What's it like to work at Wal-Mart?
May 7, 2007 4:15 PM   Subscribe

What is it really like to work at Wal-Mart?

So, I'm a high school senior, and I graduate on the 25th. I plan to try and work this summer to get some money before I start college, but unfortunately for me, there really aren't very many job openings in the small town I live in. Wal-Mart is one of my primary choices, and I'm seriously considering it.

I'd like a little input from anyone who has experience with it, though. I'm wondering what type of work I'd be doing, and if there's a variety of options, what choice I would be given so far as what to do. I plan on working part-time, if that makes a difference.

I can surely find some information on the Internet, and actually looking at the application will help some, but if anyone has personal experience working in a place like Wal-Mart, I'd love to hear it. Will I go crazy? What's the atmosphere like? Anything that anyone could add would be extremely helpful.

So to summarize, I'd like to know what positions would possibly be open to an 18-year old working part time for a summer, and what it's actually like to work inside a store like that.

Thanks for reading!
posted by DMan to Work & Money (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I worked there as a cashier for a year. It was a superstore, so it was huge - a rather long walk from the front registers to the back where the lounge was. If you're not used to being on your feet all day, invest in a good sturdy pair of shoes - you'll need them - and be prepared for sore feet, legs, and back for a while. You'll be doing some heavy lifting... while you may have no problem lifting cases of pop or bags of dog food normally, when you do it over and over again, it can be hard.

You will be surprised how filthy your hands get, if you are a cashier. Between money and all those groceries, it's nasty. In the stationery department, they have this pink tacky stuff in a canister that helps bankers get hold of the bills... I recommend you buy one. It's good for money and plastic bags, since you don't want to be licking your finger to separate them. Now that they are doing away with vests (which had nice, roomy pockets), you will want to make sure you have big pockets, or else carry a small bag - we were only allowed to carry clear bags to our registers. You can find clear makeup bags that are acceptable in cosmetics. Always carry extra pens - customers will walk off with them when you aren't paying attention, and Wal-Mart doesn't supply you with your own. You might want to carry hand sanitizer. We were allowed to have water only at our registers too, and some of us carried small, cheap battery-operated fans to set on our register when it was hot.

Be aware that Wal-Mart is being sued for having people work off the clock, and that their benefits absolutely suck.

I didn't have a lot of problems, but at my store there was a lot of gossip among the cashiers. You might want to learn to take that all with a grain of salt.

If you don't have a customer, go help your fellow cashier bag and load the bags into a customer's cart. They'll come and help you in return. There will be days when you are so busy, you get your break late, and there will be days when it'll be completely dead and you'll be begging for a customer. During the dead times, they'll either offer to send you home, or send you to another department to organize merchandise (called zoning).

You will take your turn covering breaks or lunches for the greeters - greeting is very boring. Unless it's raining, in which case you will get wet while drying the shopping carts. If you are greeting or working the express lanes, which are near the doors, you'll be subject to the weather. Of course, on nice days, it's great to be able to cover breaks or lunches for the lawn and garden cashiers.

Just remember you and your fellow cashiers are in it together... help them out and they'll generally reciprocate.
posted by IndigoRain at 4:38 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well, I worked for Wal-Mart Canada when I was 19, when it first came here (1994) and I really liked it. I was on the floor in pets, plants & seasonal when I started. I gladly worked overtime during the grand opening weeks because I actually enjoyed myself. I was just thinking about it the other night, actually, how I would NEVER work a 13-hour shift at my current job, but I did there because I wanted to! Everyone who worked in the evenings was around my age and we had some laffs. The next year I worked the Christmas season on cash and it was not as fun as working on the floor because your time is more strictly monitored and controlled. It's also a LOT more pressure when there is a 30-person lineup at your register. I also worked in customer service after Christmas which was surprisingly not as bad as I expected.

