Everything was cool up until the summer of 2015. The day where it first occurred to many of them that maybe this company was no longer on the upswing. Their owner has just called a meeting, to announce the closing of their original location, Liberty Avenue, which somehow endured in this town, in a beleaguered, not exactly great spot, from the late 1970s up until now. And also, oh yeah, that their president, who had received the news earlier than his employees, had just picked this morning to tender his resignation as well.
"I don't think you know what you're doing," he had told the acting owner, Rob Drake, a quote which has somehow already become common knowledge, and is basically disputed by no one, not even the man it is directly aimed at.
But they are a relatively strong cast of seasoned veterans, those assembled in this conference room, and nobody immediately freaks out. Even with the closing of Liberty – which, in fairness, isn't exactly a news flash, although everyone had remained optimistic it might weather the storm – they have three other locations, all of which are performing somewhere in the range of fair to strong, and this business has endured setbacks before. They will be okay.
Once the unavoidable vague if nervous giddiness associated with even bad news wears off, however, many will wonder what this means re their future president, then. Much subsequent hand-wringing will ensue. Some muse that an outsider would represent the best thing for this company, while others opine that an outsider is about the last thing this company needs. And all the while their lame duck of a president admits that he really isn't sure what he plans on doing after leaving this place, only that it isn't this.
The very structure of this enterprise is an odd one, though it's been working, on a mostly uphill slope, for over 25 years. Bellwether Snacks, a wholesale operation shipping packaged goodies around the globe, was founded decades upon decades earlier by one Walter Locke, a former peanut vendor turned self-made multimillionaire. He and his faithful wife, Beatrice, both now safely in their late 70s yet still quite active, slowly increased their holdings and their spread across the years, to its current state of a half dozen distribution centers throughout the United States. In 1979, as a "hobby," Beatrice persuaded Walter to let her open the Healthy Hippie Market, a funky little shop on a major thoroughfare, in a major city. A store dedicated to the sort of lifestyle its name might imply – green, local, sustainable. Over the years the ol' Healthy Hippie has undergone a mind-boggling array of permutations, until we reach this dim summer morning, and the announcement that its flagship store is, well, throwing in that flag.
Edgar arrived on the scene eight years and some change earlier, in yon sepia tinted January of two thousand and seven. In retrospect, it must have been obvious to everyone that he was slumming it. A lot of them were. His particular situation is that he's just moved to this state, and grabbed the first thing he could find. So yeah, the pay's not great, but he's not complaining – he kind of likes this kooky little mom and pop operation. And when thinks back upon these early days, his thoughts inevitably lead to his first curated trek around their Palmyra outpost.
"If you think this place is dysfunctional," Corey Brown is telling him, guiding Edgar through this meandering tour, "you should see it at inventory time. I think they find these people 4 in the morning at the bowling alley."
Corey Brown is the assistant store manager at Palmyra. His incongruous appearance matches that of Palmyra's, which has nothing in common with either of its big city stores to the south. Towering and burly both, in the Paul Bunyan model, and often even dresses the part. Big on the corduroy pants and the flannel shirts, for instance. But with a curly mop of bright orange hair and matching goatee, as though Bunyan's distant Irish cousin.
Currently Corey is conducting a tour of the Palmyra location. Escorting Edgar about the premises, to point out various highlights, challenges, and possible future projects. Palmyra is one of the wealthiest per capita little towns in this region, an enclave of upper-class white people, as far as its residential base. But it's also a college town. Hence, this outpost attempts catering to both of these demographics, somewhat. Only somewhat because, as is often the case during tours like these, what he is being "officially" shown is probably not all that important…but a lot of the background noise, so to speak, the stuff Edgar's seeing elsewhere might be.
Like, okay, this Palmyra location apparently just cleared out the utility room two weeks ago, to make room for a new water tank. Outside, on the concrete slab of a back dock, they've set a table that looks like maybe it was stolen from a laundromat, out there to rot, next to some empty greeting card racks, items that were apparently in the utility room, prior to this. There are weird objects just lying on the floor in the hallway, such as a paring knife, and a shrimp fork, though it's unclear whether these precede the new water tank or not. Yet even for a shop with Hippie in its store name, these seem like odd touches for this demographic, this lack of concern for appearances.
Then again, this is all stuff behind the curtain, really, which the average customer wouldn't see. So this old hot plate tossed casually aside by the ice machine, or old wooden baskets, and ugly white foot cases with black matting which nearly block the back door are maybe not that big of a deal.
Some of the decisions limiting their work space are a bit more puzzling, however. The produce department's back room is almost entirely taken up by twin rows of shopping carts, which cashiers are apparently halfway through re-stickering in their spare time. Carts gotten on a deal from some other grocery store, which admittedly do look pretty decent. A folding table has been casually laid atop some of these, which in turn has become a convenient catch all for stacking crap. Meanwhile, in the meat department, one of their walk-in coolers is blocked by a rack of meat coats, which nobody can apparently find another place for. Whenever they need to get in there, they move it out of the way, and then move it back.
Edgar does wonder what the health department might think about that one, but he isn't an expert on these matters. And anyway it's none of his business, nor one of his concerns. It's a bit weird, though, that the assistant store manager is describing this place as dysfunctional, with a rueful laugh, as if out of his hands – but then again, Edgar thinks he already digs this lowkey establishment much better than the corporate world he left behind. And Corey's attitude surely reflects this laidback atmosphere, high priced all-natural market or not. And possibly the all-hands-on-deck mentality they either encourage or have no choice but to accept here: like how the water tank has already flooded twice in just two weeks, and their company president, Duane Hatley, went around installing replacement floor tiles himself. They were without hot water for a day and a half at this store, however, calling into question perhaps whether this water tank was actually "new."
The job sounds straightforward enough. They are a tiny chain of 3 retail outlets, specializing in natural and locally sourced products, for health minded individuals. Though Bellwether Snacks owns them, these stores have relatively complete autonomy, so long as they are profitable. Healthy Hippie Market doesn't really have its own accounting department, and nobody inside the stores whatsoever, but Edgar Lodge will be the closest thing to it.
It's a position that hasn't existed before. Edgar's primary role will be to go through every single invoice, make sure each item is charged to the correct department. Then to make sure the correct retails are charged on the products, based upon that department's margin. He must also make sure the correct tax rates are applied to these products, based upon some truly mind-numbing finer points of this fair state's tax code.
Still, it all sounds somewhat basic, just a lot of concentration upon tiny details and a baseline of standard math/accounting type knowledge. He had turned in his application at the Palmyra store nearly a month earlier, during which time they'd seemed extremely excited and assured him they would call back right away; it was only this outrageous enthusiasm which prompted him to call back on two separate occasions, because nobody from the store ever had. Each time a different management figure gushed forth with assurances that yes, they were still interested. Eventually, his application somehow wound up clear down at the Southside location – coffee stained, he is told, fittingly enough, and not by him for once – and they gave him a ring.
The afternoon he is hired, they explain that they had originally found someone else online, who called on the day he was supposed to start, to say this was too much of a drive, and that he wasn't interested. That was 3 weeks ago. Prior to this, Teri Barnette, the IT person, was updating the prices and adding new items when she had time, when people emailed her such, but this wasn't really an IT job and she was spread a little too thin to perform both roles. But sales were increasing and they needed to get more on top of things, and a whole lot more beyond that.
Though he will be working out of the Southside store, an hour south in the big city of Chesboro, one of Edgar's first orders of business is to catalog the massive wine collection at Palmyra. If he understands the current situation correctly, the HHM at one time had a cash register slash database system called Trampoline years ago, but then got away from this in favor of hand tagging everything the old fashioned way. Only recently have they installed a brand new software program, Orchestra, but a large percentage of the product still needs to be added into that system.
This is where Edgar comes into the mix, per Corey's chief priority. One entire aisle is taken up by this huge wooden wine cabinet, double sided, stained some dark color and really looking like something you'd expect to see in a cigar shop which also sells high priced vino. The thing is even taller than Corey and jammed to the hilt with all manner of product. Edgar spends two full days scanning every bottle, printing out a new tag if it's missing or incorrect, and then writing down all pertinent information if it doesn't ring at the register.
It's probably telling that before he ever gets down to serious business, behind his desk at the Southside store, the head honcho here assigns him the exact same task, first thing. The store manager at South is Destiny Davis and, unlike Corey, she majorly dresses the part of your consummate flower child. Long, flowing, multi-colored and intricately patterned skirts, billowing blouses, jangling jewelry. Haired dyed a vibrant orange, most of the time – so they have that much in common, although Corey's is presumably natural – and granny glasses, plus this perfume just about every day which is vaguely tropical and reminds Edgar of the Flamingo casino out in Las Vegas. She also has this manner of walking which vaguely resembles someone flopping herself forward, arms advancing slightly after the rest of the body, which calls to mind a teenager maybe only halfway joking as she protests doing her chores.
