Life Lessons I Learned When I Worked in Retail

life lessons from working in retail the unplug initiative Jessica Mathis

I used to be pretty promiscuous when it came to keeping a job. I’d jump from job to job, fed-up with the toxic environment, the terrible managers, or crappy pay/hours. Sometimes all three. I’ve been fired from a few, too, but that’s another story.

As a result, I’ve worked nearly 30 jobs in almost 15 years of employment. About 10 of those years have been in retail, where I genuinely had some awesome experiences with both co-workers, customers, and company. I also had some very difficult times, and overall, retail is an exhausting industry with unpredictable schedules, physically-demanding work, disgruntled customers, managers who often don’t care, and little sense of self-worth, much less anyone else seeing your worth.

I can look back now that I’m out and see what I’ve learned. The retail industry has taught me life lessons, both good and bad. Here are some of them:

1. Patience Is a Damn Virtue for a Reason

Only Saints are capable of having true patience–or is it retail workers? I wouldn’t know first-hand. I am not a super patient person. I can’t say that retail taught me to be patient, but it taught me to appreciate the art of patience. I recognize and admire anyone who can treat an insufferable or ridiculous situation with a poker face and a stone will. It’s not for the faint of heart out there. 

2. Good Service Should Be Appreciated

Nothing helps you appreciate those who work in the service industry or retail like having to do it day in and day out yourself for years. This is where my patience actually comes into play. I’m the first one to tell your manager how well you did. Hell, I’ll tell YOU what a great job you did. If something goes wrong, I’m understanding and kind about it. Even if you don’t have the best attitude at all times, I know you’re human and probably having a shitty day. I tip well. I fill out customer surveys. It’s basically made me the perfect customer. At least, I think…

3. You Can’t Change People

Oh, how many times did I have to learn this one. I learned it, but I didn’t like it. Coworker, customer, whatever. They’re all the same because they are P E O P L E. Might as well get used to it. Coworker calls out again and leaves you all alone at 6am until the next person comes in at 10? She doesn’t care! Customer can’t read the signs at customer service or on the back of his receipt and refuses to believe he can’t return his 2-year-old item? Oh, well, get that store credit ready. Another negative customer survey response because too many employees were standing around talking and not helping in busy areas? Tough cookies! They don’t give a flying fugly rat’s behind. And it will keep happening, probably. I have no faith that it will change. That’s retail, baby.

4. Stupid Can’t Be Reasoned With–I’ve Tried it Too Many Times

It damn sure can’t. Maybe I’m the stupid one for continuing to try.

Sure, lady, you bought your Valspar paint here at The Home Depot, not at Lowe’s, where it is their exclusive brand of paint. Yeah, I must be wrong, despite my basic ability to understand simple concepts. Oh, yes, sir, we definitely just stopped carrying this item you swore you saw here two months ago. I must be new or misinformed, but no, not you, oh retail consumer. You must have a photographic memory and not get things confused ever. Ah, of course, ma’am, I am an idiot who can’t do my job because you fail to read signs, abide by company policies, and throw a shit-fit every time something doesn’t go remotely your way. And you’re right, the manager will placate you by giving you everything you want. Damn, I really am the stupid one, aren’t I?

5. The Most Interesting People I’ve Met Work in Retail

I say that in all sincerity, too. It could be my bias since that’s where the majority of my jobs have been, but it’s true. They come from all over the world. They’re of all backgrounds, cultures, personalities, and proclivities. Some you’ll love, some you’ll hate, some you’ll forget, and some you’ll wish you could forget. It opens your eyes to people from all walks of life, which is an enriching, rewarding experience.

Someone post-military trying to get used to civilian life again; someone in their retirement years, looking for something to do with their extra time; someone who used to work in various industries or trades and is just trying to find something stable; someone who’s an artist in their spare time, or an advocate, or a novelist, or a business owner. Or maybe just some swine who can’t clean up after himself, and you wonder how could be so disrespectful of others and so nasty, but you just have to accept that because you can’t change people (see above). 

