Ruff going at the mall 

This is the time of year when one traditionally counts one's blessings.

If you're lucky enough not to work for the Disney Store, consider yourself doubly blessed. That specialty retail chain is shaping up to be the worst place at the mall to work this holiday season.

And just what makes the Disney Store such an unfun place to spend Christmas? The new employee training program that all 742 stores in the chain recently adopted: "Project Go."

"Project Go" rose out of a confidential Disney Consumer Products division memo that suggested the chain's employees were spending far too much time greeting customers and straightening up displays. The memo went on to say that if Disney Store employees could be taught to spend less time making their store a neat and pleasant place to shop and devoted more time to selling, this one change could have a huge impact on each store's bottom line.

This employee re-education program -- initially field-tested last year at a Disney Store in Montebello, Calif. -- was specifically designed to make Disney Store employees aware that their new goal in life is to sell, sell, sell. Not -- as these cast members had originally been taught -- to see themselves as an extension of the Disney theme parks, where providing excellent guest service was the No. 1 priority. But selling. Period.

To this end, electronic counters were placed in the entrance areas of all Disney Stores. Managers were then told that, out of every 100 people who entered their shop, they were expected to turn 35 into paying customers.

Not only that, but Disney Store employees were then told to sell each customer at least $30 worth of merchandise. Those who failed to meet their daily sales quota were to be counseled by the manager on duty the moment they came off the sales floor.

Employees are now under orders to greet every guest as they enter the store not with the traditional "Hello and welcome to the Disney Store," but the more to-the-point "Hi, what can I show you?" They also are expected to show each customer a high-priced item and a piece of plush they might consider buying during their visit. Store employees who fail to do this to each and every guest they encounter on the sales floor also faced disciplinary action.

As you might imagine, the hard-sell policy isn't going over well with longtime Disney Store employees. They particularly have problems with the new rule that prohibits them from doing any straightening or restocking of the store between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. daily. Disney Store cast members are only allowed to clean up their shop during those high-volume traffic hours if the misplaced merchandise can be considered a safety hazard.

The irony here is that Disney CEO Michael Eisner blew a gasket when he discovered a Disney Store in disarray during a recent inspection tour. The store managers tried to point out that the new policies expressly forbid them from straightening the store during its busiest times. No matter. Eisner apparently read the riot act to the staff at that store -- threatening to fire the lot of them unless the place looked 100 percent better on his next visit.

Given the exacting standards Eisner expects all store employees to meet now, you'd think that he'd demand the same standards from his senior staff. Too bad that it's been nothing but screw-ups lately from the upper management of Disney Consumer Products.

Take, for example, the promotional video that these bozos recently OK'd to be shown in Disney Stores nationwide. At one point on this tape, an actress modeling costumes coos that she just loves Mickey Mouse "because of his whiskers." Huh? Isn't Mickey Mouse clean shaven?

Better yet, how about that shipment of Snow White snow globes the Disney Stores recently received that play "I Whistle a Happy Tune" ? Now, "Happy Tune" is a fine song. Too bad it's not from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" -- or any other Disney film for that matter. "Whistle While You Work" is the whistling song from Disney's 1937 animated classic. "I Whistle a Happy Tune" is from Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," which was recently animated and released on film by Warner Brothers.

But hey, what do you want? Eisner hired most of his senior Disney Store management team away from Nike and the Gap. These guys know squat about the history of the Walt Disney Co. and its rich assortment of characters. All they know is sell, sell, sell -- which is why they're constantly pushing the staff of the Disney Store to do more of the same.

Given the high-pressure working conditions, it's little wonder that store cast members feel disheartened this holiday season. Who wants to work that hard at a job that pays only slightly more than minimum wage?

That's why droves of employees currently are bailing out of the Disney Stores. In one district, five out of eight stores recently had their managers quit. Other stores reportedly saw up to 25 percent of their staff resign in the past month.

Were you to visit any of Central Florida's Disney Stores this weekend, you'd find tons of merchandise that ties in with Disney's latest release, "102 Dalmatians." Indeed, it somehow seems appropriate.

After all, here are employees who will be treated like dogs if they don't meet their quota for selling spotted-puppy plush. Which makes the Disney Stores a pretty ruff place to work.

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