UNIVERSE'S INCREDIBLE CULTURE

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TEMPE, Ariz.-Joe Brewer has the enthusiasm of a fraternity rush chairman, so it was no coincidence he was charged with giving an insider view of Incredible Universe to an outsider.

Nothing that occurs in this "Universe" is happenstance. Rather, it is more like contrived spontaneity. So Mr. Brewer seemed to epitomize what the management of this electronics and appliance "gigastore" wants in its employees: energy, enthusiasm and a willingness to forsake one's own identity for the company.

Mr. Brewer, or you can call him "Bic," is one of 380 employees (make that "cast members") at this suburban Phoenix store (correction, "production"). He is now an assistant level manager (producer) in the home office department (aka "scene").

"When I first looked at this place, I thought, `Wow, there is tremendous opportunity for me here,' " said Mr. Brewer.

Indeed, he made those comments on the eve of his promotion (graduation) from expert, or entry-level employee, to professor, after working through Incredible University, the in-store training program. Newcomers spend five weeks in "cultural training."

After three days of training, peer groups give each employee a moniker to be used whenever the show is on. Mr. Brewer was dubbed "Bic" for his role playing an unruly customer high on fumes from a butane lighter.

Elements of the culture are constantly reinforced. If employees slip and don't refer to each other by their alter egos or use the proper terminology when talking to customers, they are given a "cultural violation" fine of 25 cents; that money goes to a pot for an employee party later.

The most conspicuous reinforcement of Incredible Universe culture happens just before the store opens. Like in George Orwell's "1984" where society began its working day with a rallying cry during the "Two Minutes Hate," Incredible Universe staff members gather in their departments and chant the mantra "If it's not in the universe, it doesn't exist."

For most shoppers, these cultural anomalies are amusing. That's the point. The Incredible Universe is a full blend of retail and farce. Where one might normally expect signs to read "If you break it it's yours," there are posters of "Please play with the merchandise." There is a karaoke studio where shoppers can make take-home videos singing their favorite hits. To the unabashed, the store will even display the taping in progress on huge screens in the so-called "rotunda."

Also in the rotunda, shoppers can experience high tech curiosities such as virtual reality games, view live performances of dance troupes and singing ensembles, or watch a disc jockey (the voice of the universe) geared with more animation and audio hardware than most post-production shops.

There is also the merchandise. Store literature boasts of 181 refrigerators, 52 computers and 60 camcorders. The size alone, 185,000 square feet, is enough to make a shopper's feet cry for mercy. For Tandy and customers, the Universe is a long trek from the humble roots of Radio Shack.

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