That said, I was 19, and I wasn't trying to support a family there, so I did not have the concerns that people with families might. Also, we have universal health care, so we don't have to worry about health insurance and all that, and our labour laws are probably somewhat different. It's probably quite different in the US. Wal-Mart also seems to have had a much more detrimental effect on small business in the US -- it's just not that controversial here. That said, I would prefer to work at Target!

I think you'd probably be put on the floor, watching over a particular department; on cash; or "store standards" who are the boys who do all the grunt work like taking heavy things out to customers' cars and gathering carts and cleaning up messes and stuff. You could also maybe work overnight stocking shelves.
posted by loiseau at 4:42 PM on May 7, 2007

My brother and his girlfriend both worked at Wal-Mart for a year, after getting laid off from pretty good paying high-tech positions. Now they're techies again.

My brother worked in the photo processing area, and from everything he told me it was one of the sweeter jobs available in the store. It's a little more interesting and specialized than most of the jobs, it's not physically stressful, and you have a more reasonable set of hours.

His girlfriend worked the checkout stands. Checkers were not allowed chairs, which sucked because she has a pre-existing health condition that made it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time. She complained, and first they got her off the check stands and cut her hours and had her doing suckier work, then they "forgot" her condition and put her back on the chairless checkout aisle, then they fired her for being a complainer.

I also used to know a stoner/alcoholic/drug dealer guy who worked there. I think it was his cover for the money he made as a drug dealer. He was rarely sober at work, and it didn't seem to be an impediment to his doing his job -- which was to constantly round up shopping carts from the parking lot and bring them into the store.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:43 PM on May 7, 2007

Read Behind The Counter, and you can form your own opinions (assuming no one chimes in with their own authentic experiences).
posted by kimota at 4:43 PM on May 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I've worked at Target and a few other retail joints with pretty much the same experiences as Indigo.
I'll add that your hours tend to either decrease on increase from what you were hired at.

My biggest pet peeve in retail: The managers will try to make you feel like the scum of the earth for not picking up extra shifts, staying late, taking time off for the family vacation, and even calling in sick. Ignore it- they won't fire you unless you absolutely suck and even then its iffy. Plus, once you say, "yes," they will come to you every.single.time (of course, this can be a good thing depending on your situation). All they're trying to do is cover their shifts to avoid getting crap from their superior- they really don't care about you. Maybe I'm a little jaded, but retail workers are a dime a dozen.

Along the same lines, if you don't tell them hours you want off (ie, every Thursday night), changing your schedule after being hired can be a constant battle.

If they want to you push carts, make sure they have an automated cart pusher to help. Pushing big trains in the middle of summer sucks.

Most likely, they'll cross-train you to work the floor, cashier, and the young male's job: cart-collector.
Working in food might be an option if your store has a Subway or something. That way, you can usually avoid having to actually work retail and just stick to food if it's your thing.

Make a few friends on the job, or at least find some people you get along with. It can become a very boring, soul-sucking job, even if just for a summer if you have nobody outside of the clients to talk to and vent a little.

Like IndigoRain said, invest in a very good pair of walking shoes or you'll regret it as you will be standing for long periods on end. Standing for 8 hours a day is helluva harder than you expect.

For a teenager, retails really not a bad job and like loiseau, you might even enjoy it.
posted by jmd82 at 4:56 PM on May 7, 2007

A close friend of mine worked at Wal-Mart a couple of years ago, this was in Twin Cities, Minnesota. His experiences were pretty close to what's described above. (And, he enjoyed a recreational sip from time to time, and it never seemed to keep him from being employed there, although I don't think he actually drank much while punched in.)

My impression is that there was a moderately decent boss there, and a fun crowd of co-workers on the night shift, things that wouldn't necessarily apply to every location.

Heavy lifting? Low pay? You bet. But after all the things that get said about Wal-Mart in the media, it was strange to hear stories about it being kind of a normal, low-end, run-of-the-mill place to work.
posted by gimonca at 5:00 PM on May 7, 2007

After high school, I worked for a year in a book warehouse before I went to college. After that I only worked white-collar jobs, but I think I am a better person for having worked that year in the warehouse.

