Adventures in Christian Retail #tbt

Religion in American History

Digging through old blogs, I ran across my “Adventures in Christian Retail” series from a couple of years ago. Hope you enjoy on this Throw Back Thursday.

Adventures in Christian Retail Part I

Adventures in Christian Retail Part II

Adventures in Christian Retail Part III

Part I

Disclaimer: This is a teaser. I’m working on a larger piece about experiencing employment at a Christian retail chain this summer. I took on the job because 1) we needed the money and 2) I was curious. I have been documenting my day-to-day life there as a full-time employee and am working up a full-length piece with an academic emphasis and analysis of marketing with religion, the gender politics of the place, as well as how they handle money and workers’ rights. Enjoy.
I worked retail this summer. “Christian”-run retail. When I walked into the interview for the position at the local store that is part of a national chain (we’ll call it “Christian Chain” or “CC”), the manager was a bit baffled by the Ph.D. sitting in front of him. “Honestly,” I assured him (and meant it), “I want to work here and my family needs the income.” I (naively) believed that CC, a company that nationally proclaims its Christian values and give generously to conservative Christian causes/movements, would provide a good work environment and would reveal to me how Christian employers manage the workplace. It would give me insight into the world of Christian retail. And it has. Plenty of insight. So here’s a taste of what I witnessed in terms of the corporate model CC follows. The larger piece will include issues of sexism/sexual harassment and employee’s work schedules/worker’s rights but, like I said, teaser.

On money and mythology at CC: This company handles its resources in the most Luddite and inefficient way possible. There is one computer in the store where I worked. It was locked away in the back room and was used only to make/print out weekly schedules. All ordering is done by hand using a pencil and three-ring binders and a complicated system of “base” numbers and “minimum” orders. The poor soul who works in the back room has to then take all of the binders from each department and enter them into the one (aged) computer before a deadline in order for stock to come in.

There are no SKUs–no barcodes–no scanning devices. Thus the hand-written ordering. This is where the mythology comes in. I inquired about the lack of computers in the store and the ancient cash registers that required each item to be manually punched in and discounts to be manually entered as well. I was told that the cash registers WERE NEW. The explanation varied based on who responded to my questions. Some employees (especially those higher up) explained that it was just CC’s way. That it had maintained the same system since its birth (over 20 years ago) and that CC does not change. I found this idea interesting for several reasons. It requires more work from employees, thus costing the business more money. It is a business after all and so shouldn’t it be concerned with profits and losses? But it may also connect to the idea that workers should have sweat on their brow constantly in order to truly earn their wages. The Protestant ethic, so to speak. Work for work’s sake.

Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted. Some are dissatisfied with this reasoning but accept it, again, as being CC’s way so it cannot be questioned. (More on this in the longer article.)

Another strongly held belief is that the company does not have barcodes because then it does not have to have uniform pricing. Sales, then, do not have to be reflected at the register unless the customer notices that they are not receiving the discount and asks for it. A few employees see the lack of technology as a ploy for the company to make extra money.

There is an odd dichotomy at work at CC: they are focused on saving money (they are very concerned with hours and wages and do not move an employee to full-time unless they really need them and the employee makes enough demands) but they use a system that ultimately costs them money because it requires employees to work double or triple the hours at a task that in other stores is not nearly as involved and grueling.

Ultimately, what I’d like to consider in a larger format is what does it mean to be a Christian-run corporation in the modern marketplace? CC has held on to antiquated ideas regarding its particular brand of commerce, and the reasoning for that steadfastness varies based on what myth or history an employee chooses to subscribe. Also, the Christian values on which the chain claims to rely are not reflected in its treatment of employees or the employee’s treatment of each other. This begs the question: how much are “Christian” businesses relying on the image of being Christian without truly employing (or even hinting at employing) Christian ethics in their stores. This I will explore in more detail in the article with a discussion of sexual politics at CC and the overextension of employees to the point of completely disregarding their rights. Good times.

