For all intents and purposes, working in retail should have emotionally crippled me. Infinite run-ins with unnecessarily outraged middle-aged women have come dangerously close to breaching my mental threshold, but I, like Destiny’s Child before me, am a survivor.
Although I’m jaded beyond repair (I would leave the father of my child in the middle of the night if his eyes hovered on a Black Friday sale sign), nine years of retail has given me more than the gift of repression and bad posture, it has given me a humanitarian vision.
Everyone who has worked in retail will have a memory bank of experience that can guide you through almost any situation. The collection of colourful characters, disgruntled co-workers and 30 cent pay rises, eventually combine to become a handbook on how to be a better person.
My gripe isn’t with the retail institution, or my string of snappy managers, it’s with the customers who lose all sense of rationality when they enter through those doors. Courtesy flies out the window and self-importance goes through the roof, the minute a sale shirt doesn’t survive a three-year span of aggressive machine-washing. The finger of blame dips into a bottomless well of rage, and otherwise stable people become more incensed and indignant than Frank Costanza.
The nice shoppers will politely return your smile and thank you as they leave. The not-so-nice will avoid eye contact, aggressively man handle the hanging stock, and leave their unwanted clothes on the ground in the change room.
I’ve been the red-faced child next to the ‘unnecessarily outraged’ adult, more times than my conscious self will acknowledge. They’re not bad people, they’ve just never worked in retail, so they don’t know that walking into a store that’s closing because “it’s my god-given right to peruse, and no girl with a name badge is going to take that away from me,” does not a moral vigilante maketh. A one-sided yelling match that escalates from internal rage fire to causing a scene in a matter of minutes, is not something to write home about, and that same employee isn’t going to be able to bring the broken zip back to life, or answer the question, “What are you going to do to regain my trust now that this colour has run?”
I once had a customer so incensed that I wouldn’t return her sweat stained dress, that she got out her phone and called the local news station to arrange an exposé on the store - that she assured me would ruin my life. For a month I was terrified that every handbag or hat, had a hidden camera in it and a panel van of cameramen waiting two doors down, thirsty for an ambush.
I’ve had credit cards thrown at me, co-workers and customers reduced to tears, and a stand-off with a woman stripping down to her bra and g-string in view of her fellow customers because she was ‘claustrophobic and had to keep her health in mind’. Evidently, I’ve been exposed to some of the weirder and more distressing sides of humanity, but it has moulded my character for the better.
When the guy next to me on the train starts to make the ‘this is my stop’ weight-shift, I’ll do side-knees before he gets up. That’s a direct product of learning that humanity relies on the absorption of other people’s shit.
Often we’ll project our problems onto those around us. Mr “I’m a valued customer and I think that it’s bullshit that I can’t get a return on a ripped shirt you idiot,” doesn’t actually think you’re an idiot. He thinks he’s an idiot for ripping the only shirt he liked.
So if you work in retail – hang in there. I’ve met some of my best friends in these jobs – disgruntled employees working a late shift have a knack for getting along. And if you’re on the other side of the counter – remember that only one of you knows what truly exists “out the back,” so play nice. It might just be the difference between them checking their phone or checking for your size.
Written by Christine Tarlinton