I would say you should try it. Even if it turns out to be a crummy job, it's only 3 months, and you'll learn a lot that will serve you well later in life.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:17 PM on May 7, 2007

Thanks to a Blue FPP (500 Documentaries; too lazy to find it), here's something you might enjoy:

Wal-Mart Hatred is Bullshit

posted by The Deej at 5:18 PM on May 7, 2007

Yeah, every job has its ups and downs. If this is your first out-in-the-real-world job, you'll have a wake up call of some sort.

Whether or not you go crazy depends more on you than where you're working. Can you keep your cool when a customer chews you out because the sign for yogurt said $0.98 and it rang up as $0.99 (even though you can fix that yourself in less than 3 seconds), a case of pop explodes on you (and you get to clean it up), the cashier next door gets her break while yours is an hour late, and whoops, your drawer was off yesterday by more than $5, you get a pink slip, all in the same day?

It won't always be like that. You'll have good days, and dare I say it, you might even have some fun. :)
posted by IndigoRain at 5:23 PM on May 7, 2007

I worked in the warehouse at a Wal-Mart one summer while I was in university. My position was called "Inventory Control Specialist (ICS)", and I worked from late morning until six at night (I think... maybe it was seven). It wasn't a terrible summer job, except for the sucky pay. It consisted of mostly manual labour: Unloading trucks, loading pallets, and a little bit of shelf-stocking. It was better than working on the floor the entire time because you didn't have to deal with customers as much, and the dress code wasn't as strict (we were allowed to wear shorts, normal employees on the floor were not).

It was an interesting place to work. Management was fairly inept. I had a scheduling problem for weeks at a time (I kept getting scheduled to work weekends, when everyone on our team was supposed to rotate those shifts) that was only solved when the entire scheduling system for our team was changed.

They definitely put us to work when it was busy, trying to get us to unload the trucks faster and faster. The next summer, when I worked in a real warehouse unloading trucks, they actually cared about us not dehydrating or passing out from exhaustion inside the truck, whereas they didn't seem to care at Wal-Mart.

I should mention, ICS was a full-time position with very set hours - when we were done for the day, the receiving team (whose hours overlapped with ours) took over, so we were never asked to work overtime, paid or unpaid.

Possibly the most interesting part of life at Wal-Mart is your fellow coworkers. There is definitely an interesting mix of folks who there. What I found most interesting were the Lifers - typically older cashiers and floor workers fanatically devoted to the company. When one of my teammates said something bad about Wal-Mart in the break room, he was practically screamed at. Weird stuff.
posted by threetoed at 5:40 PM on May 7, 2007

I worked as a "Stockman" (cart collecting and merchandise carryout) at a location in Portland, OR for a while. At our location, we were treated reasonably well. The various lawsuits against the company seem to have done a lot to improve managers' behavior toward workers - they now actively discourage working off the clock. If you work hard (or at least steadily), show up on time, and are nice to the customers you won't have any trouble beyond what you'd have to deal with at any job.

If you're in reasonably good shape and don't mind working nights (I think it's 4 to 1), I'd recommend working as a truck unloader. The pay is okay (for an entry-level Wal-Mart job), it's indoors, and you don't have to deal with customers, who were probably the most stressful part of the job for me. If you're willing to work even later hours, overnight stockers get about a dollar an hour more.

If you get a regular customer service job, I'd recommend trying to get morning shifts - people are much nicer in the morning.