Still, she seems pleasant enough, and even rewards Edgar with a six pack of Bell's Oberon as thanks for a job well done with the wine. While he is sorting through the wine situation out here on the floor – their display is only slightly less intimidating than Palmyra's, one side of a normal grocery aisle and then various islands beside it – she is continually bringing things in from the back dock, too, some dated as far back as 2002, for him to scan. Alcohol seems to be a matter of pressing urgency for these bosses, but apparently not that pressing.
Otherwise, the time has come for settling in behind his desk, and learning the lay of the land. Whenever Teri Barnette has time, she shows him the ropes as far as the pieces of his job she's been performing – beyond this, he's basically on his own.
The second floor at Southside consists of a conference room, one wall a bank of windows overlooking the grocery store floor, the opposite one behind it opening up into three offices. As Edgar and Teri work from a pair of desks in the middle office, they've got the company president, Duane Hatley, on one side of them, and then the department heads on the other. Edgar knows spreadsheets, and basic accounting principles, anything else he'd pretty much need to be aware of on that front, but the Orchestra software is foreign to him. Teri's a bit older, somewhat of a tomboy – or possibly make that a self-reliant country homesteader, at least in appearance and mannerisms, situated directly between Corey and Destiny – and does a tremendous job explaining everything to him. She's also kind of funny, extremely level headed, and really one of the few like-minded individuals he's met at this company thus far.
It's going to take a while to sort out impressions of his Southside brethren. From what he's seen of the Palmyra crew, they are a bit more streamlined up there, as far as personalities and demographics represented. And while Edgar has yet to meet a single soul over at Liberty Avenue, or set foot inside that store, he's guessing they're not quite as wide-ranging as this Southside bunch, either. Also, he is reminded of what it was like moving to a new school, for example, where it seems like everybody already knows a ton about him, but he has no clue who they are. One afternoon in the early going he steps into the department head office and encounters the vitamin merchandiser, Dale Paquette, and one of the vitamin employees down there on the floor, a short, squat black woman given to wearing cab driver hats, Rachel, mid-conversation.
"Edgar's the partner in crime," Dale says, looking up and roping him into whatever this is, as soon as he enters the room.
"With what?" he questions, grinning.
Dale's a tall, gaunt, somewhat skeletal guy of indeterminate age, given to wearing baseball caps. Which, along with his glinting, gold rimmed glasses, somehow lends him the appearance of a slightly mischievous little kid. Even though he's heard from a handful of others that Dale continues to suffer all sorts of health problems, he is one of those people whose somewhat frail and sickly state has, however improbably, made him appear much younger.
"Oh, it'll be like that Will Ferrell skit from Saturday Night Live, what was that, him and that other guy were…," Dale explains, as he does his weird, repetitive neck tilting maneuver.
"Night at the Roxbury?" Edgar questions. And already, he has this inkling that, whatever conversation he stumbled into, these two were actually talking about something else, but then Dale smoothly pivoted into this other topic.
"Yeah. Think that'll work?" Dale asks.
"If it were the late 90s, maybe…" says Edgar.
Rachel, briefly silent up to this point, pipes up by inquiring, "so what's Edgar's game, then?"
"I don't have any game," he tells them.
"Should I tell the girls I work at Healthy Hippie Market? Think that'll impress them?" Dale wonders.
"Mmm, not so much," Edgar replies.
"Okay, what about a fry cook at McDonald's? Would that be better?"
"It might," Rachel admits.
Dale offers a knowing grin and a sort of what's up? nod in Edgar's direction and tells Rachel, "you know he's mackin' on all kinds of girls, how many girls you mackin' on right now, Edgar?"
"A gentleman never tells," Edgar drily replies.
Rachel howls and brings her hands together in a clap, once, holding them there. "Ooh hoo HOO! Now we know he's got a lot of 'em!"
"That many, huh?" Dale says, then tells Rachel, "you know, he sits over there in his office and sends Duane emails on everything we talk about. He just sits there quiet and records everything."
"I'm on your side," Edgar insists.
"Mmm hmm," Rachel says, not buying it.
About five minutes later, he's sitting in his office, poring over a spreadsheet. He has no idea that these two are peeking around the edge of the door, watching him, until Rachel starts cracking up.
"Look at him! He always acts so innocent!" she declares, now that he's aware of their presence.
"You know he flipped over to that screen real quick," Dale agrees.
The weird thing about this exchange is that this is for all intents the first conversation he's had with either of them, apart from being introduced by Teri, briefly, days earlier. That and he has absolutely no idea what any of this is about. He thinks he played along admirably under the circumstances, but yeah, not a clue what their conversation meant.
Southside opened in March 2004 and is without question the current prize jewel of this operation. The previous occupant was apparently a Harris Teeter where, reputable sources insist, a store manager was shot to death in his office. Bellwether Snacks/Healthy Hippie Market were subsequently able to lease it for a song, though not so much because of this shooting, rather that at this time, this was somewhat of a downtrodden, forgotten district.
Credit goes to Duane Hatley and an assist to owner Walter Locke for being visionaries, and recognizing that this would soon enough become a revitalized, trendy zone. Now, some three years in, with HHM a crucial if not the original modern tenant pumping fresh blood into this region, the rebound has already begun. Understandably enough, nobody was exactly clamoring to fill that office where the shooting transpired, which is one reason it became an employee restroom, in a hallway behind the conference room. But at least there aren't any reports of haunting (Palmyra claims all sorts of paranormal activity, however, odd as it seems), which is amazing for a building with this kind of history.
Then again, this store, if not the company as a whole, represents a study in contradictions. Incongruities abound. For example, though without question beautiful, and despite a front wall consisting mostly of window, and what is theoretically ample lighting, the sales floor in this store always seems a smidge too dingy, to Edgar, he is forever wishing they'd gone for just a pinch more illumination. At first he thinks it's just the darker color schemes forming this impression, but pictures taken within the various locations will bear this out. Then again, this could just be because he's endlessly squinting at price tags and UPCs down here.
Also, this establishment has to be one of the most trigger-happy companies he's ever worked for, although they tend to fire people for what seem like weird reasons. One day he happens to be up in Palmyra when some guy in the meat department – his name might have been Jerry – was walking around and approaching customers with two different cuts of steak in his hands, asking them which of the two looked better. It seems some new program had been introduced to bring in prepackaged cuts, which this dude had been bitching mightily about. His point in this exercise was to demonstrate proof that fresh cut steaks were better; instead, what this stunt established was how quick he could find his way to the exit. Management canned him later that day, having apparently suffered their fill of this guy's antics.
Others were much more understandable. Like the new hire, Max, who was walking around sticking his hands under various bulk bins, helping himself to a litany of samples. When asked what on earth he thought he was doing, he shrugged and explained he thought the stuff was free for employees. It also maybe didn't help that he didn't seem to be doing any work, ever, as he too was immediately shown the door.
But then on the flipside, there were a handful of folks who'd already been fired once, then brought back under whatever mysterious circumstances. Grocery merchandiser Harry Redcrow was one such individual, although everyone said he had a longstanding history with Duane Hatley which would take volumes to explain. Yet after a number of weeks, Edgar begins to gain a feel for which people seemed were sure to stick around. They had maybe a certain essence about them that you couldn't really explain, subconsciously cluing you in that they were, if not lifers, then certainly in for the long haul. A solid twenty five percent of them seemed to have prior history together, too, at a former local establishment named Frilly's, which had gone under a few years back, and this only served to strengthen such ties.
Still, this isn't to suggest that most of these souls were conventional or predictable, in any sense of those terms. And one of the more baffling individuals he encounters would be the current bulk manager at Southside, this older guy who talks pretty much nonstop. Everyone says he's in his early 60s, though to his credit, he doesn't really look it. Everyone also says that he's gay, although nobody really cares about that, of course, not in these enlightened times, not in this progressive industry. Much more discussion and bewilderment stems from his often curious work performance, and also that he speaks in a thick French accent, claims to be a thoroughbred French...even though his given name is Pierre O'Brien.
"Dude, he ain't French," grocery manager Craig Willis declares one day in the department head office, as a few of them discuss this point in hushed tones. Though Edgar's pretty much just listening, absorbing this debate, a slightly older woman, Barbara, who works in some sort of vague marketing capacity here, is defending the absent Pierre.
"I've seen his birth certificate, actually, believe it or not," Dale Paquette offers, and appears to be 100% serious, "it says he was born in Michigan."
