Learning to fold: everything I know about laundry I learned from working shitty retail jobs

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step7Having just finished my first year of college, the summer of 1994 found me looking to take a step up in my career. I’d spent a few months toddler-wrastling for a daycare, but really wanted to ascend to the world of retail … the cash register and lack of juice breaks made it seemed more glamorous, and I could make $6.25 an hour instead of $5.75.

I found a job at The Disney Store in downtown Seattle’s then-newish Westlake Mall. I thought the job would be so much fun…I was still a big Little Mermaid fan, and I figured that my experience with children at the daycare would translate perfectly into children’s retail.

My disillusionment began quickly. I had to sit through “orientation” which included two sessions watching lengthy bullshit corporate videos about synergy and the Customer Service Cycle. I was introduced to the tenets of the retail industry, the fantastically swishy sounding theory of FAB — Features And Benefits. The t-shirt is COTTON [feature] which makes it SOFT and ABSORBENT! [benefit] This stuffed Sebastian lobster doll is SAFE FOR BABIES [benefit] because it’s made from NON-TOXIC NON-ABSORBENT ACETATE! [feature]

If the orientation made me wary, I was soon overwhelmed by the level of control the company exacted over me. I learned never to ask a customer a question to which they could answer “No.” The question was not, “Can I help you?” but rather, “What can I help you find today?” I suppose the theory was that “Nothing” has two syllables, and that puts you at a better syllable-to-statement ratio with the customer. I’m confident many years of research have been conducted on this issue, and that it’s always better if you can get a duo-syllabic rejection.

I learned how to semantically assimilate with the Disney Corporation. I was a “Cast Member,” not an employee. It was the “Stage,” not the store floor. It was “Backstage,” not the storage room. As they are in many places now, customers were “Guests.” I learned how to wear my socks appropriately (folded down neatly over the ankles, bobby-sock style) and which color of nylons to wear under my uniform of grey shorts and faux letterman’s sweater.

Once, my chipper manager sent me Backstage to Windex my sneakers. “Gal,” she chirped “they’re looking a little dingey. You need to go clean those up Backstage!”

We all know the corporate retail Greeter — that person who is forced to put the “Ass” in “Sales Associate”; the unlucky sod stationed at the front of the store verbally assaulting every last person who walks through the mall entryway. But the Greeter can’t look like they’re just Greeting. No. Even Mickey Mouse acknowledges that such behavior might seem irritating or creepy. A Greeter’s true skill is looking remarkably busy, embodying that air of surprised genuine glee when someone walks through the door — Why, I didn’t see you there! Hello! Welcome to The Disney Store! What can I help you find today?

The busywork that I did most often when working my Greeter shift was folding. When working farther back on the Stage, I’d learned to use the folding square, a piece of plastic that ensured shirts were all neatly folded into rectangles of exactly the same size so that the stack would all show a screen-printed Tigger in the exact uniform place. The folding square was fine, but when you’re Greeting, you need to be more hands-on. There can’t be too many props between you and the customer. So I learned to fold shirts against my chest.

Over and over again, I’d fold the same shirt, glancing up with eyebrows raised in mock joy to smile, “Welcome to the Disney Store! What can I help you with today? Oh, don’t worry about interrupting me, I’d love to help you find that collectible Briar Rabbit porcelain figure!” I’d set the shirt down, and return to it a few minutes later to refold it and Greet the next Guest.

It became second nature — hold the shirt against my chest. Fold it laterally on one side, tucking the sleeve. Fold it laterally on the other side, tucking the sleeve. Then hold one hand and let gravity help you crease it in thirds — Why hello! Welcome to the Disney Store! What’s your favorite Lion King song? Wow, I like Hakuna Matata too!

Quickly, I learned to hate my job at The Disney Store. Too controlled! Too forced! The half-hour commute from the U-District to Westlake was stupid! My last hurrah (and dangerous act of rebellion) was stealing a Tinkerbell figurine that had been recalled due to a dangerously-pointy plastic wing. I entertained fantasies of poking a two-year-old’s eye with it and suing the company to make millions. Then I quit without giving notice.

But some things stayed with me. In 1995 I wrote an essay applying Erving Goffman‘s theory of Total Institution to the Disney Store. There were some holes in my thesis, but I argued it well and got a 3.7 on the paper.

Recently, as Andreas and I folded laundry, he made me realize that the fucking Disney Fold has been permanently ingrained into my repertoire of laundry techniques. It makes sense — I worked there when I was just getting established as an adult living on my own, and the shirt folding technique was a good one. Dre struggled as he tried to learn it, and I laughed and laughed when I realized that here I am, 20 years later, still acting the role of Cast Member.

