We would major on new releases and family films.  One could use their Belk charge card to rent the tapes.  After a certain number of rentals, we would sell the tapes and make back the cost of the tapes.  With about a week to go before we were to launch this new rental department within our store, my merchandise manager was forced out, and they brought in a new guy who had no concept of how to be creative.  He nixed the video rental department, and I had to cancel all of the orders.  We also had a Madame Alexander doll show planned, with the VP of the company flying down from New York.  Invitations had been sent out to many doll collectors in a five-county region of South Carolina.  That show was nixed, and I had to cancel the VP's trip and all of the dolls coming with him.  I had to send out notices to all of the collectors.  It killed our doll business.  The new merchandise manager wanted us to buy lean.  We lost a lot of customers, and I was not able to buy things for the store like I once did.  Life became hard.
 On Mondays, Mr. Belk would come down from Charlotte to go to the Columbia Rotary Club meeting.  He would come by the store and access everyone's performance.  He would fire on Mondays.  So, every buyer would come in on Mondays and take everything personal off of their desks and put them in a box.  When Mr. Belk left at 4pm to go back to Charlotte, and he hadn't fired you, then you could unpack your box and put everything back on your desk.  That was the pressure we were under with the new supervisor.  I did get to go on some nice trips, while I was a Buyer, which I will write about next.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Buyer

 After about a year working in Books and Candy at Belk in Columbia Mall, my supervisor announced she was going to retire.  She was also the store's buyer for much of the Home Store.  She asked me if I would be interested in her position, and I said yes.  It would be more money than my minimum wage job, and there would be more prestige.  She recommended me to upper management, and I was named the new buyer for Home.
 My departments were:  Bedding, Bath, Window Treatments, Rugs, Housewares, Small Electrics, Luggage, Toys, Stationery, Greeting Cards, Records, Candy, Christmas, Notions and Books.  A daunting task at best.  I had to buy merchandise for all of these departments plus supervising all of the employees.  And, it wasn't just the Columbia Mall store.  It was also the Belk Downtown store.
 I realized quite quickly that this job was going to be far more impossible than I thought.  I didn't know what a "duvet" was, much less a "sham".  As far as the Bed and Bath areas, I had to depend on the sales people to guide me through it.  I had a little more knowledge of the other areas, and I had "bought" Luggage for Belk, when I worked in the downtown store, so I knew about that.  I also knew something about Stationery, Greeting Cards, Books and Candy.  However, I was drowning in the paperwork.  I went to our merchandise manager, who became my retail mentor, and I told him how much trouble I was having.  He hired a woman to come in and be the buyer for Bed, Bath, Window Treatments, and Rugs.  That was a huge weight taken off of me.
 I started with the rest of the departments and found that I had some of the best employees to supervise.  I had one girl whose main job was to remember what I did the day before.  With 11 departments to buy for, I often forgot one day to the next what I had done.  She was my invaluable assistant.  I also had employees who cared about the business.  I would get samples from vendors of things, mostly in Housewares.  I didn't cook, so I had no use for skillets or cake pans.  So, I would use them as sales awards for my people.  They loved it.  I would get them presents on their birthdays and just treat them as people.  I found the more I did for them, the more they did for me.  Consequently, I had the lowest turnover ratio in the store.  The store's average was 3 months.  Mine was 2 years.
 I also had our merchandise manager show me how to buy effectively and read reports.  He also told me that I would not be fired for a year of buying, because I was working off of my predecessor's numbers.  They sent me to buying school in Charlotte for a week of training.  There were about 50 people in the class from all over the company.  On the first day, the facilitator went around the room to ask how was business to each buyer.  Almost everyone said business was great.  When he asked how did they know, the stock answer was that their manager told them it was and for them to say that in the class.  When he came to me and a buyer from Savannah, we both said business was okay but could be better.  He asked us how did we know, and we told him that was what our reports said.  The two of us were far ahead and the others, and the facilitator used us to teach the class.
 One of the faults of the previous Housewares buyer at our store was she bought too much Pfaltzgraff 5-piece place settings.  In fact, we had over 100 of them, and they were stacked to the ceiling in the stockroom.  I called Pfaltzgraff to see if they would take them off of our hands, but they said no. They wouldn't let me move them to clearance, because they were very protective of their prices, so I called up a friend at J. B. White's Department Store who was their Housewares buyer.  He sold them to him at cost, and they took them.  It was a win-win for both of us.  One thing I tried to do was to make relationships with other stores in the area.  We would refer customers to them, and in turn they would do the same for us.  Belk wasn't very pleased in that relationship, but it worked.
 More Buyer stories coming soon.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Fajardo

