One writer processed a zillion holiday returns — and kind of loved it.
By Charles Oddleifson
Last fall, I moved back to Maine from Texas, exhausted by the heat and hedonism of that sunny land. The day after I arrived, I took a walk at Thorne Head Preserve in Bath and felt my soul returning to me by way of the hard granite, the dripping pine trees, and the light rain falling across the Kennebec: my spiritual geography welcomed me home. But I also needed coins in my pocket, so I decided to apply for seasonal work at L.L.Bean.
The Freeport-based retailer experiences a surge of business in the month or two leading up to Christmas, hiring a small army of temporary workers to keep backlogs down and customers happy. Jobs were available in three areas: retail, phones, and warehouse. The first two involved dealing directly with customers. The last did not, and so I opted for the last.
On my first day, I arrived in the darkness at 6 a.m. and was escorted to a classroom on the first floor of the warehouse, where 17 other students and I were to be trained as returns processors. In this role, I would open packages sent back to L.L.Bean from far and wide: Dunkirk, Indiana; Wahoo, Nebraska; Belchertown, Massachusetts. My job was to find out who the customer was, what they were returning, what they wanted, and how to dispose of returned items appropriately. During training, our instructor wheeled out racks of garments and shoes, each of which we meticulously examined for flaws. Later, we learned how to distinguish shades of blue denim. One day, we looked at various postmarks and discussed how to categorize them. Another day, we learned how to fold clothes properly. Jeans were easy, bathrobes we dreaded.
Despite the thorough instruction, my college-educated ego was quickly humbled. What to do with a package that is all at once a split order, a fulfillment error, and a questionable return? Other complexities were interpretive: A customer writes, “Needed a size 7.” Does that suggest the customer no longer needs a size 7? Or, because ignoring a customer’s request is more egregious than fulfilling a nonexistent one, should I go ahead and ship a size 7 as a replacement?
Despite the thorough instruction, my college-educated ego was quickly humbled.
In all things, our bible was the L.L.Bean site index, an online encyclopedia of procedures to deal with any contingency. What to do if a customer sends an outline of her foot in lieu of a size request? Consult the site index. What to do if you find a stink bug inside the package? Look up “insects” in the site index and you will be instructed to “stay calm, squash the insect, dispose in the trash, and continue to process as a regular return.” Such detail was reassuring.
During my two weeks of training, I got to know my peers, whom I mentally divided into two groups. The first were the lost youth, people in their 20s or early 30s who didn’t quite know what they were doing with their lives. That was my camp. The second group consisted of retirees who were working at L.L.Bean more or less because their spouses wanted them out of the house.
From the first group, I befriended a bright University of Maine engineering grad, an accountant fleeing Connecticut, and a former Marine from Hawaii who had recently moved to Maine to be near his wife’s family. From the second group, I befriended a woman who ran her own pickle and jam business and whose products were in high demand, grossing her $20,000 in the previous year.
When my fellow Beanie babies and I finally moved up to the cavernous main floor of the warehouse, filled with hubbub and cranking conveyor belts, I felt like a puppy let outside for the first time, blinking in the bright new world. For us, this new world consisted of desks equipped with a small arsenal of brushes, lint rollers, tape dispensers, boxes, and bags, past which three stacked conveyor belts ceaselessly brought us packages and took away cardboard and spruced-up returned items. Whenever we finished with a package, a new one would inevitably be trundling past, ready for our attention. The overall effect was, to quote the poet Seamus Heaney, “a hurry through which known and strange things pass.”
She showed me her employee number, assigned sequentially to new hires: 2,572. Mine was 145,650.
Inside the packages we found misplaced scissors, rolls of tape, corkscrews, headphones, slips of paper inscribed with mysterious numbers, rogue Lands’ End apparel, and once, an entire landline telephone, all of which we dutifully bagged up and returned to the customers who had accidentally sent them. The best were letters from customers, sometimes addressed “Dear Bean,” five-paragraph persuasive essays, beautifully composed, explaining why the L.L.Bean size medium is not a true medium or why their husband “cannot wear such pants.” A certain Clinton Leopold Goldstone informed me that the zipper of his new jacket “opens without provocation.” Most sensational was a winter jacket that had been sliced cleanly down the back, as if by a razor blade. A note from the customer explained that her son had been wearing the jacket when he had fallen on the ice and been knocked unconscious. When he was found, he was near death from hypothermia, but the L.L.Bean jacket had kept him warm enough to save his life. The slice had been made by paramedics cutting off his clothes.
As we neared Christmas, snow fell and I enjoyed retiring at break time to the glass-enclosed cafeteria to sip coffee and look out at the white-cloaked hemlock trees. But the gears of war churned on. In early December, we had a facility-wide meeting. The Black Friday stats were in: huge numbers, making November the most profitable month for the company in decades. More sales, however, meant more returns, and we braced ourselves for the coming deluge. In December, we were already seeing the kind of backlogs that usually happen only in January: more than 100,000 packages in the building, waiting to be processed. Every day, nine UPS tractor-trailers backed up to our building. We had biweekly meetings intended to whip us into frenzies of productivity, and hourly reports over loudspeakers announced our progress in meeting daily goals. Workdays became nine hours long (twelve, if you wanted more overtime), and we often worked through weekends. No longer Beanie babies, my comrades and I were now each processing upwards of 30 packages per hour.
The best were letters from customers, sometimes addressed “Dear Bean,” five-paragraph persuasive essays, beautifully composed, explaining why the L.L.Bean size medium is not a true medium or why their husband “cannot wear such pants.”
It helped that we were surrounded by full-timers, veterans of this peak season. A woman across the aisle from me had worked at Bean’s on and off for 42 years. Her first job, at 16, was operating a crank-powered photocopier — she’d had to wear a smock to prevent ink from splashing onto her clothes. She showed me her employee number, assigned sequentially to new hires: 2,572. Mine was 145,650. We got talking about how her husband loves baking. The next morning, I found a delicious brownie on my desk. Other full-timers were just as kind and helpful. If they’re reading this, they know who they are.
By late January, the worst had passed, and we were back to eight-hour days. With my last day approaching, I was preparing to leave Maine again, this time to see family in distant Tasmania. In some ways, I was glad to be leaving Bean’s. The work had grown monotonous, and it had so permeated my subconscious that I reflexively named the types of plaid worn by those around me: Black Watch, Grey Stewart, Royal Stewart Tartan, Dress Gordon. When I opened a package of new pants at home, my first instinct was to check the pockets for tissues left by previous customers.
But I was grateful to Bean’s for the three months I’d spent there — for reminding me what it feels like to be part of a team and for introducing me to Mainers, old and new, who welcomed me back to my home.
When I left the warehouse on my last day, the air was mild and the sun bright, so I returned to Thorne Head, this time wearing the L.L.Bean jacket and boots I had bought with my employee discount. Instead of rain on the Kennebec, I watched the ice, moving in massive floes down from Merrymeeting Bay like packages on a conveyor.