Behind the Scenes at Apple, Gap, and Starbucks

An author learns the tricks of popular retailers by going to work for them.

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In Punching In: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, Alex Frankel works as a salesman at an Apple store, a Gap sales associate, and a Starbucks barista, among other positions at popular companies. While most of us interact with these companies only as consumers, Frankel explores what they look like from the other side of the counter. As someone who is always wondering what store employees are really thinking as they gather piles of clothes left in dressing rooms or froth our nonfat milk foam, I was eager to ask him about his experiences.

As an employee, what customer habits did you find most annoying? Have you changed any of your own behavior as a result?

There were certainly a few customers here and there who were clueless and demanding, but by and large, as a worker on the front lines at a handful of front-line retailers, I found customers to be surprisingly unobtrusive and generally patient. I was impressed by those customers who, when they felt they were right, argued calmly and clearly for what they felt they deserved (as opposed to those few who became angry and loud). The way in which my behavior has largely changed has been that now I understand that each company or store I frequent has a number of systems by which it operates. Now that I know more about these systems, I can be a better consumer. For example, I now understand how the UPS routing system works, so I know when I can expect my driver to show up at my door. And I know how to make his job a bit easier by doing things like ordering in bulk instead of many packages, getting to the door as quickly as possible, and telling him my name when I sign for a package. At Enterprise [Rent-a-Car], I know how the employee will try to sell me insurance, so I beat them to the punch by initialing the lines on the contract that signal I will decline it. I typically decline most insurance if I know that I am covered by my regular car insurance policy or my credit card, two ways many people are in fact covered for renting cars.

I was surprised to learn that at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the employees are encouraged to push insurance on customers, and that at the Gap, sales associates were taught to encourage customers to "add on" other items in the dressing rooms. Are most retail employees taught to "upsell" shoppers?

Among the places where I worked, those two instances were the prime examples of "upselling." I found the selling of insurance to customers to be an incredibly hard-wired part of the entire Enterprise corporate culture and way of operating. At the Apple Store, we were certainly encouraged to add on additional components to the sale of a computer. The sale of these so-called attachments, such as in-store lessons and warranties, are a way for Apple to try to tie customers into the stores for the long haul. At Starbucks I was intrigued to see that when a new beverage launched nationwide (as the "green tea Frappuccino" did when I was working there), we were encouraged to tell customers about it, suggest they try it, and offer frequent free samples. We were pushed to sell a certain number of these frothy green beverages each week. So, yes, selling in various forms was a part of most jobs I held.

It seems as though you gained a new respect for Starbucks, because of the dedication of employees and strong employee benefits. But you also say, "Some days after taking yet another order for a silly, oversugared beverage, I looked at the long line of customers that seemed to never end, and I wanted to flee the store." Should customers feel bad when they order a decaf skinny triple mocha with whip?

Indeed, I gained an appreciation for the highly efficient workflow systems at Starbucks; I was amazed at how well our behind-the-counter team could dispatch a long line of customers. As a worker it was certainly easier when a customer ordered a drip coffee, but I found that few did. Most customers opted for the more fanciful and sugary drinks, which, to be sure, are not about the taste of coffee but about the sweet taste. Customers should feel good about ordering whatever concoctions they can dream up, but I personally favor the more traditional and simple fare—cappuccinos and espressos—which, to be fair, were part of the early Starbucks story but are not really part of the modern Starbucks experience, which leans a bit to the Frappuccino side of the menu. (Starbucks refers to stores in which Frappuccinos outsell other coffee drinks as "Frappuccino Stores," and I would guess these stores are on the rise.)

Is there any company that you are less likely to frequent now that you know what it's like to work for them?

There were not really any places where, having worked there, I grew to loathe and not want to be a customer in the future. I suppose Enterprise would be the only place that I might avoid in the future, now that I am aware of their insurance upselling techniques and because having researched other car-renting avenues [like hourly car sharing], I am more interested in using user-friendly services [like Zipcar]. If I were someone who worried a lot about the cleanliness of the restaurants I frequented, I might be given pause by the knowledge I gained having worked at Starbucks. The barista pulling espresso shots is the same barista that cleans the bathrooms and mops the floor during the day.

Did anything surprise you about the way customers treated you as an employee of UPS, Gap, or Starbucks? Were people ever rude to you?

I had very few, if any, interactions with customers who were rude to me. I expected to have many more hostile interactions, but most customers were surprisingly well behaved. Uniforms really did affect how customers viewed us. Many customers commented on the suit I wore to work at Enterprise. Wearing the UPS uniform and delivering packages certainly engendered the best interactions I had with customers among the five jobs I held. If you poll people, they will no doubt tell you how much they love their UPS driver. Most of the time you are bringing a package that people are expecting, and that is a de facto positive experience for them. Also, the company has done a great job in putting great people on the front lines and customers respond to this.