When I was younger, the idea of working in retail seemed like a dream. The fantasy I created involving working with clothing was perfect and my young, naive-self wanted nothing more than to spend my teenage years working retail, specifically, in a clothing store. At the age of seventeen, I did just that, and quickly learned the reality of retail was nothing like my imagination perceived it to be. Now as an eighteen year old with college drawing closer and my last day of working on retail approaching, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned in my year-long adventure working in a department store.
1. The customer is almost never right… but you have to pretend they are
I didn’t realize when I took this job that I would also become an actress. Between the script I recite to each customer in a high-pitched voice unrecognizable to myself ("Hi, how are you? Is this going on a charge card? If you open one you'll save 25%! Do you have coupons?"), to the smile my lips are glued into while dealing with a particularly difficult customer that just cannot be pleased, it's all an act.
More often than not, the customer is not right in any way, shape, or form. Sometimes they’re proven wrong, and accept defeat gracefully… other times, there is no backing down for them and I’m grinning at them as my blood boils and I prepare to accept my own personal defeat and give them the shoes for free. But hey, service with a smile, right?
2. Older men love being inappropriate while you wait on them
I refuse to be called "baby" within my own personal relationships, partially due to the alarming amount of times I have been referred to as just this by older, male customers. It's not flattering-- it's downright creepy and inappropriate.
Please do not call me “baby,” or “babe,” as I am neither of these things to you. Also, you can lay off of saying “good girl” after I scan your items and coupons-- last time I checked, I was a person simply doing her job-- not a golden retriever.
3. You become a baby-sitter for everything
“Can you watch my cart?” “Can you watch my bag?” “Can you watch my kid?”
No, no, and definitely no.
4. People don’t like to pick up after themselves
I spent most of my life in retail hiding in dressing rooms and can strongly attest that shoppers have absolutely no interest in picking up for themselves sometimes. Suddenly grown men and women are children tossing their inside-out, unbuttoned, unzipped clothes all over the dressing room stall. I mean, there is a rack placed conveniently on the way out the door, but I guess the floor works too.
5. People don’t like to read… ever
Whether it be a coupon with the words written in bold font, a sign printed in red ink, or the price tag of an item, customers neglect the completely necessary skill to use while shopping. And due to this neglect, they usually end up taking out the frustrated resulting from their own mistakes on the poor cashier and cause a lot of other work for everyone else working in the store (sales associates checking a price, managers adjusting something post sale, customer service associates later having to deal with the return born from their own ignorance, just to cite a few examples).
As an English major I know the importance of reading, and as a retail worker, I reinforce that further.
6. You hear the same lines from customers over and over
“You look bored” “I left my coupon at home” “Can I speak to a manager?” “But the sign said…”
I have my script, and clearly, they have theirs.
7. Customers don’t care if you’ve had a bad day
Customers most likely don’t care that you’ve woken up late, spilled coffee all over yourself, have uneven winged eyeliner, haven’t washed your hair in four days, and just got broken up with— but that doesn’t mean you can’t care for your customers. Working with people has taught me to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’re going through something hard, maybe they’re in a bad mood, maybe they’re stressed out, whatever the case may be-- try to be nice to them even if they’re not even remotely nice back. And similarly…
8. Retail workers are doing the best they can
People often underestimate just how much retail workers are trying their best. As presented above, sometimes we’ve had a bad day. It gets frustrating when the store is busy, the dressing rooms are over-flowing and threatening to swallow you alive, and of course, a customer just has to scream you into a waterfall of tears. Whether we’ve been working all day, or have only been here for an hour, sometimes we're feeling rough and dealing with customers isn’t the easiest thing to do. I often think about this every time I’m out in the real world and come across a rude waiter or an unpleasant cashier, and I remind myself that they’re just doing their best, as we all are.
9. Sometimes you have to make your own fun
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but there have been far too many times where my only source of entertainment while standing on register during a very dead, seven hour shift is looking through the drawers on each register. Sometimes I find someone else’s glasses, sometimes I find cheap hand lotion, sometimes I find a brand new pack of Post-It notes for me to destroy with writing and doodles to pass the time. Fun fact: this entire article began as a draft on a sticky note.
10. Family reunions can happen anywhere
If I had a dollar for every time I heard a middle-aged woman’s voice exclaim “Oh my gosh, Susan, I haven’t seen you in so long! How are the kids?” I would probably have more money than I’ve made in the entire year of working here. This happens everywhere in the store-- the entrance, the dressing rooms, that aisles, the towel section, the shoe department, the line to the register-- you name it, I’ve probably witnessed a family reunion in that exact location.
11. Retail is a rite of passage
Sure, it's a rite of passage that some people get stuck in for a year, or twelve (like some of my co-workers), but I think working in retail is something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. If not for the newfound appreciation I acquired for retail workers of all kind, then at least for the experience alone. You learn about the world of business, you learn about cooperation between people, and you learn about the diversity of people inhabiting the world. It gives you certain life skills you may have been unaware of previously. And, at the very, very least, sometimes it's entertaining-- the conversations I overhear in the dressing rooms? Absolutely priceless.