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If You've Never Worked In Retail, I Don’t Trust You

Photo: Rex
I was 15 when I started my first customer service job. I remember putting on my regulation polo shirt, my pleated pants, my safety boots and my visor, and walking across the street to join the ranks of McDonalds’ elite. I was young, I was excited, and I had a nametag: I was ready to take on the world.

Which actually turns out to be a much bigger job than a four-hour cash shift would prepare you for. But between 2001 and 2009, I still learned more about real-life careers from my time in retail and customer service than I did at school or even from parental and/or familial advice. I learned accountability, I learned about commitment, and I learned how terrible people can really be – which is why I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t worked in retail before. Without retail experience, you can’t know how the general population thinks. Without it, you’re basically Cher in Clueless before she realised she loved Josh.
Obviously that’s a grandiose statement to make. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a screaming customer or found a store toilet overflowing because that’s what happens with bad plumbing, you’re ready for anything. You’ve seen it all. You’ve confronted shoplifters. You’ve forgotten the store alarm’s security code and found yourself on the phone with police, begging them not to come and that you swear you’re a manager. You’ve hidden on a rack of jeans, eating cookies, instead of looking for a size 10 because you just needed a break, damn it. You’ve gone in sick. You’ve gone in crying. You’ve wept while counting down the cash registers as your 17-year-old employees ask what’s wrong. (The answer: the tried-and-true quarter-life crisis.)

You’ve encountered [almost] the full range of human experience; none of which you could trade for the world.

Which I didn’t realise until recently. As a 15 and 16-year-old working in fast food, I complained when I had shifts that interrupted plans with friends, or when my shifts resulted in me coming in still drunk on a Saturday morning. (Please don’t tell my manager.) But those moments also forced me to shut up and deal. My managers didn’t care about my social life. My co-workers didn’t care about how sick I felt. The public certainly didn’t care about me in general. Which started to drive home an important message: That’s life, you better get used to it.

In fact the entirety of working in retail could be summed up with “that's life, you better get used to it.” And not in an Ayn Rand sense, but in a way that forces you to own up to your choices and to realise you’re not the only person who’s alive. I’ve never been particularly great with the notion of “teamwork,” but I did get that if I didn’t help out and take somebody’s shift if they were stuck, nobody was going to do the same for me.

Which I’m embarrassed to say took a few years. After leaving fast food to work at a shoe store (where I learned how good I was at making other people buy things,) I found myself working at (a now-defunct) electronic store where I was put on probation because of how often I was out “sick.” Fortunately, I quit before they fired me, and I found myself as an 18-year-old steakhouse hostess who pined for days spent being yelled at over wrongfully prepared Big Macs.

It’s not that I was a bad hostess. I’m great at saying hello and making small talk and asking how many people need to sit down. I’m good at calculating wait times and was even okay at wearing a blazer with shoulder pads. (And I didn’t call in sick, even when I felt like death.) But I am not good at sexism. I am not good at being on the receiving end of flirty, older men who take 18-year-old friendliness as an invitation to comment on skirt length. And I’m not good at managers who don’t see anything wrong with that (or managers who tell you to lie about wait times, resulting in more than a few table pagers being thrown at you). So by the time I fled the steakhouse for the hardware store across the parking lot, I was prepped. I knew a sense of camaraderie was important, but I knew you also had to look out for yourself. I knew you’d disappoint people if you didn’t show up, and I knew that a boss who makes you apologise to a harasser can go to hell. I figured the next step would be easier.
Wrong. For two-ish years I worked as a cashier and then as a cash supervisor at said hardware store with a few of my friends, and sometimes we even had fun. But it could also be tiring, stressful, and profoundly upsetting – and you still had to show up. As a manager, I finally realised the impact of employees who couldn’t care less about their jobs (see: me a few years before) and how stressful it is for everyone if one person doesn’t pull their weight. But I also recognised the importance of kindness, since ruling with an iron fist only gets you widely loathed. So, with these lessons in mind, I picked denim over lumber and hauled myself to the shopping mall to hawk Abercrombie-esque clothing.

Which was my final retail chapter. For the next four years I earned my PhD in Real Life. I learned that under good management, “teamwork” is fine, but that under bad management, it’s even better. (Since everybody will devise a plan, call head office, and inevitably get that manager fired.) I learned that as a sales associate, some of the general public will treat you well, but most won’t even see you as a person. I learned that some people will steal, and other people will lie, and you will be disappointed on a regular basis, but you will also move on because the store is open and there’s work to do. And most importantly, I learned that if you don’t do the work, you will be ousted entirely because laziness isn’t a currency.

It’s after learning these things I’ve begun to tell who’s worked in retail and who hasn’t. You can see the way some people conduct themselves in a store or how they speak to waitstaff or how they’re dismissive or impatient. If someone hasn’t worked in customer service, they tend to not realise that without customer service, we’d all be doomed. And then you start to realise their work ethic and lack of accountability aligns with that, and that you probably don’t have much in common.

Now that I get to write for a living, I know I worked the hardest for those eight years. Sometimes my jobs overlapped, sometimes I worked 14-hour days, and once I had to come in for a shift after having an allergic reaction to something I ate. It was difficult, and sometimes terrible, but also fun, and I needed it. Through retail I learned patience, how to admit mistakes, and how to boss up and get to work. Which I’ve applied to what I’m doing now – plus: show up, work hard, and don’t be an idiot. (And don’t let managers push you around.)

And it’s not that I don’t like you if you’ve never worked retail, I just don’t completely trust you. After all, my friends and I can exchange stories about tampons left in fitting rooms and the time I left the store door wide open overnight. What can you bring to the table if not your experiences with some of the best and worst members of the general population? Would you have even swapped shifts with me if I asked?