Edgar feels like the jury's still out on Dale, although thus far, he is checking out okay as one of the quote unquote good guys. In fact, he reminds Edgar a great deal of one of his closest friends – which might not mean a ton, though usually a positive sign. However, without question, Craig Willis is somebody he vibed with right away, the first totally normal person he has met at this store apart from Teri Barnette (and possibly Duane, although as company president, there's always going to be a barrier there in the chumminess department). Craig is so normal it seems outlandish that he could possibly ever work at this place. A somewhat muscular guy of slightly above average height, with a shaved head and goatee, given to wearing jeans and polo shirts on the job, Craig's favorite stunt is to walk over to the golden arches next door, grab some lunch, and trudge back here with it, perfuming these all natural aisles with those gloriously noxious fumes, before he bunkers down in the break room with his grub. After which is one of the few to ever be found enjoying a cigarette behind the building. Safe to say, he does not toe the line with this hippie scene in the slightest.
Well, even if Edgar's not exactly hitting it off gangbusters with this Pierre character, there's no denying he can be somewhat comical at times. Pierre's comical in the way that a relentless gossiper and complainer – of which this prissy old tart is both – can occasionally hit the nail on the head, or least conjure up some hilarious one liners, ranting and raving about somebody else, or a vexing situation.
Their first real interaction occurs down in the bulk department, as Edgar's walking the floor with a handful of invoices, attempting to decode where a few of these mystery items were going. Instead of arriving at many answers, however, he instead finds himself besieged by one of Pierre's broadsides. His story is that he was originally ran the bulk department here, then was shipped out a year or so ago, to Liberty Avenue as an assistant store manager. About a week before Edgar's arrival, lucky him, Pierre was brought back for a second tour of duty at Southside, to run the bulk department and act as assistant store manager here.
"What am I going to do with all this candy!?" he moans, in his high-pitched, French accentuated English, gesturing wildly at this section of their bulk bins, "People that shop here don't want candy! Never mind that this is supposed to be an all natural grocery store and we are not even supposed to have this stuff. But Willie keeps ordering all of this stuff. Chick-O-Sticks? What am I going to do with all of this crap?"
Edgar was in the middle of filling out what came to four pages of items that either had no PLU number on the bin, had the wrong price, or rang up as the wrong thing. Then he turns over his findings to Pierre, to track down where these products came from, or what its name might be – one challenge almost exclusive to the bulk department being that there are no barcodes, like 99% of the items in this modern world, nor even a universal agreed upon number like produce (4011 for bananas being the one number the vast majority of grocery employees in the galaxy would know; throw a 9 in front and you have the organic PLU). In many instances, with bulk, if unable to trace a product's origin, it comes down to an eye test, and attempt to figure out precisely what this might be.
Late afternoon, Pierre arrives up in Teri and Edgar's office, to deliver his findings. Pierre's extremely fired up about the state of the bulk department upon his glorious return, though, and it seems that Edgar's inquiries have only fueled this inclination.
"Some of this stuff I can't find, I'm not even sure where he got it," Pierre's commiserating to Teri, with whom he has a much more extensive rapport, "Lemon Heads? Atomic Fire Balls?"
Edgar starts chuckling over at his desk, which causes Pierre to whip his head around and declare, "it's not funny!"
"You're right," Edgar agrees, straightening up somewhat, "it isn't."
"Last time when I got here, we had to put $5000 worth of candy out on the back dock and give it away. Because nobody wants it, it just sits there. Then I leave for a few months and come back, and Willie's ordered all this crap in again!"
The infamous Willie in question is Willie Holt, a cashier. Things get a little murky here. Apparently Willie has also been running a dual role until the moment of Pierre's return, although even now, he hasn't exactly been stripped of his bulk duties, either. They're just scaling his responsibilities back substantially in this department. Almost without exception, though, Edgar would prefer speaking to Willie rather than Pierre. Willie is a black man of roughly the same age as Edgar, and clearly, it's safe to say, located at some point on the autism spectrum. But he also happens to be extremely friendly, high functioning, really smart in many ways and, well, bottom line just easier to deal with than Pierre.
Even so, a little diplomacy is in order. Edgar feels that the point of his job isn't to bust specific people out, it's to straighten out this company's numbers. The next time around, he approaches Willie instead, with his clutch of invoices, attempts to be cheery and conversational.
"This department is very confusing," Edgar says.
"Well," Willie laughs, "I guess if you haven't worked over here much, then it would be."
Edgar's willing to take this bullet, in the name of getting results, because it really doesn't matter. The point is to make sure this stuff is correct, not thump chests or point fingers. And the bottom line about this kind of work, the reason he feels he is so good at it, is that it truly is fun for him to straighten out these details. It reminds him of a primitive video game he might have played as a teenager.
He thinks about that old chestnut, about how you should consider what you'd do with your time if you were insanely wealthy...and whatever that answer is, this is what you should be doing for a career, right now. And maybe that's true, who knows. The problem with this exercise, though, is that most of them will never have any concept of what it's like to be insanely wealthy. So he believes a better mental model might be asking oneself: if your job were a video game, would you play it in your free time? And he believes that the answer to this for him, in this role, is yes. Yes he would.
So, sure, he might chuckle to himself, or share that chuckle with select trusted cronies, about some of the things he's encountering. It doesn't mean he's indicting anyone behind these stunts – and who knows, the current figure representing a department might not even be the person responsible. There's probably no paper trail anywhere that would explain why the Just Nutty snack mix, in an aha! moment he's stumbling upon at this moment, going through the invoices and asking Willie the occasional question, why this is priced at $5.85 per pound, even though it costs them $9.60. And that, in a further amusing twist, to punch in the handwritten PLU number at the register, it actually comes up as Nerds candy for yet another lowball figure.
Not that these hilarities are limited to the bulk department. Like there's this fancy incense display that has a sign saying 20 cents each, 10 for $1.75, 20 for $3.20 and 100 for $15. But there are no PLU numbers listed anywhere – nor do any exist in the system – for breaking out these various price points. There are just baggies preprinted with a barcode, which doesn't scan anyway. He's guessing that despite the UPC, what happens is that the cashier asks the customer how many are in here, nods and hits the generic department key to punch in a price.
There's no denying he finds this process endlessly fascinating, and would comb the store, armed with paperwork and a magnifying glass, for twelve hours a day if they would let him. And for the most part, this is what he does, armed with his growing battery of Excel formulas, and ever increasing knowledge of the Orchestra software. Duane has given him the keys to the kingdom, for the most part, in setting retail prices for this chain. A couple key exceptions are that Dale wants Edgar to email him all noteworthy vitamin/health & beauty findings, to sign off on or determine himself, and that Arnie Greenberg, the produce merchandiser, asks for the same in his department. Otherwise, just about the only x factor is that Duane himself occasionally comes up with a pet project, usually a new product line, and has something specific in mind for it.
One such project crops up on a Friday afternoon, after Edgar's already been on the job about a month. Duane has stepped into the next office over with some barcodes and a list of prices for a product line he's introducing at Liberty Avenue alone, at least for now. Furthermore, he's suggesting that maybe Edgar should drive these tags over himself, and explain what they are, because he doesn't quite trust that crew not to take one look at the shelf tags (Edgar can log in remotely to their office computers, and print them from here, which is how he's been operating thus far), fail to recognize the product, and pitch them.
"I actually haven't even been to Liberty yet," Edgar admits. Original store or not, its weekly volume and smaller size have left it flying perpetually under the radar. To put the situation mildly.
Duane offers him a broad grin, and in his thick Georgia accent, says, "well, now's your chance!"
Both in size and appearance, Liberty Avenue more closely resembles your average, single proprietor owned, charming little convenience store more than it does an all-natural market. And moving in the complete opposite direction as its Southside cousin across town, this location finds itself situated in a once thriving district which has now fallen seriously out of favor. In a non-GMO nutshell, what happened out here is that heavy traffic forced the city into some dicey infrastructure decisions, which then subsequently killed most traffic – namely, a cement blockaded bus lane right down the middle which made this city boulevard into an interstate, more or less, a pair of divided one way streets with no turnoffs for half-mile stretches at a time. Therefore the inbound city traveler, in order to reach Liberty, has to sail a fair distance past it, to the next major intersection – and the only crossing point between there and downtown – and then hook a U-turn or else a series of more conventional ones, just to retreat to this funky little enclave.
