Seven Lessons Learned from Working Retail
I took a part time holiday job in the evenings at a local retail store - I'm hoping to earn extra money to pay down some medical debt, and honestly, I just wanted something extra to DO in the evenings. Something that didn't involve running out and spending money on drinks and dinner, or lounging around my house watching movies in my underwear. So I was happy to land an evening and weekend job stocking shelves and helping with additional customer service at a Seattle shopping center.
This is my first retail job. I've worked in food service before, but never retail, so it was kind of exciting for me.
Retail workers are not stupid.
Duh. I mean, we all know this, deep down, but it's easy to forget when we are in a rush to purchase something and the idiot girl behind the counter can't seem to make the correct change or work the register. I've now experienced what it is like to be the impatient shopper, as well as the idiot girl who can't seem to count pennies. I know that I'm not stupid, but I probably spend a better part of my time looking like a total moron in front of customers. If it's not the computer acting up, it's a customer who is using six different methods to pay her total, or a coworker who is yammering into the walkie talkie in my ear as I attempt to write down a customer's address. Multitasking is hard, but multitasking when you have two different people speaking to you simultaneously is a nightmare.
Frequently, I find myself cornered by a customer who wants something very specific that I can't help them with. I sense their frustration, but as a holiday employee, I'm not trained in the finer nuances of our products. I know what our store carries, and what we don't, but I can't offer much in the way of advice for the woman who wants a plumping lip gloss or a special highlighting shampoo. I'm sure I look like a dear in the headlights as these questions are lobbed at me, and I desperately search for someone who actually CAN help a customer. I'm not stupid, I'm just clueless. I'm sure that this fact makes little difference to the customer, but it makes a big difference to me.
There's a commonly held belief that most people who work in retail work there because they can't get a "real" job - programming software or selling bonds, stuff like that. And I'm not going to lie and say that every single person who works in retail is a genius who simply REALLY wants to sell stuff. But I haven't come across anyone at my store who couldn't work anywhere else (two of the women who work stocking and cleaning at night with me both have master's degrees - one in education, and the other in accounting). My coworkers fall into four categories: people from other industries who can't find work in their field at the moment; people who really love working retail and can't imagine being anywhere else; people who already have another job and are looking to make some extra money (like me); and students.
People are filthy, dishonest thieves.
I cannot believe how many instances of shoplifting I have witnessed in the few hundred hours that I have worked in retail. You can't always spot thieves, and people are incredibly tricky. I knew that stealing was an everyday occurrence at any retail location, but I didn't realize the extent of it until witnessing so many people take so much stuff. And those are just the ones that you notice! We're not talking about life's necessities being stolen, either. There are hundreds of laws that detail how we are allowed to detain shoplifters, too, which means that I can't physically tackle the woman who just walked out of the store with $300 of merchandise in her hands.
Then there are the people who take stuff from the shelves and pretend that they are returning it ("But I lost the receipt!"). There's only so much that we can do to stop these people, because of a liberal returns policy, especially if they stole the goods earlier in the day, or from another store, and we don't have proof on camera. Customers are also fond of switching price tags and then shrieking about false advertising when the item rings up with the correct price.
Stores get dirty real quickly.
I'm not really a neatnik, but I do take pride in a clean work environment, and I was shocked on my first day of work to see a fine layer of dust over our Christmas displays. Harrumphing around the store, I Swiffered each and every shelf and case top, muttering about how lucky they were to have me on hand, since clearly NOBODY ELSE was going to clean up around here.
When I showed up for my shift the next night, I was distressed to see that another fine layer of dust had settled over the entire store. Of course my coworkers had been dusting - every day, probably twice a day, before I even arrived. It's just that with people coming and going, the store gets dusty. And messy. Customers throw used tissues in places that you wouldn't believe! We do our best to keep up with it, stocking and restocking and wiping up spilled messes and throwing away people's cups of coffee that were helpfully wedged behind the cash register. But give it another hour, and the store is a mess again.
Yeah, we really are in a recession.
We have days where the store is hopping - just full of people, shopping and laughing and browsing. These are the days when we only fall short of our sales goals by about $1,500. The quiet days are even worse. This is a good store in a nice shopping area in a wealthy city - people just aren't spending what they used to.
Physical work is good for the soul.
I always figured I'd be lousy at working a job that requires lots of movement, because I am insanely lazy. It turns out that being forced to move around gives me more energy than I ever would have expected. I may get done at work at 1AM and find that I have enough energy to do a couple loads of laundry and cook some stew for the next day. Contrast that with sitting in front of a computer all day, which is the easiest way to sap your energy reserves. There's no way I could stay up until 3AM working on my computer, but stick me in a stock room with a bunch of boxes of gloves, and I won't even notice the time flying by.
Mind you, I'm sure I'd feel differently if I had to spend, say, 16 hours every day, rather than 6, lifting boxes and squatting and bending. I'm grateful that my time in the stock room is limited.
Rewards cards can be worth it.
My store offers a rewards card to frequent shoppers, and there are quite a few people who refuse to sign up for it - I can understand why they wouldn't want to have another shopping card on hand, but trust me, if you regularly spend a hundred dollars in a particular store, you deserve some kind of reward. You might even be surprised how much money you actually spend at a particular store - I'm regularly handing out free rewards to shoppers who look shocked that they qualify for them ("Really? I've spent $300 here since May?"). When looking at frequent shopper cards, ask: Is it free? Do you get discounts for signing up? If you earn points for shopping, do they ever expire? The answers should be yes, yes, and no.
Retail displays some of the worst excesses of our society.
On my first night working in the stock room, I was given a pile of some 30 boxes to unload - either onto the shelves or into the back stockroom. Each box is roughly 16 inches x 16 inches x 24 inches. Approximately 10 of these boxes were packed to the brim with stuff - the other 20 or so contained exactly one item, along with a bunch of plastic wrap and paper packing. And when I say "one item", I mean "one tube of lipstick." My jaw was on the floor pretty much the entire night. We recycle all the boxes and plastic, but still, how much good does it do to recycle something that was used to ship an item no bigger than my hand several hundred miles?
A few other small lessons that I have taken away from this job? People respond well to sincerity. Smiling really can help calm an angry customer down. Toddlers will eat anything - please do not hand your two year-old a tube of lipstick, as I am tired of calling Poison Control. Teenagers can actually be some of the most enjoyable customers. Never get involved with politics at work, especially if you want a reference later. Bringing in food to share is a really nice gesture, especially during the holidays when students are completing finals and work is hectic. Nothing is better than a footrub after a long day.
Feel free to share your retail work advice and wisdom below.
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