Memories of the land of blue shirts

Internet pal Rob O’Hara reminisced about opening a Best Buy (presumably) megastore in 1994. Interestingly, that summer I was doing basically the same thing, only in Illinois. And I lived within driving distance, so they didn’t put me up for the night, though as I recall they did provide at least one meal a day, and I really think they provided two. After all, we worked really long shifts.

I didn’t complain, though. This was the first time in my life someone was actually willing to pay time and a half. During my fast-food career, they actively avoided, at all costs, paying anyone a single minute at time and a half. The extra hours and money took the sting out of driving 45 minutes to and from the new store every day for a few weeks, though it meant that basically the sum total of my existence those weeks was getting up, putting on a blue shirt and khaki pants, driving to work, coming home, washing my blue shirt and khaki pants, and going to bed.

I don’t remember anymore if they gave me mileage or meal money or anything like Rob got.

I do remember truck after truck of merchandise, and unboxing it and figuring out where it went. In my home department that wasn’t too hard, but one of the ideas behind these stores was enlarging the music section, including genres they hadn’t sold previously. I spent one morning sorting classical music CDs, and the afternoon sorting blues CDs. I owned a CD player, and had taken a music appreciation class in high school, which made me qualified to work that detail.

When it was over, I had a pile of money. Well, it certainly seemed like a big pile of money at the time. I used it to buy a computer–a Compaq 486–and it seems to me they let me stack my employee discount with the grand-opening discount, so I actually got a reasonable deal on it. Well, for the time.

The idea with all of these huge stores was to overwhelm the customers with merchandise. Everything we did was designed to show how much stuff we had, and if possible, make it look like more. The goal was for us to never have to again say, “Let me check in back,” because the stuff was piled as close to as high to the ceiling as they were allowed. There were serious limits on how high we could stack CRT televisions and monitors because of their weight and the distribution of that weight, but I remember stacking computers about as high as my 5’9″ height would allow me to reach.

The goal was to look like the stores had better selection than Circuit City and CompUSA. I guess it worked in its time.

Those same stores are open today, and they’re eerily empty compared to those days. Very little is above eye level now, and the store is spread out a lot more now. Having a music section the size of a public library isn’t profitable anymore, and laptops and tablets and LCDs take a fraction of the space that 1994-era TVs and computers did. That model has outlived its usefulness, but there’s no money to re-tool, so they make do.

Like Rob, it wasn’t long before I got another gig. By September of 1995, I was working desktop support, and making enough to nearly pay for college, not just enough to treat myself to a nice-for-its-time computer. By February 1997, I had domain admin-level access on that network, and I was building servers.

But I know a fair few of us who got started that way. Enough that a few months ago, when the president of our company needed some helpdesk people and gave us three days to find them, I made the suggestion that we go shopping. Go to Best Buy, play dumb, and ask tough questions. And if you like any of the answers you hear, slip the associate a business card and discretely ask for a resume.

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