The van door slams. Uniformed minions file out from around the side, rolling large brown bags, ominous looking pieces of machinery wrapped up in an inconspicuous package. They look at each other as if confirming their target. They roll ahead, scattering the people in front of them, joining the others that had come before, leaning against the building and smoking. Some of they casually look to the side, knowing exactly what’s coming next. Others walk right in, prepared to do battle, charging down the aisles with their dollies filled with equipment.

This is what I ran into at Target today. It’s a sight I’ve seen many times. It’s inventory day, and these are the troops from RGIS.

As a Media Product Specialist at Best Buy (read: CD Put-away-er) I encountered these guys twice a year during our semi-annual inventory nights. We would push the customers out of the store at closing time, we would wait for free pizza, and we would assist the RGIS crew as they filed around the store, counting every single item of inventory, section by section.

It was a staggering feat. Our job was to get SKU numbers for products that didn’t have bar codes. The rest of the time, we simply watched, transfixed by the 80-or-so migrant workers that had descended upon our store – workers from all walks of life, bonded by their common goal of supreme accuracy. They held scanners at their sides, dutifully bleeping their way down the aisle, all nearly in unison, creating a universe filled with grey polo shirts and frantic beeping.

They seemed to come from everywhere. The RGIS office is in Sioux Falls, sure, but these people were as different and far driven as any group that could possibly been assembled. Some were college kids, working their way through college with an odd, yet non-stressful night job. Others were obvious computer geeks, hoping to get a glimpse at the software aisle. There were single moms, old widowed women, scraggly looking ex-alcoholics and recent ex-cons. I really didn’t know anything about them – we didn’t ask, and they didn’t talk. These were just the personalities I placed onto them.

A supervisor would walk around and make sure everyone was scanning. When it was over, we took their list and compared it to our list. The difference between what we should have and what we actually did have was called “shrinkage,” a retail turn for stolen or miscounted items.

Best Buy never did save any money by hiring RGIS. Our store was budgeted to have a certain amount of shrink. Any lost, stolen or misplaced items that landed under that budgeted amount were considered part of a normal electronics business. If we were under the number, each employee received the remaining shrink budget as a bonus – an easy way to pay employees a little something special without actually using extra budget and a brilliant way to keep us as employees cautious and looking for theft. Regardless of what was stolen that year, the budget was always the same.

With all that in mind, this odd group of people arriving at Target was a crazy blast from the past – a concept I had forgotten about and, really, never would have considered again. If not for this. This random meeting, like running into an old friend. Like stumbling upon a reconnaissance mission, filled with questionable people searching for lost merchandise.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 23rd, 2007