 Early in 1984, my church was approached by our Home Mission Board to take some people to Puerto Rico to do Vacation Bible School in three locations on the island.  The places were San Juan, Ponce and Fajardo.  We decided to also take our One Voice singles choir and do a musical in Spanish in a park in San Juan.  As we made our plans, it was also decided to send some guys down there to do construction on a church.
 We chose the musical "Celebrate Life", which was already translated into Spanish.  Many of us, including me, did not know any Spanish, so we took a two-month crash course in the language.  They told us that they still spoke Spanish in the outlying areas of the island, but English was spoken in the tourist areas.  That wasn't entirely true, but we learned some phrases and words that would get us by.  We performed the musical in a Spanish church in Columbia as practice, and it was well-received.  I did a lot of research on Puerto Rico and prepared the choir in some facts before going.  We were to be there from the end of June until just after the 4th of July, so they told us it would be hot and to wear wide-brimmed hats.  They were not kidding.  It was hot.
 We flew down to Puerto Rico.  While over the ocean, the pilot announced that we were in the Bermuda Triangle.  I got kind of scared and was relieved when we got through it without incident.  When we landed in San Juan, it was hot.  We stayed overnight in San Juan before moving out into the countryside.  My assignment was at Fajardo, which was on the eastern side of the island.  Fajardo was a mixture of poor and very rich people.  The poorer people lived near the coast, and the richer ones near the marina.  I did not do puppets at this VBS, because we decided not to after the fiasco of the previous year in Smyrna.  Instead, I helped in games and crafts.  We met at a church, which was at the preacher's house.  The "church" was in his garage.  He backed his car out of the garage, and we put down carpet squares to cover the oil spots on the cement.  There was an altar at the back of the garage.  One day, he was pulling his car back into the garage and broke the altar.  We fixed it for him.  Our games were played in his backyard and in a field nearby.  All of this had to happen before noon, because the heat became unbearable in the afternoons.
 We stayed at a hotel in downtown Fajardo.  It looked like it was out of a Hemingway novel.  A tree grew up in the lobby, and the two-stories of rooms surrounded the tree.  The hotel was across from the post office and near the water.  There was also a chicken slaughter house across from the hotel, and we woke up every morning to the sound of screaming chickens and that smell.  Some would say it was "quaint".  I wouldn't say that.
 Our afternoons were free.  One afternoon, we went to the rain forest.  That was pretty and very cool.  Coming out of the heat into the cool was delightful.  Another afternoon, we went to the beach.  Another cool day.  Still another afternoon, some of us went to Ponce to visit those folks.  It took three hours to drive that distance because of animals in the road mostly, which made for slow going.  One night, we went to the richer part of the area for dinner.  It was quite a culture shock from where we were staying.  We also went to a larger church on Sunday morning.  They didn't have air conditioning, so they opened windows to try and get a breeze going.  It didn't work too well, and I just about passed out.
 One afternoon, I stayed in the hotel room.  I wanted to go to Burger King and order in Spanish.  I practiced all afternoon to order a hamburger, fries and Coke in Spanish.  I got it down and went to BK to give them my order.  When I successfully completed it, the cashier asked me something back in Spanish that I didn't know.  They all laughed and said "Gringo" to me.  I found out later that she asked if I wanted Ketchup with my fries.  I was embarrassed.
 They gave us a van to ride in, while we were there.  As we were coming back from the rain forest, the brakes failed.  Our driver had to crash into a mountainside to slow down.  The other side of the road was a drop off into a valley.  When we got down the hill, the van was dented but we were still alive.
 On July 4th, we were to sing "Celebrate Life" in the San Juan park.  When we got there, we found no one had showed up to hear us.  It turned out that the mission folks in Puerto Rico had failed to advertise our concert, so we sang to a handful of tourists that happened to be in the park.  They didn't speak Spanish, so the concert was rather awkward.
 The Saturday before we left to go home, some of the group wanted to go over to the Virgin Islands to shop.  A girl and me wanted to go into San Juan and experience the casinos.  You were supposed to be a guest at the hotel to use the casino.  I made up a room number, and they let us in.  I first went to the slot machines and won around $400.  I then went to the blackjack table and lost it all.  I started cashing in some traveler's checks for more chips.  I was losing those and realized I needed to quit.  I needed money to get home.
 About a month after we got home, our Fajardo group wanted to get together to share our pictures and to party.  I really wanted to go, but I was working that night at Belk.  I went into my supervisor's office and asked her if she needed me for anything.  She said no, so I clocked out and went to the party.  The next morning, I came into work.  My supervisor came over to me and said, "Don't you ever do that to me again."  I never did.  But, I had a good time at the party.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Jelly Beans