Fortunately, driving from the Southside store out to here is not nearly as convoluted. It just happens to be on the correct side of the road. As it stands, during the occasion of his first ever visit, Edgar arrives with maybe a half hour to spare from his standard 4pm quitting time. Barely enough time to introduce himself to the head cashier, acting as manager on duty – a pleasant seeming, slightly heavy-set redheaded girl named Carla who, yes, it must be said, dresses the part with the flowing, floor dragging skirt – and whomever else happens to be around. He hands off the tags for Duane's new product line to her, some kind of packaged meat line which figures to do well here, not so much the other two stores (and not to be confused with the merely pre-cut steaks recently introduced at those locations). Edgar finds himself a bit nervous and sweaty, strolling in for a cold introduction like this, into the sea of entirely unfamiliar faces, and Carla's kind of looking at him funny, but he otherwise does okay.
Having completed this task, he strolls around and appraises this bizarre yet adorable outpost. There's a truly awesome neon sign which looks like it must have been in place circa the store opening in 1979, now relocated to a jutting high wall just above the cash registers. The dusty, white tiled floors are reminiscent of Palmyra's checkerboard patterned ones, and the same applies to its zany paint jobs, each wall seemingly a different color, though this works here, somehow. Taking a page from Southside, meanwhile (or rather the other way around, if getting technical), they've got a front wall of nothing but windows, although this store manages to be more cheerful somehow than either of the other two.
Nobody's idea of modern, of course, but does this matter? Other details are possibly a little more crucial. They have no meat department or deli, hence the greater need for packaged cuts. The produce section is a little sad, but, on the plus side, their alcohol set seems a shade more realistic here – though only on the job a month, he's already begun to suspect that there's no way that sales justify the massive square footage dedicated to beer and wine at the larger locales. They've got eight feet allotted for each here, and that seems about right.
But what of the personalities on display? Well, there's basically no missing the guy running the bulk department here, even from halfway across the store. His volume and his manic energy announce his presence well in advance, this vaguely frightening Russian dude named Robert. As Edgar is drawn to this bulk aisle – the last one on the right, same as Southside – Robert is shouting down the length of it, to somebody stocking produce up in the front.
"You like dis!?" Robert asks the fellow. As Should I Stay Or Should I Go by The Clash is playing overhead on the Muzak, this transplanted Russian performs some sort of crazy gyrating dance that basically looks like someone trying to hula hoop, minus the actual hula hoop. "Michael Jackson. I buy dis yesterday. Michael Jackson."
As Edgar has only sort of poked his head into the aisle, neither has registered his presence, so he ducks back out of it once more without interaction. Maybe they thought he was a customer. Whatever the case, perhaps meeting this branch of the operation can wait until another day. Soon enough he is back up front, where this Carla and some other girl, a cashier named Tonya (short, spiky blonde hair, but with an admirable figure on display in tee shirt and jeans), both seem nice and normal enough.
Part of Edgar's routine will be a monthly scan audit at each of the stores. Tied in with this, owing to some recent scandal, Duane also wants him to count the cash on hand during these unannounced visits. Basically this has to happen before store opening on whatever mornings he decides to drop by, to avoid a ton of probably impossible mid-day calculations and report running and bouncing from register to register. Maybe it defeats the purpose to tell them he's probably going to be stopping by soon for one of these, but Edgar does kind of wish to see the lay of the land in advance.
Carla is helping a customer, so Tonya escorts him to the elevated office, one of those quaint 1970s relics with a scuffed, flimsy wooden door behind the front desk, opening up to an L shaped set of maybe ten steps, total, into this raised, glass railed cage. From which, yes, it's true, one can see most of the store. A minute or so later, after Tonya shows Edgar the safe, grants him the passwords for their pair of computers, Carla rejoins them.
He's kind of hoping one or both of these two is here whenever he does drop by again. Company policy is that someone be on hand when he's auditing the cash, to cover everyone's behind, but he would like to avoid interaction with the actual store manager, George, for as long as possible. As yet another casualty of Frilly's demise, George shares considerable history with seemingly half the employees, and Edgar's already heard a bunch of horror stories about the guy. Edgar hasn't met him, but has glimpsed George, at least – strolling the aisles up in Palmyra, oddly enough.
"Now what in the hail is he doin here?" the deli manager up there, Denise, had wondered aloud, mid-conversation with Edgar, in a Southern drawl molasses-thick enough to make Duane's seem nonexistent. She was already filling him in on a crash course about her time with this company, and that other one, and immediately shifted gears into ranting about George instead. "He must be checkin up on us. Either that or trynta get ideas for he's own store."
Now that Edgar has arrived at George's actual store, however, the man's subordinates don't seem all that intimidated. Either that or they're just enjoying the jittery gallows humor of those who are temporarily free. Still, it's possible that the stories Edgar has heard about George being an iron fisted tyrant are a bit overblown – these two do indeed seem to regard him as some kind of joke. Apparently, as they explain it to Edgar now, they think he looks just like the actor Wilford Brimley, and have a contest going to see who can trick him into saying "diabetes" the most often. Just like in the insurance or medicine commercial or whatever it is (whereby this timeless film legend pronounces it dia-beet-us), but slipped into normal conversation, i.e. without him ever realizing what they're up to.
"I got him to say it yesterday," Carla gloats.
"Yeah but did you hear they rescheduled our event?" Tonya says, an event about which Edgar isn't aware, "it's not gonna be at the end of the month now."
"They lied to us," Carla hisses, a whisper of mock indignation, "bastards…"
Having checked off this final store, right around the same time that he's closing out his first month, Edgar leaves this afternoon feeling as though he's completed some sort of circuit. He's met the major players, for the most part, and learned much of what is needed from Teri, has begun to develop some ideas of his own. But he really hasn't implemented a whole hell of a lot, not yet, and that's where he's headed next. This is what Duane and the owners are expecting from his role: to dig in deep and figure out where the problems lie, help straighten out these messes.
One of Teri's first key lessons for him concerns the addition of new items to their computer system. Months earlier, when they first began installing this Orchestra software, she arranged a blank Excel template twelve columns wide, sent this to all department managers, merchandisers, and store managers. It's fairly self-explanatory, and she is adamant that if anyone wants a new item added to the system, that they email it via this form.
"If it comes in and it's wrong, fire it right back at them," she tells him with a chuckle, "sometimes I've sent it back to them two or three times, you know? But hey, it's one of those things, it's gotta be right."
Well, yes and no. Edgar is on his own, off to the proverbial races, soon after learning the basics from her. And he is already a little less hardline about some of these stances than she. The first three columns in this spreadsheet were pretty much crucial, yes – UPC, department, product name. But even these, one could argue, were often art forms requiring a bit of nuance.
Preferably one would hope they were transcribing a UPC directly from the barcode itself. However, even these were not infallible. Some packages omitted the last digit, a complicated check number of sorts that, like the final number in a bank account, somehow verified that all of the preceding ones were correct. Others, typically more low-budget type companies, omitted the final digit and the first number, somehow, either on their products or catalogs or both. Still others didn't list the number underneath the barcode at all. These required scanning to snake charm and conjure the magical digits, which was often actually preferable to them unknowingly transcribing an incomplete one. Most UPCs were an even dozen digits, but the odd product line, books and wines chief among them, would have 13. Assuming you had the full number, when they in fact sent you one of these without the check digit, was often about impossible to pick up ahead of time.
From the beginning, he got in the habit of checking every item they sent him, to make sure it didn't already exist in the system. You really didn't have much choice. Aside from all the other reasons, doing so typically would at least pull up a similar item in the same product line (the first six digits, known colloquially as the family code, were usually identical, and some of the following ones as well), and therefore confirm that this was an intact, complete UPC. Assuming this wasn't a completely new product line, of course.
But more importantly, checking every item first would also prevent you from adding something that had already been added. This was kind of crucial when dealing with multiple stores, particularly if the cost had recently changed. Otherwise you'd be adding a "new" item at one store, whereas it was already in the system, with a different price tag hanging at the other stores. Some of the more tech challenged managers and merchandisers had trouble grasping this point – even if they'd never worked the other locations and couldn't possibly know such level of detail at them.
"But I know for a fact we've never had this here!"
"Well, maybe not at your store," he would tell them, "but yeah, you might want to scan this stuff first, just to make sure it's actually new."
Of course, it was entirely possible some of this stuff had never been at any stores. Dale in particular is fond of sending a vendor's complete catalog and having Edgar add the whole thing, rather than cherry-picking which new items were actually coming in. This is kind of a judgment call. On balance, Edgar would indeed for the most part prefer someone send him the total product line ahead of time, rather than missing new items, and them going out on the floor without scanning. So for self-contained vendors, i.e. such as most of these vitamin companies, or local ones, where the only products they carried were their own, this makes sense. However, when it came to gigantic conglomerates, like their biggest supplier, Universal Foods, this does not. Reason being that you would wind up doing reams of maintenance and printing untold shelf tags for items nobody had ever carried, every time the price or something else changed.
