ZIFFPAGE TITLEDominoes in a Row

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2004-07-20 Print this article Print

Dominoes in a Row

Months before a new store opens, a district or area manager must arrange for builders to prepare the site. Construction can include anything from ripping and replacing floor tile to installing a bathroom to cutting curbs outside so Dollar Generals 53-foot tractor-trailers can maneuver through the parking lot.

When property managers at headquarters get word that construction is finishing, a corporate buyer orders two to five point-of-sale terminals online from IBM. Then IBM arranges to deliver them by Day 2 of an eight-day store-opening cycle.

The cash register order kicks off an electronic alert to Spacenet, the company that will provide a satellite hookup between those registers and Dollar General headquarters. A Spacenet installation manager receives an e-mail with the phone number of the new store. Knowing when the registers are due, he then schedules an installer to arrive at the new store on Day 4 or Day 5, replete with gear to make the links.

When physical setup of a store starts, a "setter" keeps the process moving as the on-site project manager. A setters formal title is store merchandiser. His task is to deliver a just-in-time store, steering a crew of about 20 unpackers, stockers, sweepers and fix-it people.

Setters, also called "openers," erect shelves, install the point-of-sale registers, oversee the creation of the satellite uplinks, put up signs and put out merchandise. They coordinate deliveries from suppliers and technology vendors, test accounting software, handle inquiries from headquarters and sweep the floors when theyre dirty.

"Each ball shoots another down the line," says New York setter Mark Rambus. "Bing, bing, bing. Cause and effect."

Day 1 - The Gang of 17

  • Setup team arrives

  • Lights, shelves, signage unloaded

  • "Pog" hell

    A setter is on the road at least 20 days per month opening, remodeling, moving or closing stores. Rambus, from Rome, N.Y., can eyeball a handrail in a Dollar General bathroom and tell you if its an inch farther from the commode than the maximum 18 inches required by federal law.

    When a setter is on premises, even a district manager will defer to him about when to build the clothing racks or how to handle building inspectors. That speaks volumes at a company with an onion-peel hierarchy of thousands of clerks, lead clerks, assistant store managers, store managers, district managers and area managers.

    When Rambus gets to the Colonial Shopping Center in Whitesboro, N.Y., on the morning of March 25, he finds himself in charge of a typical opening. As it usually does, Dollar General has leased space in a strip mall in the low-income town. The reasoning is writ in the numbers: The company paid $5.41 per square selling foot in rent last year on average. Ultimately each of those square feet brought in 28 times that in sales.

    The Whitesboro building, a former auto parts store, is flanked by ShowBiz Video on the left and Cut & Curl Hair Designs by Yvonne on the right. Inside sits Ethel Longway, a store manager in her 50s who has transferred from a nearby Dollar General store to manage this new one. The company likes experienced managers to help get new stores going.

    Longway and 17 locals hired temporarily for setup await the fixture truck, an 18-wheeler loaded with metal shelving, coolers, racks, counters and hanging displays that must be screwed together and placed in predetermined spots around the store. Before setup ends, the crew will lift a few thousand 20- , 30- and 40-pound boxes of material and merchandise. They will stock hundreds of feet of display shelves, mop 6,800 square feet of floor and squeegee floor-to-ceiling storefront windows.

    Unloading fixture pallets alone takes five hours. Then come the pogs.

    Detailed booklets called planograms, or "pogs" in Dollar General parlance, have to be read and understood on the fly. They show how and where to assemble the clothing racks, food coolers, toy shelves and greeting card displays just the way Corporate wants. Paper cups next to toothpicks next to feminine hygiene products. Bakeware near small appliances. Cleansers next to pet food next to cat carriers.

    Computer-printed labels with item names, prices, stock-keeping unit numbers and bar codes must be attached to the appropriate spots on the right shelves. The crew must "face" the products. That is, items must be pulled forward flush with the shelfs edge.

    In Whitesboro, its 45 degrees outside, but inside these people are sweating. Those who perspire, but do so with the best attitude, may win full-time positions as cashiers and clerks when the store opens. Its an audition.

    Corporate managers allow a store manager to hire up to 20 people for setup, but lots of openings happen with as few as 10. Shallow pools of potential workers in the downtrodden small towns where Dollar General prefers to put its stores can be an obstacle. But the motivation is clear: a paycheck. As Rambus notes, these jobs are minimum wage for maximum effort, with no promises after Day 8.

    "People dont want to work for that kind of money temporarily," he says. "Theyre not gamblers. They dont want to take the risk."

    Four of his 17 helpers leave before the last day. Six are eventually hired.

    Next Page: A midstream shift.

    Senior Writer
    Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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