It's an okay place to work, especially if you know it's only going to be for a couple of months.
posted by concrete at 5:41 PM on May 7, 2007

If you only intend for this to be summer job before college then your job satisfaction will greatly depend on the quality and likeability of your immediate manager or managers and your co-workers. They can make the place really fun or make it suck real hard.
posted by mmascolino at 5:53 PM on May 7, 2007

Check out the chapter on Walmart in Nickel and Dimed.
posted by sneakin at 6:15 PM on May 7, 2007

It sounds like you might want to consider Starbucks, since they have benefits. However, I've heard good things about Wal-Mart and I know someone whose ex-husband became a store manager by the time he was 25 or so. If you buy hand sanitizer, try looking for something alcohol-free, so that your hands don't dry out. And make sure you have caller ID for your phone, so that you can prepare your response before you're called to cover a shift or come in early. If you live with other people, train them to let the call go to voice mail or to come and tell you that there's a call from your employer coming through.
posted by acoutu at 6:44 PM on May 7, 2007

Sorry for the semi-derail (the Wal-Mart stories are interesting), but just in case you want to try an opportunity that isn't Wal-Mart:

The summer between high school and college, I worked as "the" cook at a local KinderCare. It was pretty great; hot, hectic, but I was in charge of feeding snacks and lunch to about 65 little kids every day. The manager gave me some instructions the first day, after that it was mostly my show. Looking back, that's maybe a little unusual for a 17-year-old short girl, but I did know how to cook (although doing it on that scale was a little different). I think it was a great job experience in terms of building my confidence and establishing myself as a "self-starter" on my later resume.

Anyway, just to say: there are probably child-care opportunities around, if that's your cup of tea.
posted by amtho at 7:28 PM on May 7, 2007

All of these responses have been great--thanks! I've marked a few, but I really did appreciate all of the answers...they'll certainly help me.

I think I'll most likely apply. Thanks for all the stories and tips, and if anyone has any more, feel free to share!
posted by DMan at 7:57 PM on May 7, 2007

Oh, FYI... All of the retail jobs I have worked for major corporations (2 of them) have required a pee-in-a-cup drug test before employment. Wasn't a problem for me, but you may want to take a little break from the recreational stuff if that is your wont.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:06 PM on May 7, 2007

Human Rights Watch says Wal-Mart has some problems.
posted by robcorr at 8:16 PM on May 7, 2007

All of the retail jobs I have worked for major corporations (2 of them) have required a pee-in-a-cup drug test before employment.

Just to support that, my last brush with the Target universe involved filling out drug-test paperwork in advance, so everything would be ready just in case they made a job offer. They had little labels printed out and ready for the specimen jars and everything.
posted by gimonca at 9:33 PM on May 7, 2007

I've worked retail (but in Canada where there are a few more human rights) at a slightly nicer than Walmart dept store.

Store managers are generally your worst enemy, but there are usually a lot of cute, friendly girls around too. Most of the staffers will be cool, but the lifers are hardcore - don't do or say anything bad in their presence - pretend you are one of them when you speak with them.

Standing on those hard floors all day is hard on your back and legs - wear good shoes, and try to stand on a fatigue mat or some folded cardboard boxes; especially if your job means you have to stand in one place - moving around is not so bad. As mentioned, these places are a lot dirtier than shoppers often realize and if you are serving customers expect them to treat you like a complete idiot.
posted by Deep Dish at 9:50 PM on May 7, 2007

acoutu: It sounds like you might want to consider Starbucks, since they have benefits.

Unless their policies have changed since I left, their benefits don't kick in until your seventh month at the company working over 20hrs/week. This doesn't help in his situation.

This brings up a good point for DMan: when you leave for school, leave on good terms. No matter where you end up working and no matter how much you like it, make sure you give your notice and have your manager remember you well. Don't burn bridges and be eligible for re-hire. Take care of this because you might need to go back during your summer breaks or want to work part-time during school for beer money. One of the benefits of Wal-Mart and the other national retailers is that they are everywhere and good for a fall-back paycheck when you are in between other commitments. If you've already been hired and trained, another location is more likely to hire you on than somebody else off the street.

Sorry for the fatherly-sounding advice, but a job like this is a good place to learn how to navigate the working world.
posted by peeedro at 6:48 AM on May 8, 2007

Thanks for that, peeedro--that was another one of my reasons for considering Wal-Mart, actually--that I'd be able to find a job later, in a pinch.

Thanks for the help, all. I love the stories!
posted by DMan at 4:37 PM on May 8, 2007

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