Moving further along the line on Teri's new item spreadsheet, the department came next. Many of these require little if no thought, because the person sending the item really only represents one department. Produce is cut and dried in this regard, ditto alcohol. And even when in doubt on some of the more complicated departments, a major supplier like Universal has sub-category codes that clue a person in on important distinctions, for example the difference between grocery and housewares. These finer points often carry margin and, more crucially, tax implications with them. But this all becomes a little more tricky when certain individuals continually send items that don't even belong to them.
For the record, Edgar likes Harry Redcrow just fine. The grocery merchandiser is a pleasant enough chap and often quite funny. In his late fifties or early sixties, of at least partial Native American descent and given to wearing heavy flannel shirts, rugged blue jeans to go with his quite impressive and sturdy hair helmet, Harry brought with him considerable experience, and a long history with the likes of Duane and George. However, in many respects, the phrase old school didn't even begin to describe the guy.
Edgar envisions the end result with this stuff as being a finish line. And they have their ideal methods that they are trying to push on as many people as possible, as with Teri's new item spreadsheet. However, with everybody else who is not on board with the ideal, you have to try and figure out how to get them across that finish line anyhow. And some of these ideals collapse at the outset with Harry. True, Edgar mentions the new items spreadsheet a few times to the old man, as tactfully as he can. And presumably, before that, Teri was able to get him to cooperate without bringing a shopping cart full of tact. Whatever the case, though, Harry soon begins a pattern of piling up Edgar's desk with the items themselves. On occasions, especially if he just sat through some presentation from a product rep, he might bring in some really nifty, colorful brochures with the barcodes circled, the ones he hopes to add. And this is a slight improvement, sure. But mostly it's the mountains of piled up product.
It's true that Edgar's a bit too timid to make much of a stink about this. Being a clear instance of eyeing the finish line and all, concluding that the intentions and the end result are right on point, at least. Other situations are not open for debate, however. Their deli for example receives a couple different lines of gourmet breads, twice a week, and for months, Harry somehow manages to code just about every invoice to grocery. Edgar keeps patiently reminding him that these belong to the deli, and they need to be corrected, but this doesn't really seem to sink in. Meanwhile, however, he's up in Edgar's office, completely obsessed with a price change on some random can of dog food.
"Why did this just go up ten cents? This shouldn't have gone up any. We sell a ton of it."
"Okay, so…the cost on that product line went up two cents…and that was just enough to raise the retail…," Edgar explains, checking out the latest Universal file, "but hey, listen, uh, it looks like grocery paid for the entire Bread Artisan shipment."
"Yeah, it actually belongs to deli."
"Oh. Okay, okay."
And so on. And on a similar note, he is constantly giving Edgar new candy items to add to the system. While it's easy to joke that these moves are made to circumvent Pierre O'Brien from ranting and raving about the candy situation, the reality is that, for whatever reason, the bosses – Duane and the Bellwether Snacks ownership team – had long ago decided that they wanted all candy coded to the bulk department, packaged or not. Bulk has a higher margin and, considering that this category is basically the entirety of Bellwether's wheelhouse within the stores, they probably have these items together for simplicity's sake.
So aside from these two points, Harry's frequent introduction of product lines that he doesn't even have a say in creates all sorts of other problems. This is without even getting into the finer points of time wasted on projects outside one's purview, etc. He's pissing off the bulk people by eating up space that belongs to them, introducing entire sets without even so much as a heads up. And the product is often already here, it's already been paid for, so it has to go somewhere, regardless. Sometimes Edgar is able to catch these in time – and in this situation if no other, he's kind of thankful for being brought the actual item – but not always. This is especially true if Harry's at one of the other two stores and has the grocery manger there email a new item spreadsheet to Edgar.
If the description isn't extremely explicit, these shots might pass through the ol' croquet wickets without interference. And it's by no means uncommon to receive a list of six new items, say, about which the only names given are Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla, Peanut Butter, and so on. Situations like these would require a correction down the road, because when you're sitting in some distant office, you haven't the foggiest idea what the hell they're sending you. Often this would take either Edgar visiting the store, and spotting the item or else catching it on one of his monthly scan audits, or maybe one of the bulk managers complaining. Then a subsequent department change and a jacking up of the retail. Things finally reach a head, of sorts, one afternoon when Harry's in his office, and Edgar mentions yet again that he can't add candy bars to the grocery department.
"Yeah but I thought we would just pile these by the register, and then," Harry explains, making little shooing motions with his hands, to suggest blowing these out the door.
"Well, but there's nowhere for me to put them. I mean we could theoretically put candy in housewares, I guess, because the margin's the same. But then the tax rate would be wrong."
Of course, one other pertinent point is that by the time this is caught, the ship has long since sailed on this being coded to the correct department. Grocery has already paid for the stuff. Once the invoice gets past Edgar, it's kicked up to accounts payable at the Bellwether HQ and that's that. If only the quaint little local vendors had obvious names like Candy, Inc. or something, then this might be easier to spot. However, nearly all of them either went the inscrutable and/or esoteric route (347 Foods) or else incorporated yet another in the endless permutations on the word "nature" (Natural Goodness). In these instances grocery is if nothing else able to balance things out somewhat by enjoying a few weeks' worth of sales before the items switch departments. But, alas, Edgar is finally able to score one small victory, following this final discussion on the topic – Harry must grasp the nature of this predicament at last, for he never sends Edgar any candy to add again.
Though its weekly sales amount to roughly half of what each of the other two are both pulling in, one oddly colored feather in Liberty's cap is that it is nonetheless the most profitable store. Palmyra and Southside both appear to be rising ships, with steadily upticks in volume, but money is nonetheless continually poured into each in the name of various improvements. Whereas, apart from utilities and its bargain of a lease, expenses are almost nonexistent at their oldest location. The Locke family likes to characterize Liberty as HHM's steady, if unglamorous, cash cow.
Up in college town, tinkering with the help at Palmyra remains at least as big a project as anything else. For starters, they've already made one major change up top. Edgar barely got to know the store manager, Kate, who seemed like a sweet, soft spoken, middle-aged lady, given to wearing these highly professional looking pantsuits with and without the jacket. But apparently Kate was a wee bit too fond of her pill prescriptions, if rumors were to be believed, explaining a great deal about her distantly dreamy persona. Whatever the case, though, the numbers were bad and discipline lax, so they've shown her the door. Corey Brown is now the new store manager.
Some bubbly blonde cashier named Samantha moves up the ladder accordingly, elevated to Corey's old assistant manager post. This despite her young age – maybe twenty, tops – and the chirping, hyperactive maturity level to match, and having only been with this company for a few months. Not to mention that she's already announced a pregnancy which will put her out of commission not too distantly down the road. Edgar gets the feeling that nobody else at this store particularly wanted that position, though, plus there has always been a tendency at these grocery stores, he's noticed, for whatever reason, to consider front end people before anyone else. So Samantha gets the nod.
Elsewhere it's basically business as usual. One of the more longstanding dramas around these parts concerns that between Denise, the deli manager, and Nick, her meat cutter. While these two departments are separate entities at just about every other grocery operation known to man, they've been combined here at the Healthy Hippie, physically and financially. It's treated as one big department, with the meat sales flowing into and under the deli umbrella. But butchers in general tend to project a macho front, that they are going to do whatever they feel like, thank you very much, and that certainly has not changed here. Even if reporting to a deli manager in every way except for his actual behavior.
Denise likes to talk Edgar's ear off – not that he's alone in this regard – so he feels like he already knows a great deal about this dynamic. Which isn't to say this makes them automatically true, but her rants do tend to pass the eye test as far as what he's seeing for himself. For example, whereas the standard with beef scraps is to toss them into tubs, separated loosely by fat content, for some reason this Nick guy just piles them up on his back cutting table, all day(s) long. Sometimes he grinds these up, and sometimes they remain mounded there even after he's punched the clock and headed home. Sometimes the pieces understandably just fall off onto the floor.
With no other employees, he's a one man show over on that side of the case, albeit a highly entertaining one if ever speaking to or for that matter just observing the guy. This afternoon Edgar finds himself in the front office, another elevated room like that at Liberty Avenue, chatting with Corey, and even from here they can vaguely hear the deli's stereo, at the back end of the store, above the overhead Muzak. Until that is Nick strolls over and jacks up the volume to the proverbial ceiling, it's Zack De La Rocha screaming FUCK YOU I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME! FUCK YOU I WON'T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME! over and over again. From this office, they have clear sight lines all the way back to the deli, and can see Nick standing at the stereo, nodding and grinning at the rest of the department, his hand on the volume knob.