Part II

Muzak. Bad muzak, but also an excellent indicator of the spiritual/secular influences on (what I’m teasingly calling) “Christian Chain” (CC). One of the things that customers constantly complement store management on is the “acoustic” music that streams incessantly over the speakers in the store. They say that it is soothing and that its Christian message is something that keeps them in the store and also keeps them coming back. It’s a very clever marketing gimmick, ultimately. But there are a few surprises that I encountered when I listened a bit more closely to what consumers were actually ingesting on their visits to CC.
Most obviously, the store pipes in the now-common coinciding traditional hymn and praise music combo that many churches have incorporated into their repertoire. Contemporary praise and worship has become so commonplace that many song melodies are as recognizable as Wesley’s hymns. While “Amazing Grace” is a muzak mainstay, so are songs like “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever,” “Our God is an Awesome God,” “Father I Adore You,” “Tear Down the Walls.” Hillsong United, Integrity Music, and other major praise and worship companies have obviously cooperated with CC to provide some of their more widely used songs in instrumental versions. They are pumped through a station at some headquarters whereby shoppers and employees at all of CC stores will have a uniform muzakal experience. It’s a strange collective experience, especially as the hours in your 12-16 hour shift wear on and “Above All” is ringing in your ears for the seventeenth time (no bitterness here, no sir–and more on the shifts and work schedules as well as my current dealings with OSHA in the next post).
What strikes me as interesting is that by making the music muzak, instrumental by nature, CC is relying on the customers’ knowledge of Christian music and the familiarity of the melodies to the general public (or at least the public that they are serving). They are also probably avoiding a ton of royalty fees, but Darren will certainly be able to better speak to that issue. But what they also do is reveal the secular nature of CC’s commercialism. In addition to Christian-themed music, the stores also have an odd array of non-Christian songs (in fact, some songs used are by nature not conservative or Christian at all). This fact first struck me as I was stocking merchandise and immediately recognized the butchered version of “Imagine” that suddenly began playing over the loudspeakers. “Imagine”? “Imagine no religion”? When I finished my task and returned to my department I asked another employee about the song–how could this store be playing that song (as happy as I was to hear it and for the respite from “Awesome God”)? I was confronted by a very defensive fellow worker who explained to me that “Imagine” is a Christian song and that John Lennon and the Beatles were all Christians. I tried to throw down some pop culture knowledge but eventually gave up and logged the event as singular. Maybe the higher-ups are under the same impression and honestly believe that “Imagine” is a Christian tune. Whatever. But it did make me listen a little more carefully to the muzak from then on and I discovered that the instrumentals that the customers so loved because of the Christian inspiration they received while shopping (no irony, none at all) did not adhere to any real ideology or logic whatsoever. Rod Stewart, Sting, John Mayer (“Your Body is a Wonderland”), all showed up in their repertoire. The Beatles are a favorite.
My sense is that as long as the tune is registered by the typical consumer’s ear as something that they know, that’s how it made the cut. So praise and worship and traditional hymns are recognizable, just like “Imagine” and “Broken Arrow.” In other words, commerce is king in the CC muzak department.
Part III
The one good and seemingly Christian thing about CC (“Christian Chain”) is that it is closed on Sunday. Until it’s not. One of the aspects that many shoppers find appealing about CC (in addition to the P&W muzak like “Awesome God”—that’s for you, Paul Harvey) is that it openly states that it treats its employees well. It’s right there on the door as soon as you walk in: “Closed on Sunday for Worship and Family.” The store is technically closed on Sunday, but it must be for customers’ worship and families because oftentimes employees are called in on Sundays to stock shelves, clean the store, hurriedly ready it for an upcoming visit from management. So what is at the heart of the work ethic of CC? Is it a Christian calling or is it corporate pressure, or both?
A striking element of CC’s character is it does have many long-term employees—individuals who have been working there for several years, some almost a decade on and off. Why do they stay and why do they agree to work Sundays? Why do they keep working until 1 AM on some nights to get the stock on the shelves when their shift was over at 5 PM? Why do they maintain 14 hour days when they are making part-time pay with promises of full-time benefits eventually (oftentimes promises that go unfulfilled)?
