What I’ve Learned from Working Retail

Jenn Harrington

You’ll hear anyone who has ever spent a substantial amount of time in the restaurant business or retail say, “Everyone should have this job at some point in their life.” It’s true. Working for a large clothing company for the past year and a half has taught me several things that I can take with me into my future.

First, I want to touch on the “real world” everyone says exists after over seventeen years of schooling. After moving off campus and being responsible for bills, working an average of thirty hours a week, being active in my sorority, and still attending 12 hours of classes, I feel that I am living in the real world. Once I receive my diploma not much is expected to change—same rent, same utility and car payments. I may have to pick up more hours at work and begin to search for a career in my desired industry, but as far as I’m concerned, the real world happened the moment I chose to live off campus and stop my meal plan.

That rant may seem unrelated, but actually, having picked up several personal monthly payments, I have now been pushed to transfer to my company’s store up here to work during the school year unlike before. It has given me a whole new lifestyle to balance, making sure I am in class when I’m not working and making sure I’m at work when I’m not learning in class. Aside from the one time my manager scheduled me in the middle of one of my courses, I like to think my balancing act is pretty stable.

Day in and out I am surrounded with customers who need me to find an item that may not even exist or create a discount they decide works best for them. When I say customers are crazy, they are. If you think this may be you, it probably is. Don’t be offended, as I have realized that before I worked in retail, I was one of these people as well.

Sales associates are hired to keep a store clean, find an item on the floor or in the stockroom in another size or color, and make sure customers leave the store having bought something. That’s it. We are not hired to create discounts or promotions, sew clothing together to form new items, or even feed you. When you walk into a store, the items and discounts displayed are emailed to store managers at the beginning of every sales day, and they are all previously decided upon by the big man in the shiny office building in an undisclosed location.

From this, I have learned that the world does not revolve around me. There are actually other people in the world who have things to accomplish and limitations as well.

Managers are in charge of a lot. They have to maintain store operations, keep sales up, manage employees, make sure customers are being helped, and make sure merchandise is being sold and not stolen from the sales floor. I’ve worked under some managers who can’t tell their left from their right, or who have their business down to a “t,” except when it comes to speaking to people.

Here is the next lesson I have learned: the way you talk to people does affect the response you will receive. The idiom “kill them with kindness” serves a real purpose. You can effectively deliver a message when it is given in a polite tone, preceded with a please, and followed by a thank you. We all understand managers have a business to run, but your employees will want to work with you if you treat them respectfully, and in turn will treat customers the same.

The third lesson that I have learned is that money may or may not be the worst thing in the world. Money is what makes the world spin. Stores are given budgets to meet each day: one for their hours, and one that projects what they should make to cover operating costs. The budget for hours comes first; the operating cost budget is second. If you’re a customer who steals you may think that one small item won’t hurt, but it does because you are definitely not the only one. When the store loses money, employees loose hours. Items may be expensive and discounts limited, but it’s helping college students like me afford bills. A manager may be happy they can supply the employees with hours, but they also have to then work toward the operating costs of the company.

A final thing that has been brought to my attention is that foreigners are just as mean as Americans. They expect America to be cheaper, or more stupid maybe. There have been countless moments when foreign customers come into my store to shop and expect us to mark down every item they find because it’s not in their size and so on. I have heard that when we travel abroad, Americans are not looked upon kindly. Well, when foreign families come into my place of employment it is guaranteed to be followed with a half hour of headache inducing conversation to explain store policies and that, no, I cannot throw in a bottle of free perfume with your purchase because you are unhappy that we don’t sell flip-flops in November.

At some point in your life you might want to own your own business, you might not understand all the ideas that go into running a successful business, but these are some lessons that may help. If you can, get yourself a job in retail. It’s a crazy environment and you meet new people every day, but even days when I wonder why I ever got myself into this part-time job, I can still find positives. I have to thank my retail experiences for showing me some vital life lessons and am definitely looking forward to the rest that come.