"Hold on a second," Corey tells Edgar, stomps down the stairs and across the store. From here it almost looks like a play, albeit one with the actors muted, as he watches their distant verbal interaction, the sudden swift dialing back of that CD's volume. Corey returns, shaking his head and telling Edgar, "I mean, I like Rage as much as the next guy, but come on…"
So Edgar's laughing about that one for the remainder of his shift and beyond, though Denise is becoming progressively less and less amused by her butcher's antics. She's patching together the meat department's closing shifts and Nick's days off, staffing these with random deli employees, or even with her and/or Corey cutting the meat. But the latest wrinkle, while seemingly minor, has her blood boiling, whereby Nick has apparently gone to Corey and asked if this one lazy wastoid working back there can be transferred into the dairy department or something. Sure, the employee in question might be essentially worthless, but it's not Nick's place to say.
In other developments, the cops were here just yesterday. These two guys were trying to buy beer and, despite by appearances being well over the legal age, the cashier in question insisted upon ID anyway. It's a touchy topic at this store, as they were fined just months ago for failing to do so with a minor. That cashier, incidentally, who must have been under the impression they were trying to pin a murder rap on her or something, never showed up for work again, failed to appear in court, and rumor has it immediately moved back to her home state of Texas.
Regarding yesterday's pair of shoppers, though, this cashier held her ground, and these dudes went off on her. The police were eventually called to sort out this shouting match, take a couple of statements. And this episode is understandably the talk of the store today, as she's relating it to a wave of second shift cashiers just now arriving, along with whomever else happens to be standing around.
"Come on!" one of the guys pleaded, "I'm gluten intolerant! And this is the only place I can find gluten free beer!"
Denise's son, Thad, happens to be the grocery manager at this location. He is also just as quick with the witty rejoinders as she, and now, hearing this cashier's tale, he quips, "next time you should arm yourself with dinner rolls."
There are relatives aplenty all over this company, actually, which has already gotten Edgar's wheels turning. His parents live not too far from Palmyra and his semi-retired mom has been looking for maybe a part time job. This place could be perfect, dysfunctional or not, to paraphrase Corey. And even this dysfunction it seems is in the process of being systematically rooted out. Upgrades abound, like how the bunker type freezer section, with its sliding doors on top, like something out of convenience store's popsicle display, were recently yanked out in favor of some brand-new upright ones. Even if Denise is also kind of ranting now about how Corey expects her to do something productive with these mountains of discontinued ice creams, that still amounts to serious progress.
Duane swings through here often, as it's essentially on his way home, and two of the merchandisers are on hand all day today, Christie Marsh and Arnie Greenberg. Christie oversees the deli/meat operation for all three stores, Arnie the produce. Though emailing Arnie cost updates every week, and updating a few deli prices, Edgar hasn't had much interaction with either in person. In fact this lone shift might double that figure, or more.
Christie is pretty much in the same age bracket as Edgar, and friendly enough, if maybe a little bit on the flaky side. Then again, that's par for the course in this precinct. Objectively, he supposes she is kind of pretty, if not really his type – a tall, rail thin blonde. And actually he's already noticed that her appearance might waver on a daily basis more than anyone he's ever worked with. One day she will show up dressed not necessarily to the nines, but in some sort of old fashioned, highly stylish outfit you might see at a high-end masquerade party – a top hat, velvet jacket, matching skirt, tons of sparkling jewelry, makeup, heels, you name it. But then the next day it's a flannel shirt and hole riddled jeans, no makeup, hair a tangled mess, in general just looking rough around the edges.
Of course, none of this really matters. The only question is, how is her performance? In this regard, while unsure himself, everyone seems to give Christie higher marks than the woman preceding her. That woman, who Dale Paquette has already labeled as "the absolute worst" was – you guessed it – fired not so long ago, finally busted for what many had long suspected. Deli employees and store managers had realized that whichever store you called, looking for her, she never seemed to be at any of them. Some subsequently reported that if then driving by her house, you would unfailingly find her truck parked there. But the real issue was a case of the sticky fingers. One day, she inexplicably ducked into the ladies' room at Southside, but left her handbag on the hallway floor outside it. An observant employee happened to notice that sticking out of it was an object which sure did kind of resemble the top half of a wine bottle. Tipped off, management followed her out of the store, at which point she was unable to produce not only a receipt for the wine, but all sorts of other goodies tucked into said bag. Bye-bye.
You can't really avoid snickers from the peanut gallery, whomever you are, particularly someone a little higher up the pecking order, and Christie certainly isn't immune. Before even meeting the girl, he'd already heard the jokes, employees guffawing that she and Duane always seemed to show up at the same store within a few minutes of one another ("Nick better watch it," Denise cracks to Edgar one day, watching the butcher interact with Christie, "flirtin with Duane's girlfriend like that."). Well, Edgar doesn't know about the timing of who arrives in which store – at least she is in a store, and by appearances putting in quite a bit of work.
As for Arnie Greenberg, Edgar immediately suspected that he would hit it off quite well with this character, the first time they met. Of course, one can argue that thinking this is a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but still, he does tend to develop quite the rapport with this demographic – an older Jewish guy straight from New York City, with the accent and dialect to match. His favorite euphemism, broken out at least once daily, is that such-and-such person or situation is really breaking his shoes.
Arnie gets up before dawn and drives the company truck himself to pick up local produce. Of course, they are patching this in with merchandise from a couple other major natural and organic vendors, but sourcing locally what he can, and not only that but delivering, half the time working the product as well. This morning Edgar saw Arnie picking out exactly five cases of tomatoes to deposit here, before driving down to Southside. The truck was parked curbside in front of the store as Edgar arrived, with his laptop and folder full of invoices.
"I ordered Tara five cases of tomatoes – let's see, yes, these will be perfect," Arnie explains, lifting off the lid of each case as he hand picks which ones to leave here, "these have to last her all week, so I don't wanna leave her a bunch that are too ripe…perfect, perfect…"
Arnie is somewhat hunched at this moment, with a case of the bad back, yet is a bit too maniacal not to pitch in and sling product around anyway. Corey is helping him unload the truck, and Edgar volunteers to pitch in as well, even if all he really does is load about fifteen light boxes onto a boat. Meanwhile, with the store manager inside the box truck's back end, Arnie is on the ground with a pair of shopping carts. He wants to drop off exactly fifty cantaloupes and counts out loud as Corey hands these down to him. Then Edgar wheels these into the store, back to the produce department.
"Great, great…I'm so excited!" Tara, the produce manager and possibly lone employee, cracks.
"I hear the sarcasm there," Edgar tells her.
Tara, more than anyone at this particular location, looks the part of someone who keeps the flame alive from the original first wave of hippie activism – even if she too is roughly Edgar's age, not nearly old enough to have participated much in the Me Decade or Summer Of Love. But this does mean, yes, she's often found sporting the army green colored doo rag atop her head, baggy army green pants, really just army green in general. Not that this is to suggest she's some sort of flower power pacifist. On the contrary, it turns out she's something of a badass. As some random deli employee waltzes onto the scene – employees do a lot of that around here, random strolls about the store for no reason but to chat; this one is a fairly doughy goofball named Justin, who idolizes Nick and openly admits that he hopes to replace him someday – Tara's explaining to Edgar that she has a black belt in a couple different martial arts disciplines.
"I think you've got a black belt in bullshit," Justin jokes, followed by a loud horse laugh.
"I could kick you in the head right from where I stand," she replies, "and probably should."
Well, Justin's head does stay in place for the moment. But the question is, will it remain so? Rumors are swirling that Kate's dismissal was just the first move, that management plans on doing some major housecleaning up here in Palmyra. If so, this goober's head could be one of many to roll.
"He's almost eighty now, but he's got a mind like a calculator," Duane tells Edgar, en route to the Bellwether Snacks headquarters, "and he still works, too: two days a week, like clockwork. You can count on it."
This trip across town was Duane's idea. He'd stuck his head into Edgar's office and said he was cruising over to the corporate office, and suggested that Eddie ride along. It was intended as a bit of a rapport building exercise, most likely, but also his first opportunity for meeting certain key management if not ownership figures. So they've hopped into the president's spacious, silver colored truck, and have just about reached their destination.
Though Duane projects a brooding aura, Edgar is beginning to see that his boss is for the most part a really nice guy. Sure, nobody you would want to mess with, Edgar thinks it goes without saying, but yeah, the boss's baseline is probably much friendlier than most would suppose. He has a ton of experience, too, having broken into this business as a meat cutter, decades ago, and slowly working his way up through the ranks, via numerous different companies. And he still has a soft spot for the meat department, in many ways, it seems to Edgar – if earmarking a product line he wants to introduce, thus far it's almost always something from this department that Duane is bringing him.
