Once upon a time, while working at the game store, I encountered the perfect example of a customer who treats retail employees as beneath them and worthless. While this is an extreme example, I want everyone to pay attention, because it has at it’s core many great lessons as to what you shouldn’t do to your retail friends.
It was a quiet Wednesday night, and per normal, I was working by myself in the store. The owners of the store had a fairly strict policy that we were required to approach customers at least every five minutes while they were browsing in the store to check and ensure they were finding everything alright. This is a fairly normal policy, however, this game store was very specific about the time period, and the owners were in the habit of having dinner at the restaurant across the hall to watch and make sure their employees were following procedure, so it was vitally important to my future survival as an employee to make sure to follow this policy to the letter.
About an hour before close a woman and her two teenaged children walked into the store. It had been a quiet evening and I’d managed to get every display straightened except for the perpetually disarranged novelty shot glass display. I was in the process of meticulously sorting the various glasses into the appropriate spot on the display stand as they crossed the threshold between mall and store. Reasonably happy to see my first customers in over half an hour, I greeted the very dour faced mother with a cheerful, “Good evening! Let me know if the three of you need any help finding anything!” and smiled warmly at the group.
Dour-face looked me in the eye as I greeted her, then turned to her kids and motioned to them to look around with a sharp, dismissive wave of her hand, all without acknowledging me. The kids headed toward the board games along the right hand wall of the store and started browsing. Dour-face followed a few silent steps behind them as they excitedly started looking through the games. I glanced at my watch, quickly gathering that this woman clearly didn’t want anything to do with me, and made a mental note of the time for our five minute rule. The kids were vigorous with their search of the games, and I watched with an inward wince as they picked up box after box and put all of them back down either upside down or backwards. I returned to sorting out shot glasses, making sure to watch the group to see if they suddenly had the standard, “I’m looking for help” body language. The kids seemed pretty content to sort out which games they liked for themselves, and dour-face was intent on ignoring me, so I let them be for the next five minutes. Glancing at my watch I knew it was time to confront dour-face again, and I was lucky in the fact that at the exact moment that I was to check in on them, the daughter had wandered over to the shot-glass rack. “Still finding everything alright?” I cheerfully inquired of the young girl.
The daughter gave me a smile and lazily answered, “Yeah, I’m good,” casually spinning the rack around to look at the shot glasses organized by novelty phrase. Dour-face came over to insert herself between me and her daughter before I could reply, “Let me know if you have any questions,” so the phrase died halfway through my reply. I moved off to the counter a few feet away, checked my watch, and settled in to wait for the next five minutes to pass.
I have a personal rule that if I’m working in a slow store I won’t straighten up after customers until they’ve left. I think this is an important customer service issue, since most customers don’t like having it rubbed in their face that they don’t know how to clean up displays after themselves. Since the store had been straightened to perfection just before these customers had come in, I was simply making a mental map of where they were interfering with this perfection, knowing that after they left I’d probably have plenty of time to clean up after them before the next group came in. Given how slow this store was on Wednesday nights, I would be lucky if I had any other customers this night. I busied myself filling out the paperwork to show that I’d done my shift’s required deep-cleaning (pulling out all the puzzles in the back, left hand section of the store and wiping down all the shelves and box tops to prevent dust). I also checked the daily sales totals about five times to look like I was keeping myself busily away from the woman and her children, and then just pretended to straighten the small items up at the cash wrap, which they absolutely didn’t need.
The seconds ticked by, and five minutes passed. The kids were no closer to deciding on a game, and the mother was starting to look more and more annoyed. I had made sure to keep occasionally glancing their way, to ensure they weren’t reaching that important questions stage, and every time got an evil glare from the mother, so I made sure to keep my distance. However, five minutes had gone by, and I knew that meant I needed to actually speak to the group. I casually approached them and from about five feet away just called out, “Still doing okay?”
Dour-face turned into angry-face as she quickly crossed the distance between us, leaning down over me and putting her face a few inches from mine. In a very low, threatening voice said, “Look, I didn’t come here on the first custody visit I’ve had with my kids in two years to be incessantly harassed by some high school drop out sales associate. Because you couldn’t fucking leave us alone, I’m taking my kids and my business elsewhere. Enjoy your miserable life.” She then turned, walked back to the kids, who had actually come very close to deciding on a game, grabbed the game out of their hands, threw it to the floor, and grabbed the two teenagers by their arms and forced them out of the store.
In the years since this incident I’ve naturally come up with about four hundred responses I could have had to that situation. Instead of a witty response however, I just stood there, shocked as the woman dragged her kids out of the store. I remember the apologetic look they had on their face, and I honestly just couldn’t say anything.
