Bagging Groceries Taught Me Everything I Needed to Know About Being an Executive, Part 1
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” Pele
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” Stephen King
Lesson 1 – Whatever the job is, try to be the best at it. People notice, and it matters.
My first “real” job was at Piggly Wiggly Southern®, a grocery store chain that was primarily based in Georgia in the 70’s and 80's. I had various jobs before this one. I worked at the Augusta National when the Master’s Tournament was in town, cut grass around the neighborhood and was a camp counselor/instructor for the local Boy Scout Summer Camp. However, this was the first job where I would be working regularly year-round.
I was 16, in high school and needed money to pay for the car I had just purchased. I had the choice of driving the aging vehicles that my parents no longer wanted, or getting a job to pay for something nicer myself. I chose the latter, so now I needed money!
My best friend worked there and he offered to talk to the manager about me. We did a cursory interview and I was hired as a bag boy. Those were the days when everyone expected to have their groceries bagged (paper, of course) and then taken outside and placed neatly inside the car. I can still recall that someone spending $100 on groceries was a big event that would result in two fully loaded carts and the promise of a nice tip! Tips! Clearly performance mattered!
I believe my starting salary was $3.35 an hour.
I reported on my first day and we began to train. You might ask “what training? You are putting groceries in a bag!” I thought that as well, but I quickly realized that there was an art to what looked like a simple activity. My friend took me under his wing and explained the basics. We used the large paper bags made from a renewable resource, not the flimsy plastic bags made from a non-renewable resource we all use now.
The first thing he showed me was how bagging was done, and there was more going on than I thought! First you had to get behind the cashier (giving them space) and prepare by opening the bag upright on your counter and placing your left hand inside it. You used your right hand to grab an item and then you let it slide down your left arm where that hand caught it and placed it in the proper position. Using both hands to place items in the bag was inefficient and a rookie mistake!
Then there was the grouping of items. Cleaning supplies should never be placed with food items, canned goods should always be placed on the bottom, cold items should always be placed together (if wet, double bagged) and fragile items (bread, eggs) should always go on top. Frozen items got double wrapped within the larger bag to keep them cold on the drive home.
If all this was done correctly, each bag would be perfectly filled and would stand on its own. I always found it oddly satisfying to see a perfectly filled grocery bag sitting on the counter.
I learned that someone (me) had to fill the bags under the counter when they got low, and that there were a variety of different sizes for different products. I also learned that if you didn’t do this simple task correctly, the next person might reach for the size bag they needed and not find it, slowing down the entire checkout process. I also discovered that if you placed them upside down, pulling one out would cause them to all spill out on the floor.
I learned how to mop. The bag boys were responsible for the front of the store and that is where the managers office was. They knew the first and last thing the customer saw was the entrance, so management was deeply interested in keeping things clean! I learned the most efficient method to mop a large tile floor, and my muscles still find that easy cadence every time I clean up something today. I also learned how to clean a bathroom, although that wasn’t in the job description!
I learned that the relationship between the bag boy and the cashier was important. If they were both in sync, the cashier would make the bag boy better by thinking about the next item to ring up by considering what they had just rung up. I hated it when I would get eggs, detergent, milk, canned goods, bread, cans, etc. You would end up with 6 bags open and no room! If the bag boy wasn’t efficient, the cashier would find themselves with a huge pile of groceries waiting to be bagged and angry customers wanting to know why things were so slow.
I took pride in the job! I wanted to be the best and fastest bag boy in the store and wanted to be “go to” guy for all the cashiers. I wanted all the managers to want me on their shift. I listened closely and tried to be the best bag boy I could be! Almost immediately I began to get more hours and better shifts than some of my peers.
I learned that you need to try and be the best at what you are doing regardless of what you are doing. If you do that, people will notice and opportunities will present themselves. That lesson is a significant factor in why I have had a successful career, and I am blessed to have learned it so young.
I’ll get back to project management topics in a while, but I am going to spend a little time discussing how that first job went. I was there for several years, at one point putting off college for a management job! I got rewarded and I got in trouble. I had good friends and people I thought were good friends who stabbed me in the back. I traveled all over the state opening stores, had a variety of positions and learned lessons that are useful today. I also saw that little company expand dramatically across Georgia and into South Carolina, and then collapse because of bad management decisions. Ultimately, I was laid off when my store closed, but I can honestly say that I was never unemployed for even one day. There are lessons in that as well.