Business

Retail as a way of life

Some have made a career out of working in stores

Kimberly Earle pulls shoes for a customer to try on with potential outfits at Von Maur in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Earle has worked at Von Maur for 15 years and manages the active and contemporary departments. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Kimberly Earle pulls shoes for a customer to try on with potential outfits at Von Maur in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. Earle has worked at Von Maur for 15 years and manages the active and contemporary departments. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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His regular customers at Edgewood Do It Best Hardware in Cedar Rapids search for Dale Streets when they come in. His co-worker, Jerry Mobley, draws pictures to illustrate so DIY newbies who come in the store can see how to make repairs on their home.

Bill Witt can size up a customer when they walk up to him in the Dillard’s men’s suits department, in Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville. And Kimberly Earle at Von Maur in Lindale Mall in Cedar Rapids knows exactly what style and size her customers prefer.

In an era when working a retail job is seen by many younger job seekers as a part-time stopover, these employees have made it a career.

A separate style

In a book behind the counter in the contemporary department at Von Maur in Cedar Rapids, Kimberly Earle keeps notes on the 42 customers’ preferences. She can open the book and look at a customer’s name, knowing, for example, that one likes clothes with sequins and glitter. She also often knows the style preferences of customers’ husbands and children.

For one woman with teenage daughters, Earle keeps her receipts in a zipped plastic bag inside the book, knowing it will be easier for her to find the receipts than for the customer to hunt them down when wanting to return an item of clothing.

Earle went to school for fashion merchandising, but she ended up forgoing finishing her degree when she was offered a full-time position at a Des Moines branch of Northern Reflections, a Canadian-based women’s clothing store.

Retail is appealing to her because of the clothing she enjoys but also because it allows her to socialize with customers.

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“I’ve enjoyed seeing the clothing styles change over years,” Earle said. “Some years the styles repeat themselves, which is fun because you get a new generation shopping for those clothes. You get someone who is shopping thinking the styles are brand-new and you say, ‘No, your mom probably shopped for that in the ’70s.”

Earle has worked at the Cedar Rapids Von Maur for almost 15 years, first starting as a Clinique counter manager, then a dresses and coats department manager. She is now department manager of activewear and contemporary clothing.

Earle said she enjoys working a Von Maur largely because of the follow-up program that allows her to build a rapport with customers, taking them to other departments in the store for merchandise and calling them when specific items come in.

“I really do shop with the customer,” she said. “You really do become friends. You know when they’re on vacation, when they have a child graduating or getting married. You see them in public and everybody says hi.”

The trend toward e-commerce does not worry Earle. She sees it as a way of shopping that’s easiest for some customers, but she also sees it as another way to bring them back into a brick-and-mortar store.

“If it doesn’t work for that customer, when they come into the stores and return it, you can flip that around,” Earle said. “Delve into question: What didn’t you like about that? Here’s other styles that will work for you. When you can’t try something on, I don’t think I could shop like that.”

Well-suited to the job

During his first year at the University of Iowa in the 1950s, Bill Witt would walk around downtown Iowa City, drawn to the men’s clothing stores where he could see the change in style and season. Though he always intended to finish college and become a history teacher, Witt took a summer job working in a men’s clothing store in his hometown of Ackley after his first year.

“I thought I saw an opportunity because (the owner) was actually right at retirement age,” he recalled. “Somebody was going to have to be there to keep that store alive, and I thought it was me. And it was.”

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Witt worked at Fisher’s Clothing for 10 years, he and his wife living off $45 a week. His boss took him to clothing markets in Des Moines and Minneapolis, asking for Witt’s opinion on which styles would be most popular among men aged 16 to 25.

He learned how many items of each kind of clothing he needed to have in the storeroom. Overalls, coveralls and jackets sold out first because farmers would come into Ackley, then with a population of about 1,500, to buy supplies and take three pairs of each at a time.

By the time his boss wanted to retire, Witt had learned enough to take over the store with help from a neighbor who signed a loan to buy half the facility. On Sept. 12, 1960, he opened the store as Witt’s Clothing.

“I had a store that I had invested none of my own money because I didn’t have any money,” Witt said. “The first day (he owned the store), I went to work shaking like a leaf. The (local customers) said, ‘Just calm down. We’re here because we wanted to help you.’”

Witt sold the store in 1991, noting that the town’s population was dwindling as residents had begun to look for work in bigger cities. There wasn’t enough business to stay open.

“I was the youngest one left on main street, and I was 50 years old,” Witt said.

After working at a department store in Marshalltown for 10 years, Witt went to work at Dillard’s in the Coral Ridge Mall in 2001 after being told at other job interviews with department stores that he was overqualified.

“I was in my 50s, the mall was new,” he said. “I didn’t think I could ever work in the mall and smell popcorn and listen to kids scream all day. But it wasn’t like that.”

Witt is now one of three employees the management at Dillard’s qualified to work in the men’s suits department.

Today, Witt can still size a person up just by looking at him.

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“When someone approaches me, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Is this man big, is he tall or is he short?’” he said. “Those things are all going through my head. I say, ‘is there a specific color or style you want? I’ll say, ‘Let’s take a few measurements so I put you in the right suit.’”

“In a world where internet sales are taking over the retail industry, someone that has experience brings people back in,” said Teresa Bennett, assistant store manager at Dillard’s “You have to have people to do that.”

More than nuts and bolts

Dale Streets, 85, has been working at Edgewood Do It Best Hardware for 26 years instead of retiring when he had the chance at 59 years old.

Streets worked at Wilson & Co. meatpacking plant for 41 years until that plant closed.

“I was 59 years old, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to retire,’” Streets said. “I just about went nuts. My whole life, all I’ve done is work. I have no hobbies, so what do you do when you retire, especially at 59? I’ve got a lot of energy.”

After retiring from Wilson & Co. — and then running a mechanical storeroom at Farmstead for seven years — Streets saw an ad in the paper for a job opening at the Edgewood hardware store and thought he would put his knowledge to use. He now works on the floor of the store assisting customers.

Like Streets, Jerry Mobley, 78, knows hardware. He has his own woodworking shop at home, but he wasn’t quite done working when he retired.

Mobley has repaired screen doors and windows at the back of the shop with dusty, calloused hands for the past 13 years at Edgewood Do It Best Hardware.

Mobley got his fix-it talents through trial and error after growing up on a farm where they “didn’t hire anyone to come and repair.” He used that same attitude when he rented out a duplex and would need to make repairs for tenants.

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He has worked with his hands all his life, but didn’t really interact great deal with people until he started working in the store. Chatting with customers is something he has grown to like, he said.

“I like the challenges of what people come in and want to fix,” Mobley said. “It’s amazing the number of people that do not know exactly what they’re getting into when they try to do a home project. The way they explain how they try to go about it ... is interesting, I’ll just say that.”

Going step by step, Mobley will explain and illustrate how to take something apart and how to put it back together when the regulars come in and ask him for advice.

Mobley also takes the time to teach young employees his tricks of the trade.

“I try to help them out as much as I can, as much as they want to learn,” he said. “The right person has to want to learn. We have some that just take a job just to have a job, and then there are those that are interested in how I know what I do.”

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