 I was looking for a real job after leaving White Oak.  There was a lot of retail experience in my background, so I succumbed to applying for those kind of positions.  One job I applied for was a customer service post.  I went to the interview in my three-piece suit and found it was a call center, and everyone was wearing jeans and t-shirts.  I was WAY overdressed.
 I did not want to work in another mall.  I really can't say why other than it seemed rather confining.  You worked and ate in the same place.  However, I had to find a job soon, so I went to Columbia Mall.  Since I had worked for Belk a couple of times before, I went into that store with the hopes that they would let me fill out an application and thus fulfill the requirement for getting unemployment funds.  They saw my application, and I was hired to work in the Books and Candy Departments.
 I had a lot of experience with Books, having worked at both Belk and Sanger Harris in the Book Department.  I did not have a lot of experience with Candy, except for eating it.  I expected to spend most of my time in Books, but I found myself most of it in Candy.
 We had a really good Candy Department, selling boxed as well as loose.  We had Brach, Sweet Shop and Godiva, and we also sold nuts.  For the boxed area, it was mostly Russell Stover.  We also sold Jelly Belly jelly beans.  When I was hired it was just before Easter, and folks were buying jelly beans.  We had a machine that would weigh the candy.  All I had to do was to punch in the price per pound and then weigh the candy to the desired ounce or pound.  The bad part about all of this was that I was not trained on my first day about how to use the machine.  A man came in and wanted a pound of jelly beans.  They were $3.99/pound, but I punched in $.39/pound.  He got a whole big bag of jelly beans and was very excited.  After that sale, they showed me how to work the scale.  The next day the same man was back.  He ordered the same amount, and I punched in $3.99/pound.  This time he got a handful of jelly beans rather than a big bag.  He got very angry.  I told him the jelly beans had gone up in price.  He never came back.
 I also had a theory that I had to know what the candy tasted like in order to sell them, at least that was my rationale.  The store didn't want the employees to eat the candy for free, but it made sense to me to be honest with the customers when they asked if it was any good.  I especially like Maple Nut Goodies and Chocolate Covered Peanuts.  Both were by Brach.  I really didn't care much for the more expensive candy, although Godiva Truffles were good.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

CIA

 As I was looking for steady employment after leaving White Oak, I came upon an ad in the newspaper from the Central Intelligence Agency.  They wanted interested people to come to a local hotel about possible employment.  Having worked for a week with them in Israel in 1973, and with the Dept. of Commerce in 1980, I thought I might have a chance.  It would require moving to the DC area which also enticed me, so I went.
 There was a woman handling the meeting who worked in Human Resources for the CIA.  She did not sugar-coat the work they were offering.  She said that she lived in West Virginia and drove into work in Washington every day.  She said it was important not to live near where you worked for fear that someone might follow you.  She also said that one would need to park far away from the Langley headquarters, and a bus would take you to work.  They were afraid of car bombs.  She was deadly serious.  She also told us that we couldn't tell anyone what we did.  We would have to make up a cover story that was a lie.  No family or friends could know. When asked what I wanted to do with the CIA, I said either analyst or courier.  I felt with my knowledge of several European and Middle East locations, I could easily do either one.  So, she gave me an application to take home and mail back in to them.  She said not to lie about anything on the application, because they would know.
 The application was 30 pages long.  It started at birth and went up to the present time.  They wanted to know who my friends were at my earliest memory; where did I live; friends from school and where they lived; any experience with drugs or alcohol; any political party affiliations; any subversive activities; and much more.  It was quite extensive.  It took me a week to fill out.  Much of it I didn't know, as this was many years before Google, so I couldn't find out where my early friends lived now.  When it got to the part about alcohol and drugs, I had to be honest, and I was.  I also shared my experiences in Israel with the CIA, and my anti-war activities.  
 I sent it back, and I waited.  A few weeks later, I got a letter back from them that said that I was not chosen for a position, because of some past experiences.  I wrote them back to ask them if it was because of the anti-war activities, as I would renounce all of that if it would help.  They wrote me back and thanked me for renouncing that stuff, but they said that the decision was also based on what happened in Israel in 1973.  They felt I could be blackmailed by a foreign power for what I did in the past.  They weren't kidding.  Much like they weren't kidding when they threatened to revoke our passports in Israel and send us home, if we did not comply to what they wanted us to do back then.  I kind of wanted to be a spy, but it was not to be.  