In fact, though Duane doesn't remember this, he was hanging out behind the meat counter at Palmyra, along with Arnie for some reason, on the night that Edgar met him. Edgar of course had no clue who he was yet, nor of his position within this company. He was just in town for the holidays, thinking about moving down to this state, and noticed this establishment, near his parents' house, a business right up his alley. Edgar himself has more than ten years' experience specific to grocery stores, and before that had worked at a couple of banks, as well as the accounting department at a factory, and briefly handled the books for a family owned pet store. His former girlfriend's family, to be precise. But he felt drawn to the grocery world most of all, a far more interesting, vibrant environment than any of those others. So he and his dad had swung through, well after dark on some random December night, and scoped out the Palmyra HHM, had briefly spoken to Duane and Arnie both as they stood chatting behind the meat counter. Soon enough, Edgar was indeed moving here, and turning in an application at this delightfully weird establishment. When he found out who those two were, and their positions within this company, he was all the more impressed that they would have been still on hand at, what, after seven o'clock on a brutal winter's eve.
Regarding this current odyssey, the Bellwether Snacks HQ is located a peanut's throw from the state line, visible from the interstate and just off exit 1. As they temporarily lose sight of the place, having just hit the off ramp, Duane moves on from explaining who Walter Locke is, to telling him about the Healthy Hippie truck, a relatively recent addition to their arsenal. Its primary purpose is for Arnie to be out scoring produce from local vendors before daylight, although they also use it for moving product between stores.
"We bought it for $500, but then spent about twenty grand rebuildin the engine," Duane explains with a grin. "Well, that and gettin our logos plastered all over it."
A large, boxy, two story brick affair, the first floor of this massive building is mostly eaten up by the warehouse operation in back, and a couple of meeting rooms up front. However, one corner, accessible from the parking lot, is dedicated to The Nutty Zone, a charming little retail operation. Heavy on the 1970s looking décor, and similar to their Liberty store in that respect, The Nutty Zone could almost count as their 4th HHM location, albeit one which only focused on bulk products, or packaged variations thereof.
After drifting through and briefly checking out the place, being introduced to Penny, the woman who basically runs this shop and seems to be the only employee today, they continue through it, into the hallway beyond. All offices are located above, on the second floor, and after using Duane's magnetic key card to enter, he leads the way up the stairs.
Walter has a relatively small office, just to the right of where this stairwell emerges. He's in his office, but talking on the phone, and only returns their waves, as they stick their head in and keep on moving. Edgar observes some black and white photos hanging on the outside wall, a couple of which appear to feature a much younger Walter, and as they continue walking, Duane fills him on a little more corporate history, that they have similar warehouses and production centers in Memphis, Atlanta, Columbus and elsewhere, though this is the main one.
The setup here is similar to many corporate offices (and, well, yes, Office Space), the standard arrangement of a large, cubicle-divided floor in the middle, surrounded by actual offices tucked into the walls, typically reserved for those ranking a little higher. So it is that their next stops consist of three consecutive rooms along the adjacent wall, where Walter's two daughters and one son-in-law hold down desks. The daughters are mostly only involved with the Bellwether aspects of this operation, while the son-in-law, Rob Drake, is for all intents the liaison, the one dealing with HHM, if any dealing is to be done.
Though attired in the ubiquitous "business casual" attire – a long sleeved dress shirt, yes, but khaki pants and loafers – and clean cut otherwise, Rob's grey and white hair is left a little shaggier than one would expect, as maybe one last vestige of his own slightly countercultural past. It's hard to glean much from one brief introduction, but he does seem to Edgar as a friendly enough guy, probably a little on the conservative side. Whatever the case, he is the guy signing their paychecks every week, so it surely can't hurt to haul himself into this headquarters, and shake the man's hand.
Speaking of handshakes, as this tour continues next over to the HR lady's office, Duane is explaining a "handshake deal" he recently reached with Mr. Locke. Walter has told him he has complete discretion for opening up future Healthy Hippie locations – if Duane things it's a good idea, then he will sign off on the project. And as soon as they straighten out some kinks at Palmyra and Southside, to make those stores more profitable, Duane fully intends to expand. But as far as the smaller details are concerned, pricing and other negotiations on the actual products, yeah, Rob is their man.
Dropping off some packet of documents to the HR lady the prevailing reason behind this trip. Introduced to him as Doris, she's the textbook somewhat harried, somewhat grouchy seeming old woman in gold rimmed glasses and a button-up sweater, like the town librarian, barely visible behind the mountains of paperwork stacked around her desk. As these two talk in cryptic messages about what they're "going to do" regarding the employee in question here, related to this document packet, Edgar stands off to the side, smiling and hoping this conversation will be over soon. It's awkward, though in the meantime he entertains himself trying to guess, based on almost no evidence, who this is, the person about to get either disciplined or fired. Surely it relates to this purported Palmyra cleanup, but the individual remains a mystery.
He is next introduced to Carmen, their controller, followed by an exceptionally brief sojourn to the belly of this beast, the cubicles. Healthy Hippie Market's very structure is just about as outrageous as everything else involving the place, and as it turns out, they have exactly one employee on payroll at this building, and she works in accounts payable. Her name is Kathy Ames, an extremely cheerful and talkative person he's spoken to on the phone exactly once, only meeting now for the first time. This is the woman he's kicking the invoices up to every week, sending on their corporate box truck after he's finished going through them. And, while it's great to finally put a face to the name and the voice, he and Duane are basically peeling themselves away from her machine gun fire of chattiness.
Edgar wouldn't really say this has been the most compelling tour ever, but an extremely important one, nonetheless, if only to fix some furniture in his mind, and also to reciprocate, get his face and basic Cliff Notes personality points out to them. On their way back down, they take the rear stairwell into the warehouse, and load up on about a dozen cases of "overruns." Duane's explaining to him that, by law, they can't hold over the output from one production run and combine it with the next. If no one orders it, and they don't need the product in The Nutty Zone, then they box it up and HHM gets the stuff for free. So this is surely helping out their bottom line at least a little bit – and who knows, it may explain some of the candy that Pierre is always blowing a gasket over.
The fourth column in the new items spreadsheet is dedicated to brand name. A seemingly straightforward concept which is nonetheless much more labor intensive than he ever would have guessed. Having uniform brand names for all of the products in a line is a huge help, for searching items in the system, for setting the sale prices in advance of their weekly flyers. But it's the kind of thing that has to be chipped away at over time, because they're currently not all that uniform.
One major reason for this is that their second largest supplier, Harmony Hill, to cite one example, doesn't even have a brand name column in their monthly price file. They put this information in with the item description, and yet even here, for instance, sometimes they will spell out a brand like Heinz, sometimes abbreviate it Hnz or Hz.
So he understands Teri's edict, when training him, about firing the new item file back at employees if not 100% perfect. But for him, if he knows what needs fixed, he will just do it himself, barring some catastrophically large and incorrect batch or something. To do otherwise feels like being needlessly difficult. Yes they hope to impress on as many people as possible to make this as correct as possible. But the real point is to add new items as quickly as they can. Expecting people on the floor to consistently spell out or in some instances abbreviate (this is a very tight field, regarding how much space they have on their shelf tags) brand names is an unrealistic stretch.
It's often not even clear what these brand names are, especially if a new product line. One afternoon a grocery department employee up in Palmyra, Trudy, emails him a new item file with a message to call her when they've been added, because they have a shipper of the product that she wants to put out ASAP. This is a Harmony Hill product line, however, which means that not only is the item description in all caps – another pet peeve he is working through, if for no other reason but to also free up more space – but the brand name leads off every description: some cracker brand, eight different flavors, with the initials M F.
"Alright," he says, calling Trudy a couple of hours later, "I added these M F crackers. You should have tags waiting in your office."
She starts cracking up and replies, "okay, that's good. I'll go get the M F tags. I need to put out this M F shipper."
Syntactical puns might closely resemble gallows humor, but hey, Edgar figures, they'll take what they can get. He can't be the only person who finds this stuff funny. In fact he knows he isn't. While tracing the origins on some of this data is pretty much impossible, he thinks that whoever was formerly entering items into the Hobart system, a completely different database sending information down to the deli, meat, bulk and produce scales, that person must have had a demented sense of humor. It could have been the former deli merchandiser, the wine enthusiast, but he kind of doubts it. This stuff smacks of a younger sense of humor, some smarmy hacker type, kind of in the Thad demographic. For example, any of their lunchmeats that are smoked and have cracked pepper as part of their item description, these have been named, to cite the example of the turkey breast, SMOKE CRACK PEPPER TURKEY.