I’m going to insert here that I was not even remotely a high school drop out. In fact, I was working this job in the evenings after school. I was in advanced placement classes and had already been accepted into college. Working retail, however, the automatic assessment that most customers make is that any associate is a drop out. The nasty truth is that most stores won’t even look at your application if you aren’t currently enrolled in school or have graduated. When sorting through the hundreds of applications we would get at the game store, applications without a graduation date listed or with “GED” automatically went in the discard pile. Years later, this story sticks with me because of exactly how hurtful this woman was. I don’t care about the lost sale, I don’t care about the millions of other small pet peeves this woman violated, but the insult that I was a drop out has stuck with me for years.
Retail is a tough job, and the number of employees I’ve watched wash out because they couldn’t handle the pressure is staggering. Yet on a regular basis I would have some irate customer who would pull out the classic, “I can’t believe you messed this up, your job is so easy a monkey could do it!” I’ve always wished I could challenge every customer who says that to actually stand in my position for a day and see how well they handle the job. I know for a fact that every customer who has ever used this line would likely crack under the pressure long before finishing the day. This principal is true in service as well – servers are the best multi-taskers you will ever encounter in your life. The amount of intelligence necessary to keep track of four or five tables worth of orders, drinks, pacing in the meal, whether table 1 has a special event, table 2 has an allergy, and table 3 would like you to always have four cherries in their Shirley temple, is pretty daunting. In retail you have to be totally immersed in your product, you have to know exactly where everything is in the store, you have to know the company rules, how to run the computers and you also have to be an expert at interpersonal interactions to maximize sales. I’d have to watch to make sure I could clean up after my customers, and I’d have to multi-task while assisting numerous customers. For example, while working at the shoe store, if I was helping more than one customer I’d have to recall that one customer was a size eight, one was a size nine and a half, and one was a size five. I’d have to remember exactly what event or reason each person was looking for shoes to make sure I was providing appropriate suggestions. If the size five needed a two inch heel, and the size nine and a half wanted flats, it would be embarrassing to bring out a size five flat and a size nine and a half heel because I got their requests mixed up. Meanwhile I have to juggle my company’s desire to bring out four styles of shoes to every customer, making sure to present care items to everyone, and making sure I gave the appropriate amount of attention to everyone. I would have to maintain this level of focus every day I came to work, and I would have to be cheerful and upbeat. Less than a week after a death in my family, I had to work the busiest shopping day of the year in my store. Despite my recent loss I was expected to be the epitome of customer service, a vibrant, excited associate. Imagine having to do that for a typical office job. Most professions have a decent amount of lee-way for when you have a bad day – retail and service can’t afford that lee-way because of the nature of their business.
In addition to these mental hurdles, retail and service employees face huge physical hurdles. I’ve watched employees manage to juggle the mental gymnastics necessary to be an adequate associate, and then crack because of the physical demands. Working retail your average shift entails eight hours on your feet, usually walking back and forth for your entire shift. If you’re lucky you get a job that doesn’t involve lifting, but those are few and far between, so typically you’re having to lift ten to twenty pounds worth of merchandise repeatedly during the day. We usually don’t get regular bathroom breaks, particularly in the smaller stores where associates are expected to work their shifts alone and without closing the store. You typically get one meal, and as most stores don’t provide refrigerators or microwaves to their employees, it is usually mall food or something really basic from home. When I was working in solo operations I usually would go my whole shift without eating at all, rather than have to chance mall food. The same principal applies to drinks. Since we spend most of our day out on the sales floor we don’t have many opportunities to grab a sip of anything. So your typical employee is usually very exhausted physically, hungry and thirsty.
Oh, and on top of that, we have to deal with all the different types of people this blog is cautioning you not to be. So now we have a mentally demanding job, a physically demanding job, and a psychologically demanding job. There is no doubt in my mind why I got to watch roughly half of my employees disappear after a few months. Yet this is the industry that is widely stereotyped to employee the majority of the drop outs and failures. We’re assumed to be unintelligent and uneducated, when typically most of my co-workers were earning complicated degrees or had already earned them. It is a magical person who actually enjoys this torture, and thrives on it.
So the next time you walk into a store or restaurant, please consider the basic level of consideration you’re giving your associate or server. Pay attention to exactly how physically demanding the job actually is, and how mentally demanding as well. Put yourself into that job and try to think through how well you would be able to manage all those details. When your associate slips up a little, don’t berate them or treat them as though one slip up makes them unintelligent. If you wouldn’t want someone disrespecting you in this manner, don’t disrespect those around you in this manner. Because if you treat us like drop outs, we’ll hate you. Without being even a little bit sorry.
Listen, I hate you:
- You assume I'm stupid because I work retail
- You assume this job is easy
- You wouldn't last a day in this field of work
- Respect everyone you encounter
- Realize that every job is a tough job (except ice-cream taster, I mean, that's awesome)
- Keep your grumpiness to yourself