And now I’m here to share the magic with you! Below, please find the seven magical steps of The Disney Fold demonstrated by your favorite retired Greeter. This may be top-secret stuff people — I could get sued! Then again, I could learn that this is how everyone folds their shirts, and my story could be ruined.








What oddly useful skills have you retained from your shittiest jobs?

Comments on Learning to fold: everything I know about laundry I learned from working shitty retail jobs

  1. I also worked in retail for more years than I’d want to mention, and the fold was something you had to learn, and do well, if you wanted to leave on time any given night of the week. I still use it today, because it’s the best way to see what shirt you want to wear when in a stacked pile.

  2. When I was a kid I called this the department store fold and was extremely jealous of anyone who knew how to do it. (I grew up in a household where each person had their own way to fold towels.) I was manager at a nice clothing store right out of college. While I did learn this fold, I also learned an incredibly complicated way to fold jeans and skirts from a pants hanger that I still utilize.

  3. I have a retail side gig, and our store isn’t as uptight as others about folding and visual standards, but we still use that exact same folding technique! Unlike you, I am not at all enthused about folding at home and I try to fold as few clothing items as possible. I only use the “retail fold” when folding a gift for someone else or something like that.

  4. This is the perfect description of the type of small indignities and soul-sucking work many of us have been subject to. My personal favorite was a rule the discouraged pointing when someone was asking for directions in a theme park. You must point with *two* fingers, never one.

    • Re: two-finger pointing. I actually was told in an acting class that pointing with two fingers is also a stronger and more visually appealing gesture, so I use that *all the time* & don’t mind it!

    • Other important lessons I learned from the Disney Store:
      1. Never hold both hands behind your back — it looks shifty!
      2. Always ask open-ended questions — a yes/no question can be shot down too quickly.

      Actually, the Disney Store training videos also taught me about F.A.B. (Features And Benefits) a core concept that informed a lot of my marketing copywriting through my 20s and early 30s, and something that you can probably STILL sniff out in the sponsored posts on the Empire. (I trained Megan how to write them, and F.A.B. is so much a part of my brain that I’m sure I indoctrinated her.)

      • I usually hold my hands behind my back while I’m walking the floor at the YMCA. It’s good for shoulder retraction, which prevents hunched-over posture. I’ve been told that it makes me look like a warden at a jail! I don’t care; good posture trumps looking shifty.

  5. I unfortunately have a retail career that I can totally relate with the ingrained behaviors. I can’t go into a store that has a bell because I have this gnawing feeling when someone else comes in behind me, I literally have to hold myself back saying, “Oh hey! Welcome in!” I’ve done it so many years now its like an automatic reaction NO MATTER the store. I literally embarrassed myself by accidentally acting like a department manager at a large store,and fooling a new employee…as well as customers who started following me on my heels and asking me a ton of questions to get them things.

    Customer service/retail management has ruined me…I even worked at a doctor’s office as a medical assistant and for a year or two I COULD NOT answer a phone call without saying, “Dr.McLeod’s Office, Ariel speaking, How may I direct your call?”….like when my grandmother called my cell phone.

    The brainwashing is just scary, yo. T_T

    • I have totally given my work phone number to people in place of my own- cause I say my work number waaaayyy more often. And answered my cell phone with “Thank you for calling ___. How can I help you?”

      • I work in a call center, and I can’t answer the phone without going. “Good Morning/evening and thank you for calling ____. My name is Sarah. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with? “

        • It took me years to get out of this habit, even after only working in retail for about 2-3 years. My husband like to make fun of my “robot phone” voice.

    • At my old job, they hired a guy who used to work at a competitor store, and we COULD NOT stop him from saying “Thank you for calling competitor store, this is Dave, how can I help you?”

      They stopped letting him answer the phone

  6. I worked at a hotel for four years, and I still fold all my sheets and towels the exact same way I learned there.

    And oh yes, the answering the phone. When I was pulling double duty at the hotel and as a barista, I once started doing my hotel phone spiel in the drive thru. I managed to kind of save it. I’m sure the customer thought I was crazy.

    • Hah I’ve done that! Spent a summer working at Arby’s and the local movie theater. So many people are Arby’s were told “Enjoy the show!” and so many people at the theater were offered curly fries. They were very disappointed when I had to correct myself and tell them there weren’t any curly fries at the theater. Sorry!