I’ve considered many options and overanalyzed the answers to these questions, I’m sure. If one took a Weberian approach, the answer may be that the employees see some greater meaning to their work. They see their employment with the company as part of their larger role as members of God’s Kingdom and doers of his will. And some of the workers at CC may very well view themselves this way. Case study: an older woman, well beyond the age of retirement, comes to work every day and puts her all into her job. She sees the work as necessary for her family and also productive in and of itself. She keeps a Bible at her station and often shares passages with coworkers and customers. Mrs. Mary (as she is affectionately called by everyone, including the manager) is not content in her employment (she often talks about how she wishes that she could go home early or how her feet hurt), but she does engage in it as a result of a compulsion to work for a higher good. God wants her to work and she sees God’s hand in her work.
What undermines this Weberian perspective are the other employees. Sexual harassment is rampant at CC as well as a general desire to goof off. In other words, Mrs. Mary is not the norm. The sexual harassment is particularly distressing considering the said mission statement of the company. There is, however, internal arbitration for any complaints. (Sorry, but a “yeah, right” is due here as anyone who has dealt with “internal arbitration” before can probably attest.) I witnessed male employees taking pictures of female employees rear-ends and bragging about it, female employees grabbing each other’s crotches as a joke, and constant back-and-forth sexual teasing. I was once asked by a male coworker if I would ever cheat on my husband. All this being said, the sexual harassment and general malaise of CC employees completely detracts from whatever Weber would say about the company and the employees’ drive to work with a godly ethic. That ain’t happening.
In the middle of the two extremes is the “false idol” worship that is incorporated into every day dealings with employees behind closed doors. At every staff meeting the manager insists upon a prayer before getting down to business and the prayer always begins by thanking God for the owner of CC and asking God to bless the owner as the owner has blessed each of us. Creepy? Yes. Christian? Uh, no. I welcome analysis of this feature of CC as it was one of the more baffling. Perhaps it is a derivative of the Prosperity Gospel—the idea that the owner is making millions because of his commitment to God and that through trickle-down Prosperity Gospel we were somehow benefiting from it? Again, I welcome ideas here, especially from you, Deg.
Ultimately, I’ll lean on Marx (as usual) for an explanation of why employees remain in this environment (and don’t flee and file complaints with OSHA as I did). Opiate of the masses. Class. Take your pick. Religion serves as the opiate of the customers more so than the employees. Consumers come into CC with an understanding that it is a Christian company, that it is run on Christian values, that they will get soothing Christian muzak (sort of) once they enter the doors. Employees are force-fed an odd Christian message at staff meetings and through the general material culture of the place while not experiencing it in their interactions with other workers and managers. It is simply class status that keeps them there. They cannot find other employment because they have neither the skills or the education to do so. And if they do have skills/education there are other barriers: the market is terrible, one guy had a felony under his belt for domestic abuse, etc. It is mostly the ones who need the job who stay—they simply don’t have a way out. Another case study: I ran into a former CC coworker the other day. (She hardly recognized me out of uniform.) She has been at CC for over 2 years now and I never got close enough to her to tell if she was content or merely smiling because her job depended on it. Well, away from CC I found out. As soon as she saw me she ran up to tell me how much she and other coworkers wished they could do what I had done and quit. She wants to find something else but there just isn’t anything else out there. She is Pentecostal, lives by Christian virtues, and does not buy into CC’s message of Christian retail. Not after the way that she’s been treated as one of its employees. Her final message to me before we parted ways was “You go, girl. You did the right thing and stood up for yourself. I just wish I was in the position where I could do the same thing.”
Ultimately, it’s class that keeps CC’s employees there. Not some religious work ethic or “time for worship and family” on Sundays. They are there because they need the money and their families could not survive without the extra income.
My final thoughts on my experience working for CC are this: not all Christian-run retailers are the same, but the social expectations for them are. American consumers who purchase items because they believe that the corporation is working for some higher cause should question the company’s motives (key word: company) and should research what they are really selling. I think they may be surprised. I sure was.