Who can say how many years this has been labeled as such? With countless packages of sliced lunchmeat going out the door in just this manner. The plot does thicken a bit, however. Because whoever was responsible for this clearly knew how to spell the word pepper. And yet in virtually every item Edgar has yet come across, as for the ingredients themselves, it has been spelled papper. Again, you really can't say for certain, because this individual might have disappeared years ago, and tracing motives is pure speculation. Yet Edgar just knows somehow, on some kind of gut level, that this person was making fun of Denise, her accent, which is why pepper has been spelled papper and walnuts walnits on just about every freaking item these apply to in the deli scale. Because this is how these words sound coming out of her mouth, though even she doesn't spell them as such.
Other examples amount to laissez-faire aesthetics, or if nothing else cringe inducing ideas about abbreviations. These are obviously matters of taste, but just as it kind of drives him crazy that Universal Foods abbreviates the word Organic as Og (couldn't they at least make it Org? What the hell is this? Zero grams?), every Applegate item in these deli scales has been given the brand name Agate.
"Mmm, agate roasted chicken breast, sounds delicious," Edgar mumbles aloud, changing the latest one he's stumbled across.
After a couple of weeks listening to Teri's laundry list of pet peeves, this could be his first reciprocal rant. One day he just can't take any more of the all caps screaming on half the items in their system, and applies a mass correction in their master Excel sheet (=, select fx, select PROPER, drag across x number of columns, drag down through x number of rows; copy, paste special values), and cleans up the entire lot of them.
"It's a proven fact that this is easier to read…," he says.
"That's true," she agrees, from the next desk over.
"…and not only that, it gives us more room to work with on our tags. All caps takes up more space."
Not that this will entirely clear up the mysteries. Some require his drifting down to the floor. The cryptic origins of this DMOG product line was driving him bananas, its providence and whereabouts, until he's finally able to track down an example in the coffee section at Southside. Davis Mountain Organic. Okay, yeah, this product line will be renamed DavisMtn now. Enough of this DMOG shit. On a similar note, another witch hunt leads him to the grocery aisles of Palmyra, wondering what in God's name this FING SHTBRD item in the Harmony Hill catalog might be. This is all the description he has to go by, other than the brand name ahead of it, of course, WALKER FING SHTBRD. Walker brand, finger shortbread. Why yes. It's all making so much more sense now.
And yet, however important, if only as a tool for keeping the pricing straight, these cosmetic changes take a backseat to the pricing itself. Aside from the produce prices, which Arnie is dictating, Duane has just about given Edgar free reign on implementing retail changes, based upon the ever-fluctuating costs, and whatever other out-of-whack scenarios he might encounter. Universal Foods and Harmony Hill provide a monthly file on their website, which he is able to download. Otherwise, he is pawing through the invoices as they come in, and then any other gaps are filled in either by asking a vendor for a new price file, or – although Dale is just about the only merchandiser doing so – having someone send it to him, and asking him to update the product line.
Teri helps him out on the major pair of updates, United and Harmony, the first two months. Basically this involves matching up, via a decoder key of sorts – although this isn't 100 percent perfect, as for example United couldn't possibly have 20,000 items categorized in the same department as a Healthy Hippie grocery store might – the United category code to their own department numbers, then applying the correct markup, then rounding this off to the nearest .09 cent retail. Which kind of sounds like a major hassle at first, until Teri explains with a cackle that she searched endlessly online awhile back, and found the Excel formula for that:
whereas of course g2 would be the first cell it's applied to, subsequently dragged on down through the entire spreadsheet.
This formula is exactly the sort of thing that seems simple enough, until you're trying to wrap your mind around how to pull it off. Would Edgar have eventually stumbled onto this formula himself? Most likely, sure. But the problem with everything being online these days is that…everything is online these days. You have to wade through endless reams of clickbait, nonsense, and incorrect answers before finding something that works. So he's eternally grateful that she already figured this one out.
Except there is one additional wrinkle, represented by retails that would actually end in .09. These price points are considered tacky eyesores (for the rest of his days, Edgar suspects retails that end in .09 will bother him), and Duane has asked them to instead round these down twenty cents to the .99 below. Nobody has yet devised a great mass replacement solution for this, so they muddle along on these by sorting, finding, and replacing in the Excel file.
In dealing with these major vendors, there is also a tiny file internally known as the Exceptions List, no more than 30 items long, that they have to run immediately after the price change file, each month. These are the items where they aren't rolling with the indicated margins, because they just won't sell at that price – which basically shakes out as all of their organic milk, upon which they are charging just pennies above cost, and one vitamins item that Dale says is priced way out of line.
Their Orchestra program is advanced enough that it will automatically generate a shelf tag every time an updated retail is uploaded to their system. All he has to do is sync to the other two stores, connect in remotely via VNC, and kick off the tag printing there. It does have its limitations on processing speed, however, which they discover one painful afternoon, early into his tenure, when about 5000 tags are spewing out, for grocery alone, at their Southside store.
Fortunately grocery manager Craig is on top of things enough to spot something amiss right away, which Edgar and Teri soon pin down specifically, after he draws their attention to it (Harry Redcrow, however, seems to regard them with suspicion, particularly Edgar, whom Harry still might consider an idiot). It appeared that maybe this system could not process a batch that large, not immediately. It was tripping the print flag for every item whose retail had changed, even though the retail had not yet actually changed in the system. The tags were printing with the previous retails.
In the future, they learned to either wait a couple hours to print out the tags, or else process the batches in smaller chunks. And beyond these concerns, although of much less urgency than making sure the price was correct – of utmost importance to shoppers and the state's weights & measures auditor both – Edgar would also print out tags any time the preferred supplier changed, or the item number, or anything else of significance. One thing that was driving him bonkers right out of the gate, for example, was that they had the same PLU number in bulk for both the salted and unsalted variety of every nut item. He knew that Teri was extremely limited with her time, before his arrival, and doing what she could, but it made no sense to him that, say, the plain old peanuts might have one PLU number, for both bins, each showing an item number (or SKU, the number used for ordering from Bellwether) of something like 103260/103250 on each, for the salted and unsalted.
But above all, one of the major reasons Duane had just created Edgar's position was that he wanted to move away from this ambiguous, lackadaisical updating method, whereby merchandisers would change retails whenever they felt like it. Or not. The last thing Duane wanted at this point was some kind of retail by committee approach. Edgar is to crank out these prices by departmental margin, end of story. Or not quite – because even within this program, there are still certain situations where what Edgar has begun to think of as should be pricing continues to hold sway.
His first lesson on this front concerns their diaper lines, a day where Teri's not around, and he's looking at an invoice where it becomes obvious that they are way, way under margin on these diapers. He updates some prices and cranks out new tags, based upon the correct markups on these housewares items…but within an hour has gotten numerous complaints from every corner, that these are some ridiculous retails. At which point he takes these findings to Duane, who concedes, yeah, okay, maybe in this instance, we need to actually just charge the grocery margin on these diapers, not the housewares one. And so Edgar instantly changes the retails back.
Should be pricing isn't limited to this situation alone, however. It also applies to Palmyra's beer and wine. In fact, this is where Edgar first coins the name for it. Virtually every week, he's updating the retails, based upon the new cost, and then Corey objects to half of them, claiming that the Rogue bombers "should be" this and the Dogfish six packs "should be" that. He eventually requests that Edgar send him all the cost updates, and he will determine the retails, a process that Duane reluctantly allows.
Otherwise, business marches on unimpeded. And in these early stages, the updates are coming fast and plentiful. Yet whereas Palmyra has a fairly tech savvy person on hand in the form of a goth leaning cashier named Shelly – Teri instructed him right out of the gate, in fact, to always ask for Shelly with anything even remotely tech related at that store – they really don't have such a person at Liberty Avenue. Tonya and Chloe are definitely the top two there in that regard (a store manager who is often compared to Wilford Brimley is probably not your first pick in the modern technology sector), and yet, even so, Duane has kind of instructed Edgar that, yeah, if at all possible, he probably wants to take any major tag update batches over to Liberty Avenue, and deliver them himself.
This leads to a pair of memorable encounters with Russian Robert, early into his first spring on this new job. He has taken over about one hundred updated tags on a random weekday afternoon…and then the very next day, brings over about a hundred more. Robert is not pleased about the first, and positively apoplectic about the second.
"Again?!" Robert questions, eyebrows raised, as Edgar hands him this string of tags, at this cart in the middle of the floor where the bulk manager is working. And then holding the shelf tag string aloft, as Edgar is backing away, Robert continues, adding, "dis bullshit. I talk Duane bout dis."
"That's cool," Edgar tells him with a laugh, "you talk to Duane about that."
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