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 over 30 jobs in almost 15 years of employment. About 10 of those years have been in retail, where I genuinely had some awesome experiences. I also had some very difficult times. Overall, despite the good takeaways I had, 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 any recognized by your company.

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. 100% guaranteed. Or your money back. Well, a store credit, anyway. 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. You’ll Meet Some of the Best People Ever

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.

I wish I still kept in touch with all my favorite old co-workers. Unfortunately, life moves on. But I won’t ever forget you guys and some of the crazy, fun, awful memories we all had. Because we’re in this together. Laughing, surviving, commiserating.


What pearls of wisdom did retail bestow upon you?

Published by Jessica

Writer, YouTuber, streamer, gamer, yogi, self-improver--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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