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I was reading a New York Times article about a Dollar General employee who was fired from her job in Tampa, Florida, when her TikTok videos went viral. In these videos, the retail store manager described the working conditions that she and her overworked staff had to put up with on a daily basis. Delivery trucks that would arrive, often unannounced, abandoning their huge supplies in the store's hallway, blocking aisles and shelves.

Company policy forbids employees to unpack the merchandise until Thursdays and Fridays, which means customers do not have enough room to push their carts. The store manager uses the word "totes" twice in the TikTok video.

And guess what I get to do? I'm working totes. So that way my totes are actually not sitting here on the floor in my hallway because they're supposed to be done in two days.

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I'm pretty sure it's “totes”, which Lexico says is short for “totally” as in “Do you like my new sneakers?” “Totes!” and “‘this is pretty embarrassing but I was totes asleep’” Merriam-Webster says it is slang for totally, completely, and absolutely, definitely. My search also revealed that it can also be the plural form of tote bag, a type of canvas shopping bag with long handles.

I searched Google using the string “I'm working totes” and I got three results: one from Facebook posted 31 December, 2019, Tega Cay, SC, USA (South Carolina).

Amanda Elisabeth I’m working totes today and reminded me of old times!! Miss you both!!

and one from a subreddit called r/DollarGeneral, the following account, which was posted two years ago, provides no location.

This was a couple of days ago. And it has caused me to have a bit of a mental breakdown. I find myself still needing to rant, so here's how my Saturday went. […]
11-1 [p.m.] : It's so busy. Neither one of us can work the overstock totes I pulled out. But maybe I can when the new manger i have to train comes in.
3:15~ [p.m.]: Phone call at register. I'm working totes. Cashier has it. The other one is on break. A long line happens, sure I'll help by taking cards only. Cashier randomly says they gotta call the boss. I ask why. "Oh 'night manager' called. They're quitting."

I know that totes is American English, slang, possibly from Southern United States, but what exactly does it mean? Refilling shelves? Stacking? Unpacking boxes?

Moreover, I can't grasp the origins. How is totes derived?

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    "Totes" is a (brand?) name I've seen associated with large, plastic storage containers. Maybe it's related. Commented Apr 18, 2022 at 23:56
  • @LaconicDroid Interesting. Could be, I wonder which came first?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 0:03
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    I was very surprised to learn (from the other answers) that "totes" are specific retail packaging units/containers! What I had expected, from the title of the question, was that "totes" would have the sense of "totally", in a contemporary cute contraction sense! The by-now-apparently-archaic sense of "to tote", as "to carry something some distance" was the longer-term sense of the word, as I heard it used frequently by my elderly relatives in southern Indiana c. 1960. I had no idea that that had evolved into an apt name for retail packaging that needed to be moved around. :) Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 17:05
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    Understand that "I'm working XXXX" is standard office/store jargon for being in the process of taking individual XXXX objects and processing them somehow. So "working totes" means taking individual "totes" and, say, removing the items from them and placing the items on the store shelves. It just means processing in a methodical fashion. This wording would be understood by most store employees, assuming that "tote" has a meaning in the current context. (Most people, absent some clues, would assume that "tote" refers to a plastic box/shipping container.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 0:29
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    Word order makes a big difference. "I'm totes working" would imply the "totally" interpretation of "totes". But "I'm working totes" is the older definition of containers. Commented Apr 20, 2022 at 14:19

4 Answers 4

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It’s from a standard English word, tote: carry around, or a bag (tote bag) in which to carry things.

In its use in a retail store, it seems that “doing totes” is restocking shelves with merchandise that was taken off shelves but not sold and has been placed in a tote, a container in which unsold items are collected.

In warehouse management a tote may be a sturdy plastic container with a lid; they may run on a track, and the containers may be put on trucks for delivery from a warehouse to a retail establishment. A warehouse “picker” may have a list to fill with items that go to a particular retail store.

I found but can’t manage to copy many reddit posts about the trials and tribulations of working in warehouses—complaints about people who overfill totes, why some totes have only one item, and so forth.

“Doing totes” is, I think, a down-time task for someone who bags groceries for a cashier.

From https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tote

tote verb (1)

toted; toting

Definition of tote (Entry 1 of 4)
transitive verb

1 : to carry by hand : bear on the person : LUG, PACK
2 : HAUL, CONVEY

tote noun (1)

Definition of tote (Entry 2 of 4)

1 : TOTE BAG

2 : BURDEN, LOAD

tote verb (2)

toted; toting

Definition of tote (Entry 3 of 4)
transitive verb
: ADD, TOTAL —usually used with up

toted up his accomplishments
— G. P. Morrill
[Entry 4 of 4 omitted]

First Known Use of tote

Verb (1)
1677, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Noun (1)
circa 1772, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Verb (2)
1888, in the meaning defined above

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    Thank you so much, it now makes more sense to me. So it basically means loading and unloading boxes. "Working totes" just sounded weird in the TikTok video. Googling the phrase and finding only 3 results also threw me off track.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 7:04
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    @Mari-LouA not just any boxes, but boxes that are literally referred to as "totes". You would be unlikely to see this usage outside a commercial warehouse or stockroom setting.
    – Seth R
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 16:33
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    @Mari-LouA it's not a brand, it's just a word for that type of box. But you would be unlikely to see it used outside a warehouse, and someone who has never worked in a warehouse may not know what you mean if you used it.
    – Seth R
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 16:50
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    So, technically "working totes" is jargon, not slang. Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 18:14
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    @SethR One can go to just about any retail website that sells storage containers and search for 'tote' and get plenty of results...Lowes, Target, Walmart, etc. Many of these products are labeled as 'tote' on the product itself. I would not say this was a warehouse or stockroom only term.
    – rtaft
    Commented Apr 19, 2022 at 18:51
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In retail, a tote is a common noun used for the reusable plastic boxes with folding lids in which certain shipments are received. "Working totes" then can be taken to mean "unloading totes".

https://www.google.com/search?q=tote+box

The TikTok screenshot shows cardboard boxes, not totes, which is a source of confusion, even though the task is essentially the same. This photo is more illustrative:

https://www.reddit.com/r/DollarGeneral/comments/py873i/good_thing_i_like_working_totes/

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    In the actual video linked from the NYT article, the "I'm working totes" quote comes right after she shows a hard-plastic case that looks like what you're describing. (Sitting open and empty in a shopping cart). 40 sec into the 2 min video: tiktok.com/@alwaysmrsgundel/video/… That might have been a random clip somewhat separate from the cardboard boxes packing her aisles. Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 5:58
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In a retail setting, I would typically classify totes as reusable, durable sealed containers of products that must be sent back empty when the next delivery truck comes to deliver more of them. If you were "working totes," you would be unpacking the items in the containers and putting them on the shelf for sale.

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It is not new slang, it is industry/job specific slang. If you haven’t worked totes, you are unlikely to recognize the term, but it has been around for a while.

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  • I don’t think slang is the right word.
    – Casey
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 15:46
  • You could call it jargon. I believe, however, that "tote" is too widely used in this sense to consider it jargon. On the other hand, I frequently overestimate what most people know.
    – erickson
    Commented Apr 21, 2022 at 20:21

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