  7. Up until about a year ago, I folded tshirts in half, then in half. Then I discovered that if I do the retail fold, I could store them vertically, see the shirts instead of having most of them buried at the bottom of a pile, and maybe fit one or two more in my drawer. Now, that would be more true if my shirts were not plus size or my drawers were deeper in my dresser. But still, I at least sort of do this fold except I have to lay it on the bed or I will end up with a complete mess.

  8. Yes! I remember watching this back in middle school and spending the night learning to fold this way with my friends. My shirts don’t usually look as good as the one in the video, but I feel so snazzy doing it!

  9. I worked at Gap, so I know that fold off by heart, and still use it! But my ‘piece de resistance’ is folding denim, which is only something working full time at Gap can do to you. I can make jeans look amazing on a shelf, which is entirely useless because you never store them that way at home and nobody cares about a few denim wrinkles. T-shirts need folding well, jeans do not. Also, Gap have folding classes. You learn the ‘Gap’ way. They had a training scheme called T.H.R.E.A.D.S only I can’t for the life of me remember what any of the letters stand for. I worked there eleven years ago and I still harbour irrational hatred for Gap and their insane indoctrination. The greeter thing was doubly awful in the UK, where I worked, because it’s just not done that often and is seen as overfamiliar. British people hate it like you wouldn’t believe, and being stuck on greeting duty with the damn headset all morning was a special kind of hell. Wow, I haven’t worked in retail for years now and I’m having weird flashbacks!

    • Those folded jeans! I shop for jeans a lot at Gap, and because of inconsistent sizing from season to season I always try at least four in each style (two sizes, both short and regular in each). I try to put the jeans back the same way they started, but I just can’t quite do it. No wonder, if there’s a specific class you have to take to learn how! I salute you.

    • I worked retail too, in Ireland, and Irish people hate that shit too. We all *dreaded* the shift down by the door. We were embarrassed, the customers were embarrassed…

  10. Six months of working food service twenty years ago ingrained “No, thank you!” as a response to someone saying “Thank you!” to me. Even when it’s totally weird to say, like when I’ve just given a birthday gift to someone.

    I also worked for an essay-grading company for a while. You know those standardized tests that have an essay portion? I graded them. For each test we’d get a few hours of training into what the test-givers were looking for, and because the faster we graded them, the less money it cost to pay us, we had to keep our speed up. So I got very, very good at skimming a short piece of writing and automatically assigning it a number grade, then rereading it a little more slowly to fine-tune that grade. (We also took calibration tests daily to ensure we were accurate.) So I would find myself outside of work picking up, say, a shampoo bottle, loking at the blurb on back, and automatically thinking “6 out of 8.”

    That job also gave me the ability to read ANY handwriting. A skill long since lost, alas, for but a few years it came in really handy.

      • Haha, for a long time after working at Michael’s craft store, whenever I would go into the store (even after I stopped working there) I would make eye contact and smile at everyone. It was so automatic…I tried to stop even though I knew it was kind of creepy. Now I work with kids, and I have the unfortunate habit of smiling really big at children when I’m not at work. Hopefully people think I’m friendly and not a creep.

      • I worked at Barnes & Noble for a while, and whenever I’m in a book store now, I automatically straighten stacks of books and put books back on the correct stack as I walk around.

        • I worked for two bookstores (Borders for about eight years, a regional chain for seven) and would automatically straighten book tables for *years*. I finally stopped doing it at one point.

          • I worked at the “Circle Dot” for over 3 years. Even though I left back in 2007, I still can’t stop myself from zoning. Or using “Circle Dot” lingo.

        • I’ve never worked in a bookstore or library and I straighten the book stacks on tables and put books where they belong when I find them in the wrong spot. I think from now on I’ll tell people I used to work in a bookstore so I don’t look like a complete crazy person.

        • I worked at GameStop for just over 8 years. I’m now employed at another retail store in a mall with a GameStop. I’m good friends with everyone on staff (again, 8 years with the company) and go visit them on my breaks pretty regularly. Half the time I’m there, I find myself straightening their walls and greeting customers. Also helping my old regulars find games. They’re like, “I didn’t know you transferred here, I’ll have to start shopping at this store now!” And I’m like, “Nope, I sell makeup now, probably will never see you again!”

    • Out of curiosity, how does one go about getting a job at an essay grading company? What sort of qualifications are they looking for? It sounds like interesting work that either of the two members of our household (both former academics not current employed in academia) would both be up for doing.

  11. My laughably useful skill (learned from a my year working at Papa Murphy’s) is putting pepperoni on a pizza REALLY fast. Makes me feel like a pro when I make pizza at home 🙂 Although I really wish I could forget the quantity of toppings that go on each pizza!

