Career Talk

/ 4 years ago /

 Article by Char Mullin

11 life-defining lessons I learned working in retail

This post is written by a member of the Debut Student Publisher Network. Read on for Char’s reflections on how her work in retail shaped her:

Finally. After a long and grueling search, I have escaped the world of retail and acquired a salaried job that doesn’t involve dealing with the general hell storm that is the general public. In other words, I now have what older generations refer to as A Real Job.

Personally, I never understood or liked that term, because it implies that working in retail isn’t a real job. It’s not like it pays in Monopoly money (although some jobs I’ve had may as well have.) Working in customer service is, in my opinion, a fundamental experience with an abundance of life lessons that will ground you and enrich your understanding of humanity, as well as teaching you how to hide the yearning for death emanating from your gaze.

Here are some things I have taken from my six years in retail, to hold forever in my heart as a reminder that if I can come out being a sales assistant for the better, I can basically do anything.

1. To appreciate my spare time

working in retail

This was particularly acute in my third year of university, where I was working around 20 hours a week as a supervisor whilst juggling a degree and print team commitments. In hindsight, I have absolutely no clue how I didn’t have a total mental collapse.

Every second you have to yourself is precious, and must be cherished even if all you’re doing is sitting at home doing nothing. Time goes by so fast. Well, unless you’re on your feet in the same place for nine hours a day, in which case it ceases to move and traps you for what feels like millennia.

2. How to stretch a pay check

working in retail

No matter how many hours of overtime you do, and no matter how high your pay check may seem, you still experience that crushing reminder that it has to last you an entire month. Payday is an exercise in self-control.

It’s tempting – so very, very tempting – to splurge and buy all those things you’ve been eyeing up for the past thirty days.  But really, it’s for the best if you’re careful and don’t blow it all at once. Your stomach will be thankful when you don’t have to stretch £50 over a fortnight.

3. How to be more assertive

working in retail

Every single person who has ever worked in retail has had that one customer that just point-blank refuses to accept what you’re saying. It could be that what they wanted is out of stock, or they’re asking you to do something against the rules. The exact situation rarely matters; it makes no difference to such donkey-brained individuals.

Dealing with such bull-headed pests is a masterclass in sticking to your guns and refusing to be bullied. Sorry, Sharon, you don’t get special treatment. My word is FINAL!

4. Helping others makes you feel good

working in retail

One of the more cheesy answers, but a valid lesson nonetheless. Whether you did the bare minimum or decided to go the extra mile, helping somebody out and receiving thanks for it makes you feel all fuzzy and warm inside.

You have assisted in the smooth running of someone’s day. The world is one step further away from descending into anarchy. Well done you.

5. There are millions of ways to be rude and annoying

working in retail

I’m unsure whether my fuse has always been so short, or if working in retail has drastically reduced my patience.  It turns out there are a plethora of behaviours a customer can exhibit to be the most annoying person on the planet.

Throwing money onto the counter instead of in your outstretched hand. Talking on the phone. Fruitlessly tapping their card against the machine and ignoring your reminder that it’s not contactless. Never did I think so many miniscule actions could make me contemplate murder.

6. How to manage my palpable rage

working in retail

As well as providing me with anger issues, retail also taught me how to control myself. I can’t count the times I’ve had to endure an absolute idiot screaming into my face, but every time it happens I manage to remain perfectly composed, nodding in sympathy with an understanding smile on my face.

I enter a zen state, unaffected by Patricia’s beetroot face and spittle flying in my face. I have an unbreakable will.

7. How to be a better customer

working in retail

I am 99.9% sure I have never been a nightmare customer in all my life. Even so, working as a lowly peon myself has really groomed me into being the ideal customer. Having been on the brunt of the worst people you can possibly imagine, I feel like I’ve been made more empathetic, more patient, and more respectful to service workers than ever before.

Also, after enduring work days that have been absolute carnage regardless of clientele, I feel no inclination to complain if my server hasn’t got a smile glued on or if they seem a bit ruffled. You never know what could happen behind the scenes unless you’ve been there, and it really teaches you to keep an open mind.

8. People lose their minds at Christmas

working in retail

My God. There are no combinations of words that can properly encapsulate the Dantean pandemonium that is Christmas in retail. You think it’s bad enough shopping in the festive season? Working during it is an entirely different story.

People just absolutely lose their nut. They panic. They push and shove. They fight each other for the last product. They bulk-buy out of sheer hysteria. They give you arbitrary details about the person they’re buying for, and scream at you when you can’t piece those cryptic clues together and find the perfect present for them. After Boxing Day, retail workers collectively weep with relief. The ultimate lesson here is to always buy online.

9. Kindness goes a long way

working in retail

As I’ve said, helping people out makes you feel nice and good inside, but sometimes it goes even further. There have been several customers I was on first name terms with because I served and helped them out so often. They’ve even come into my workplace with a gift to say thanks.

I’ve been given tea and cakes as gratitude for our store’s service. One elderly lady always used to give me sweets. At my old job I used to live for the people who would come back and thank me for listening to and talking with them, and they almost always passed word on to my manager, which meant I got a glowing reference when I left. Being kind to people can leave you with more physical treats, and an enhanced sense of happiness and appreciation.

10. Some people are just the worst

working in retail

On the flipside, there are some people that are just, well, the worst. It’s more than having a particularly difficult customer.

There are genuinely people whose faces are burnt into my mind forever purely because of how unnecessarily spiteful they were, because they genuinely don’t view retail workers as people, but mindless robots destined for a life of monotony and failure. I’ve made a resolution that if I ever see such people giving a workers a hard time, I’ll embark on a personal quest for revenge and destroy their livelihood.

Or just call them out on it, whatever.

11. The importance of turning the other cheek

working in retail

Ultimately, however, working in retail has taught me that there’s almost always an explanation for how somebody acts. Sometimes, people have come back in to apologise for how they treated me, and explained they’ve been having a bad day. Nothing ever excuses or justifies mistreating somebody, but there’s always an explanation somewhere, even if it’s something grandiose like ‘they had a terrible childhood and now don’t know you to communicate with others.’

So don’t sweat it. You got bigger fish to fry.

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