Retail Recovery Ain't No Spoonful of Sugar

As Yule time decorations and lawn displays get packed up and stored away, this is a good time for a collective salute to a group of people who work hard and often anonymously. Their efforts helped maintain an orderly inventory of merchandise for holiday consumers, and I'm not talking about little toymakers at the North Pole.

With all due respect to Santa's elves, my shout-out is intended for real world employees at shopping venues across this country who participate in the never-ending procedure known as "recovery." Everyone who's worked in retail sales knows what that word stands for. Being on recovery duty is like cleaning up after a storm. It means picking up the pieces, literally, after crowds of shoppers have stormed through the aisles.

The task can be especially daunting when it involves clothing items. A vivid example occurred last November at a Nike outlet in Seattle. Visual evidence went viral on the web (
and showed a chaotic landscape of shoes and empty boxes that was knee-deep in spots. To me the images were awesome but definitely not surprising.

My most intense recovery experiences occurred when I worked in a large department store. Sorting and reorganizing displays of shirts, jeans, athletic gear, and other apparel often went on late into the night after closing time. I often thought of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill only to see it roll down day after day, but he probably would have traded places with me in a heartbeat. "You've got it so good," he'd say. "I'm on a steep slope, with this same boring rock forever. You have a level surface to walk on, and a whole bunch of different things to look at while you put them back."

If you wonder why stores don't have strict rules against what I call "stampede shopping" the answer is simple: they're responding to the realities of modern market competition. Allowing patrons to touch and feel the goods is one key advantage brick-and-mortar businesses have over online commerce. Giving a potential gift item an up close and personal inspection is the best way to make an informed buying decision.

Mary Poppins, as portrayed by Julie Andrews, also figured prominently in my recovery ruminations. In that scene where the kids balk at tidying up their bedroom, Mary cheerfully tells them you just have to find the fun in every chore and (snaps fingers) "the job's a game!" Then she starts singing 'A Spoonful of Sugar' and with every snap the bed sheets arrange themselves, clothes fly into dresser drawers, and domestic order is quickly and happily restored.

It would've been great having Ms. Poppins working beside me, but I'm not sure how long her merry melody would have lasted. Confronting a massive array of clothing chaos is enough to dampen even the most magical mood. Shirts come in crew neck, V-neck, mock turtle, long or short sleeve, all needing to be stacked separately and organized by size. Blue jeans can be boot cut, straight leg, relaxed fit, all with different waist and inseam measurements. And that's just one small segment of the sales floor. At the end of each shift, I'm pretty sure Mary's hands would be skinned and bloody from so much finger snapping.

The task that still sends chills down my spine involved a rack of women's tops that was a mass of garments and hangers all tangled and mashed together. A colleague named Russell helped me get them re-hung and neatly arranged by size. He didn't shirk or complain, and it was grueling, but we succeeded. There's a lot of news these days about automation replacing human workers, but when I think back to that ravaged rack of tops I cannot believe any robotic device could ever replace someone like Russell.

Retail recovery is a job that requires a human skill set: manual dexterity, attention to detail, perseverance, and determination. You can call it a game but a more accurate image would be a methodical, ongoing battle. And customers will always have a better shopping experience when the Recovery Team wins.

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