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Working Retail During a Global Crisis

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.”

–Agent K, “Men In Black”

After being away for a solid week for a mini vacay and to manage my shit mental health, I came back to work on Wednesday. In the time I had been gone, Coronavirus had been officially labeled as a pandemic and experts were recommending to stock up on two weeks of food and essentials in the event of quarantine. Our customers took this about as well as Invader Zim when he discovered what germs were and have basically went insane from mass hysteria, buying up anything with disinfectant and all the toilet paper.

Strangely I’m not an anxiety ridden mess in the face of this mass hysteria. Maybe things like Ebola, Swine Flu, and Resident Evil have desensitized me to outbreaks of viruses. Perhaps I’m prepared to deal with this chaos from having worked nine Black Friday sales and this situation is basically Black Friday, but with groceries. In any case, I am both amused and frustrated at the utter stupidity of people heavily overstocking for a situation that will likely never happen to any of the citizens of our tiny town. As REM once sang, “Its the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”

This isn’t to say that I’m unconcerned about the Coronavirus. But we’re a town of about 5,000. Hardly anyone ever leaves and we’re not getting huge numbers of travelers because its winter and its cold. It gets so dead in the winter that one of the towns nearby has a population sign that says “Summer 5000, Winter 50”. We do have a couple large events that could bring in a few hundred people, but they’re in the summer. And judging by the completely empty shelves of hand soap, everyone seems enthusiastic about washing their damn hands. Realistically, the chances of anyone catching Coronavirus in “Rural Town, Wisconsin” are slim, though not impossible.

People appear to be buying too much. …especially the toilet paper. Anytime they’ve brought out a pallet of toilet paper it has been gone within the hour. I saw a little old lady with a cart filled with 72 rolls of toilet paper. If you go through 72 rolls of toilet paper in two weeks, you probably should have gone to the doctor before Coronavirus. If a household used 72 rolls in two weeks, that’s just a little over five rolls of toilet paper a day. That’s definitely overkill for one person and, unless we’re talking about the Duggar family, probably too much for any one family. And they were the MEGA ROLLS—I think that equates to at least 144 regular rolls if I’m doing my toilet paper math right.

When I first came into work this week, there were only a few sections that were completely wiped out. With each day, the number of empty sections grows with each day. I’ve been with this company for ten years and the only time I’ve seen any level of emptiness in one of our stores was when I was helping to set up another store that hadn’t opened yet. We had another associate from another store that said their numbers showed they made more money on Friday than they did on Black Friday.

Retail stores have officially become the fourth circle of Hell and a bit of a battle ground. Hand sanitizer, hand soap, face masks, disposable gloves, Imodium, cough drops, Vitamin C, Emergen-C, Airborne, ramen, Chef Boyardee, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, frozen pizza, Kraft dinner, noodles, soup, flour, sugar, water, milk, bleach, diapers, wipes, baby wipes, Lysol, cleaning products—all gone. Some things we’ve been able to restock only to see it gone just as soon as we set it out. I saw a guy put 36 cans of green beans into one of two carts that were already completely full of canned goods and enough toilet paper to wipe his ass for a solid year. I watched a woman yell at one of our soda vendors because we didn’t have a certain flavor of canned soup on the shelf. Customers are buying up deli meat like they do when a blizzard is in the forecast and they want to stock up before the snow hits. People aren’t shopping for two weeks in Coronavirus quarantine—they’re stocking up for an apocalypse where they’re constantly shitting their pants.

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