    • My siblings and I all worked at the same pizza place when we were in high school. The restaurant was famous for pepperoni pizzas with 100 pepperoni. We could literally place 100 pepperoni on a pizza in our sleep.

    • Oh god, I worked at a Little Caesar’s for six months. There was a specific way you were supposed to lay it out and it was like a live action math word problem and I’m pretty sure I could still do it in my sleep.

  12. I learned how to take a 12-pound brick of limburger cheese, and cut and package it for both long-term storage and the retail counter at the Swiss Colony.

    I did not learn how to accomplish this task without getting my cheery red apron completely covered and caked with limburger.

  13. That is an excellent folding technique! I will use it in the future for sure.
    Not a really “tip” or “trick” but when I worked at PR firm I spent a LOT of time looking for specific people’s contacts (“find the HR person or the Graphic Design person for these 50 companies in 2 hours”) so I got insanely good at navigating (shitty) websites to find this person, call them, and if they were not who I was looking for, find out who. It trained me to be RELENTLESS in finding who I was supposed to find (oh dead links/outdated profiles, how I despise thee). This has proved useful in the job search now.

  14. Hah, I have an ex who used to fold all his shirts that way. I eventually gave up folding any of his laundry because if I did it “my way” he would un-fold and re-fold all his shirts.

    The only thing I think I’ve really taken away from working at a Michael’s craft store is that I can now go into any Michael’s and find anything. Most of their floor plans are one of two and they are the reverse of each other. So, I’m pretty efficient at buying my craft supplies.

    • I mostly avoid going to the Michaels near me because it feels really cramped and dark and I can never find anything. So I usually end up going over to Hobby Lobby across town because it’s more spacious and well-lit.

  15. I can break down cardboard boxes in record time, and I am an expert at packing books. But mostly, all of my jobs have given me an intense and completely irrational hatred for something really mundane.

    Salad plates (thrift store. Everyone and their mother donates the salad plates from sets after they’ve broken everything else, so there’s just…mountains of them…)
    Pepperoni (Little Caesar’s. The grease. Ugh.)
    Spathiphyllums/Japanese Peace Lily (nursery. These fuckers. I hate them.)
    Packing peanuts (Interlibrary Loan. Nothing like opening a box and having little staticky floaty things explode everywhere.)

  16. I’m currently in school so I work part time at a grocery store in the produce department. Though it is no where near where I want to end up, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what is “good” and “bad” produce. And I’ve also learned a lot about North American consumption habits (no one will buy a wrinkly pepper, so a LOT of those get thrown out).

  17. My absolute first real job (with a W-2 and everything) was at a local dollar store. Even though I only worked there for a couple months, within a week, I had memorized the sales tax on any number of items up to 20. I don’t have it completely memorized still, but it stuck with me for many years.

  18. I work at Walmart as a cashier, and I’m guilty of the smiling at everyone when I’m not working, I also have caught myself saying ‘chips ready in the bottom’ or something to myself when I’M the one buying something.
    Or when you’re talking to not-a-customer and you use your retail voice anyways.
    I find that I must give off a retail vibe everywhere, or maybe people recognize me.. Because I get asked at other stores for help/where things are.

    • “Chips ready in the bottom”? Is that a regional thing or store jargon? I’m not sure this would mean anything to me if someone said it.
      I’m from Michigan, and have never worked in a grocery store.

      • Its a Canadian thing! Our debit and credit cards have chips in them, and are inserted into the machine instead of swiped. So we say its ready for your chip in the bottom, shortened to chips ready in the bottom.

  19. *former retail worker twitch* Yes….yes, I still do this. I had one LOD (I seriously cannot type manager for that, due to retail lingo being engrained in my brain) who was ALL.ABOUT.THE.BOARD. I would fold an entire table of shirts without the board, and challenge her to find the shirts folded with and without the board. She never could. The board would make things look worse.

    Retail habits are extremely hard to break. When I’m checking out, I find myself telling new trainees how to find the code to look up a price when they have no idea what to do.

      • You. are. awesome.

        Ten years after quitting the service side of retail, I can still list off the PLU codes of many produce items when the cashiers are lost… but at least i’m finally breaking my smiling at everyone habit. (My hubby pointed out how creepy it is…)

      • “I have, more than once as a customer, trained a cashier on how to fix an issue with their POS or receipt printer.” Story of my life.

  20. I worked for several years selling sheet music, and the item numbers were based on the title and the composer’s name; A = 01, B=02, etc. I now know really well which number corresponds to which letter of the alphabet, which hasn’t served any useful purpose since.

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