When my mouth opens and this oft-repeated phrase comes tumbling out, my friends and coworkers sigh or roll their eyes, or even seek to finish my sentence before me. I’ve said it so many times, not because it slips my mind, but because I genuinely believe it to be true: if everyone in the world worked retail for a year, the world would be a much better place.
It goes without saying, of course, that I was a very different person before I started my two-year stint at a large retail clothing chain which shall remain nameless, a stint that only just came to an end yesterday. Being my first ever job, 16-year old me was optimistic, just simply beaming with excitement and joy that I was making money. The pay wasn’t necessarily the best, being only $8.25 an hour (which is minimum wage where I live), but I was sure that with hard work and dedication I could soon find myself making at least $9 or $10 an hour, the wages that so many of my friends were earning in their jobs.
Do you know what my pay was on my last day of work?
It was $8.75.
After two years of selling my soul to this store, I was only making 50 cents more than when I first started. There is, perhaps, no better metaphor for time spent in retail than a disappointing wage, translating to a pure lack of satisfaction.
Granted, my experience is surely not universal — in the store right next door to us, sales associates were making anywhere from $10 to $13 an hour (which really only exacerbated my bitterness, especially when said store never called me back after I submitted my application). With that being said, there are a few lessons and things I’ve learned after my tenure that I think any current or former retail employee will be able to empathize with, and that any decent person should bear in mind.
Firstly, I learned about patience. This is probably the most important, but if you asked me outright and I didn’t put much thought into my answer, I would scoff and tell you that retail destroyed any semblance of patience I might have once had, the toxic environment irradiating and changing my DNA so as to obliterate any genetic predisposition towards patience within each and every cell of my body. However, once I’ve settled down, eaten my lunch, and reflected on this with a new post-meal clarity, I would concede that retail really did show me proper patience. It taught me to value the customers who came in and asked me how I was doing, who did their best to refold clothes after examining them, who didn’t presume to know more about my job than I did, and accepted that I was a human being capable of making mistakes. With a customer like this, there really isn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for them — I once spent the better part of an hour helping a particularly-kind woman buy jeans for her picky family, standing at attention as she FaceTimed her all of her children for their opinions.
Conversely, retail imparted unto me the ability to know when a customer isn’t deserving of my time and patience, as is the case in one experience of mine. I was working the register on a very busy day, and an elderly woman comes to my counter with a heap of T-shirts. After removing each sensor, I was folding the shirts quickly (but still relatively neatly) in the way that I always do before bagging them. Apparently, that wasn’t enough for this lady, who in her advanced age must have fallen under the impression that she had fucking wandered into Neiman Marcus, that I was going to fold her items with a saintly grace and wrap them in scented tissue paper. She looked at me and said, “They must not teach you how to fold here, huh?”. I was filled with anger, I just wanted to lash out and say “Look behind you, you stupid goddamn wench, look behind you at all these clothes and then tell me that we don’t know how to fold things here”. Instead, I kept my composure, didn’t utter a word, and opted to undo my folding, balling up her clothes and tossing them into a bag like street garbage. So, I suppose you could say that retail didn’t necessarily teach me how to be patient, but moreso how to distribute my patience in a way that can foster respect for the people around me as well as for myself. I really think that’s so much more valuable than having your unrelenting patience enable others to walk all over you.
Secondly, spending so much time working in a clothing store developed my social skills in a way that I will always be thankful for. While they were never explicitly bad, I was still a teenager, very much capable of awkwardness, especially when it came to talking with people I didn’t know. Whether it was stumbling on my words, not understanding what they were saying, or potentially offending them in a manner I had not intended, I sure had my fair share of awkward encounters. Despite this, speaking with strangers is pretty much your entire job when you decide to work in retail. Over the years, you’ll soon find that your ability to make small-talk, convey a message to and from a customer, and sometimes even smooth-talk your way into making a sale has truly blossomed and made you a more effective communicator. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met people coming into my store who could benefit from this real life crash-course in social skills. Either they mutter a response under their breath or ignore me completely when I ask them how they’re doing, or they act as though approaching and asking me for a fitting room is the equivalent of Oliver Twist asking Mr. Bumble for another bowl of gruel. Pretty much everyone could stand to hone their people skills a bit more, and retail is the perfect environment to do so.
Finally, retail truly put things in perspective and helped me to bunker down on my sense of empathy. There were plenty of times where I wasn’t in the best place or wasn’t feeling like myself before a shift, and it showed in my performance and interactions with customers. Having been put in that position, I’m far less critical of substandard service when I’m out shopping — you never know what someone else is going through, and it’s likely a fair bit worse than however you might feel as the result of their service. Truly, the best you can do is to be gracious and understanding, expeditious and considerate. Why bother making someone else’s day worse? Oh, and don’t get me wrong, I’m totally aware of the irony and hypocrisy in me claiming that customers should be more understanding of workers, while earlier in this article I talked about lashing out in retaliation to rude customers. Who knows what the customer is going through? The fundamental difference, however, is that retail workers don’t necessarily have a choice. They’re still at work, doing what they can to help you regardless of the events unfolding in their life. A customer, on the other hand, can make a conscious choice whether or not to be rude to an associate, and it’s when they make the decision to resort to crassness that I can no longer abide by them.
Little did you probably know it, but this article can essentially be framed as my personal manifesto for making the world a better place to live. We have patience, communication, and empathy, the three pillars upon which decent human nature is constructed. I might not have had the best time at the store I was employed at for these past two years, and it brought me no sense of fulfillment on some deeper level, but hey, that’s retail. At the end of the day, I got to spend time with my coworkers, people I genuinely liked and enjoyed being around, and there’s absolutely no denying that I grew as a person. At the end of the day, no matter where you are in life or what you’re doing, one thing is universal, and it’s that we can all stand to grow a little bit more.
Lord knows I’m ready.