Monday, March 26, 2018

Back Injury & Phone Books

 1984 has come.  I don't have a job, as White Oak phased out my job there in 1983.  I was looking for some money when SCETV called.  I could always count on them, if they needed someone for a film.  This time, it was an industrial film called "Back Injury".  I knew about that subject, as I had lower back problems since that cursed play "The Breaking of Bread" back at Anderson College in 1972.
 This film was designed to be shown in factories on how not to get a back injury and the ways to treat a back injury.  It was very technical.  They brought in a doctor to show the ways to treat the back.  I played a factory worker.  There were two other actors who also played factory workers.  The scene was in an office with chairs.  We went through several exercises from sitting up straight in chairs to standing straight against a wall.  I actually learned something for my own back's treatment.  We also learned to lift with our legs, not our back.  That came in handy later in life for me.  The film ran about 20 minutes.  I have never seen it, but I hope it helped someone else.
 Another job I had at this time was delivering phone books.  My area was South Beltline and Fort Jackson.  I had to deliver them in the rain, as they had to be given out on a couple of days.  I put them in the trunk of my car which weighed it down to a point that it did a number on my shocks.  It also seemed that everywhere I went had speed bumps in the road, which didn't help my shocks at all.  The South Beltline area was mostly apartments.  It was a lot of walking in the rain, but not all that hard.
 Fort Jackson was another story.  I got to the front gate and told the soldier I was going to deliver phone books to the residences at the fort.  He told me to go to the headquarters building, and they would give me directions to the houses I needed to go to.  I did what he said.  I asked for a map of where the houses would be.  They didn't have a map, but they did give me verbal directions.  Then, they told me something that I dreaded:  "You can't miss it".  Well, of course I did miss it.  I drove all over the fort looking for these houses.  I found myself at the rifle range.  I drove by the hospital.  It was raining, and I couldn't see the street signs.  Finally, quite by accident, I found a street on my list.  The houses were surrounded by fences.  No one was home.  I was able to throw the books onto the porches of most of the homes.  That was until I came to one house.  They had a ferocious dog in the back that didn't want me to get anywhere near their porch.  I tried to reason with the dog.  I tried to be nice to the dog.  But, the dog didn't want any part of that.  He just wanted a part of me.  I was afraid that if I tossed the book over the fence that he would get it and chew it up.  So, I decided to avoid delivering that book for my own personal safety.  I drove back to the headquarters soaked.  I told the guys there that I couldn't deliver one book because of the dog.  They all laughed and said that was the colonel's house.  I didn't care whose house it was.  I gave the colonel's phone book to those guys at headquarters and told them to deliver it themselves.
 I got paid pretty well for the delivery of the phone books.  They were so impressed with my work that I was offered a job selling ads for the yellow pages.  I didn't take that job, because it was on straight commission, and I needed steady pay.  I also didn't need to get back out there with bad shocks.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Neighbors

 South Carolina ETV was filming a PBS program on race relations in the South during the 1950's.  It was called "Neighbors", and I had a role as a bus rider.  This was in the fall of 1983.  There was a director, and then there was a consulting director.  His name was Laszlo Benedek.  His name might not be familiar to you, but he directed many Hollywood movies.  Probably his most famous was "The Wild One" which starred Marlon Brando in one of his early roles.  Mr. Benedek was called in for two reasons.  First, his work during the 1950's.  Second, he was a stickler for details.  I dare you to find a mistake in "Neighbors".
 They put me on a city bus, which was also from the 1950's.  I was dressed in a short-sleeve white shirt and dark pants.  My hair had to be short, too.  I was placed near the front of the bus and told how to sit.  They then took a Polaroid picture of me to see where my hands were, and where I was looking.  Each day of the shooting, they referred to the picture, and I had to sit that way again.  They also trimmed my hair each day, in case it had grown overnight.  We went all over town in the bus, but the most tedious scene was the bus going over the Gervais Street Bridge.  Either it was too fast or too slow.  Or, someone had moved out of position.  We did that one scene for the better part of one day.
 After my scenes were done, I was asked one Saturday to watch their movie equipment, while they were filming elsewhere.  I became a Production Assistant.  I was at a church on River Drive guarding their things.  It was a long wait, because they were gone for hours.  Fortunately, my brother had given me an assignment, too.  He was hired to do the five-year plan for the Columbia Urban League, but he didn't have the time to do it, so he farmed it out to me.  I did a lot of research and wrote the plan, while waiting on the film crew to come back.  Later that day, I gave my report to my brother.  He put his name on it, and gave it to the Urban League.  I don't think they liked it, as I suggested they reach out to the growing Asian population in Columbia.  But, I got paid twice that day--sitting around in a church parking lot and writing a report that I don't think was ever used.