Overall though, I like the types of people who work retail. There are a lot of rebels, a lot of “get-shit-done” folks, a lot of “play by my own rulebook” kind of people. People who have neat interests and cool stories to tell. People who know how to work hard and play harder. Those who can’t sit still and won’t shut up. They’re good to joke with, confide in, and go to when you’re in a bind. That’s my kind of people.

6. Corporate Sees the Number, Not the Person

I worked at a famous retailer once that wanted our receiving department to cut its hours in half, but still do the same amount of work. The department head asked the District Manager, “how exactly am I supposed to do that?” He looked at him sternly, bordering on indignant that he would be asked such a question. “You increase your productivity,” he said. As if it were obvious. 

That story sums up what it’s like to work under a corporate office that is out of touch with what the job is and how to do it. I’ve seen it in every, single job I’ve worked in retail. Planograms that are not humanly possible to execute with Earth’s current understanding of physics; ridiculous demands for customer reward/credit card signups (and the subsequent threats that come if you don’t meet them); shoving the concept of upselling down our throats and “talking to” those of us who couldn’t meet a certain dollar per transaction amount; writing up people who don’t meet sales goals; cutting labor during peak shopping hours and expecting us to just call for backup (if we’re ALL busy, how can anyone help?).  The insanity goes on and on.

Corporations will always see us as a product, a result that they can achieve. They talk to you in orientation like you’re some valuable asset, but you’re the most dispensable commodity under their reign. I was always at some level of peace with that and kept it in the back of my mind. It was the true reason I could never quite conform enough to be in a real leadership position. I can’t kiss ass. I can’t push policies I don’t believe in. I can’t be a mouthpiece of The Man. I mean, I’ll let him sign my paychecks. But I’m going to stay off the radar and out of the way as much as possible.

I’m Out of Retail Now and Never Going Back…Or Am I?

Misery loves company, and I certainly commiserated with the best of them. Retail had a lot of low points. Exhausted mentally and physically, sometimes I’d stare at the ceiling at night and wonder if I could do it again the next day. I’ve cried at work. More than once. I’ve won conversations in my head with dumb customers or incompetent coworkers that I couldn’t say to their face. Basically, it sucked. Every morning I had to battle with myself to go in–even for the best of companies that I had an overall positive experience with.

It’s certainly a more active and engaging job though. I do miss that. You meet all kinds of people, too, which I mentioned is a perk of the job. Even the bad times came with some great friends and good memories. I have fond memories of many customers, too. It IS possible! It wasn’t all bad. 

I don’t regret my time in retail. It’s hell, sure, but it’s a special kind of hell. I certainly find it fun to laugh about now. And who knows? Maybe I will make a reappearance as a part-timer someday, if I ever needed the extra money.

What are some of your stories from retail or service industry life? Did you learn anything? Or was your only lesson that you’re glad you got out (or wish you could)?

Published by Jessica

Writer, video production freelancer, and still trying to figure it all out

5 thoughts on “Life Lessons I Learned When I Worked in Retail

  1. Love this! There are SO many lessons to learn working with the public. I paid my dues as a server (primarily because with tips the $ is better). Tried retail but without that cash incentive just couldn’t do it! Kudos to you!

    1. I cannot believe I am just now seeing this. My settings must be messed up!! So sorry.

      See, I was the opposite. I couldn’t do serving. The money sounded good, but I was not cut out for the types of challenges servers face. I have immense respect for the serving industry. I cannot believe there are people who look down on them and act like it’s such a menial job. It takes a lot of traits and skills that not everyone has.

  2. Never say never. I clawed my way to the top of my field as a real estate paralegal, swearing that never, ever would I again work as a mere secretary. 30 years later, I’ve semi-retired and am now working part-time as ….. a secretary, and happy about it. Such a simple job, which I can easily leave behind at the end of every work day. Pretend I’m too stupid to do anything by type simple form documents – just give me the damn paycheck every week.

    1. Sorry I just saw this!

      I’m happy that you’re happy with your job! Sounds like it’s a great gig for you. I mean, I definitely don’t write off going back to retail someday. Maybe it would be a good part-time job. I miss some things about it.

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