Retail on a sales associate level is often counted as unskilled labor. I don’t mean your Kate Spade “muses,” or your bored Givenchy reps who work on commission. I’m talking about your low-level, “Here’s an employee handbook, don’t wear shorts to work” bullshit sales associate. The people who blatantly lie about what earrings look good with the dress you’re buying, and then politely ask “Is the receipt in the bag OK?” as they wish for death.
At the tender age of 21, I’ve worked a few retail jobs — all of which will look essentially useless on my resume until I get scared enough by the harsh realities of my bank account to apply for holiday work at Macy’s. That said, working in this soul-destroying field has taught me a thing or two. For example …
I’m not an inherently patient person. Retail taught me the importance of being patient when a situation spirals out of your control, as they so often do. The world is a big place, and circumstances are dictated by God, fate, random chance, and whatever your inspirational or bitingly cynical Zazzle coffee mug says. You need to be able to take a deep breath and do your best to accept and work with what the world sends your way. Even if it sends a high-strung soccer mom demanding to know why you don’t have more fitting rooms, as if you personally had a hand in designing and constructing the store.
Rather than sarcastically telling her that you don’t have enough fitting rooms because you’re hoping to make her late for her This American Life Green Tea Discussion group, now would be a good time to inhale and ponder just how many fitting rooms would be enough. What is enough? We’re all doing our best to be enough.
But real talk: I hope you die in that fitting room.
Not only is the world an unpredictable place, but your life is also fleeting. Change happens quickly and unannounced, and it’s important to fully grasp how much of our lives are purely ephemeral.
Tibetan monks display this process through gorgeous works of art called sand mandalas. These are fractal designs laid out grain by grain, only to be wiped away quickly after completion, to “symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.”
I have never made a mandala, but I have made several holiday displays. I’ve painstakingly arranged knickknack after cutesy wineglass after dog costume into Pinterest-worthy displays of wasting your money, only to have four bored teenage girls wreck it all in five minutes.
For your first few shifts, you might be tempted to go into a murderous rage and try to stab someone with a polka dot corkscrew designed to make wine moms feel cutesy about their alcoholism. However, take a minute to reflect on your current financial situation, and let that deaden your soul enough to remind you that change is inevitable and out of your control. We are all specks in the grand scheme of things, and this job is but a speck in the grand scheme of your life.
However, you better rebuild that shit right quick before your manager Carol returns from her lunch break. Carol, who is not as enlightened as you on the speck spectrum, operates on the idea that a speck on your file is called a demerit, and the accumulation of three of them is grounds for dismissal. No zen at all, that woman. She’s kind of a drag.
But that’s okay! In being forced to interact with hundreds of people each day — only some of whom recognize that you are a real person — you quickly develop …
#3. People Skills
You may think you know something about people, but you don’t unless you’re an anthropologist or spent a summer working in a mall. Every human is a special snowflake comprised of trillions of tiny, varying decisions and life circumstances that made them who they are. I don’t believe that all people are the same. What I do believe is that people often act in incredibly similar ways in certain situations. Often, they act in similarly assholish ways.
This is why you have to unfriend your co-worker who won’t stop sharing retail memes about people saying “There’s no price tag … is this free?” You might find that monotonous, but rest assured that memes are the only thing between them and hanging themselves with an Hermes scarf in the break room.
Totally kidding. There’s no break room.
Anyway, you learn a lot about people by watching them idly have fun while you stand in uncomfortable flats for seven-hour shifts. When I worked for a chain retailer which we’ll call Francesco’s, I became wonderfully skilled at figuring out what guests wanted when they gave me the absolute shittiest information.
Going to a wedding, you say? No idea if it’s indoors, outdoors, casual, anything? Excellent. Let me show you to a random assortment of dresses I have right over here. Not sure of your girlfriend’s size? Can’t give me any description of her body type, or what she likes in general? Fantastic. Let’s stick with jewelry, because I literally cannot help you. Don’t know your own fucking shoe size and want to be really rude about it? Not a problem, ma’am, right this way.
Sure, I’ll check for those in the back. But just so you know, the back is a tiny storage closet where we keep our water cooler and extras of maybe 20 things in the store. Unless you’re looking for my purse, a size 4 in a very popular dress, and/or the water cooler, I can assure you it’s not in the back. But of course I’ll check.
And this is what I’ll do when I’m back there.
As a self-defense mechanism against people treating you like shit all day, you get really good at being rude enough to shitty customers to keep yourself sane while also maintaining a facade of unfailing politeness so that they can’t rat you out to the manager. The only reason I started giving a fuck about my eyebrows was because it made hate-smiling at customers more enjoyable for me. A delicate eyebrow arch and hate-smizing goes a long way.
The first page of my employee handbook was entirely about smiling in every situation possible, including on the phone. In order to do my job correctly, I have to smile at you, even if you’re being a complete jackoff asshat. If you’ve never thought smiling could be a hateful gesture, you’ve never dealt with someone yelling at you about a 30-day return policy on the 31st day.
Hate-smizing also is a crucial skill when gross dads hit on you. Up until the point where they physically try to hurt you, you have to be friendly and bubbly, even if they’re staring at your tits and asking you about lingerie you don’t sell. They’re probably the husband of the woman with the blonde “I yell at my son’s teachers about his behavior” bob haircut from earlier. You still have to grin at them like you’re just thrilled they’re taking an interest in the store’s products.
#2. Wrong And Right
We all learn Wrong from Right at a very young age. The world is painted black and white so that our little dumb heads can grasp the concept of Not Being A Dick. Lying and stealing makes you a Bad Person, while honesty and not trashing public bathrooms makes you a Good Person.
Let me let you in on a little secret which you should definitely not tell your 13-year-old cousin who really wants those ugly earrings: Most stores don’t give a fuck about shoplifters. Malls have security guards to manage sticky-fingered teenagers, and high-end retail stores have their own security, but your average standalone chain retail store does not.
I know, I know. It’s shocking. Absolutely tragic. Francesco’s had a policy that literally barred us from confronting or even acknowledging shoplifters. We were supposed to discourage them by offering absolutely excellent service, which basically amounted to me stalking you through the store under the belief that you wouldn’t look me in the eye while blatantly shoving a sweater in your bag.
Very subtle, ma’am.
You really learn to let go of the concept of Wrong vs Right in retail, mostly as a side effect of being paid very little. The whole joke is that you could absolutely look me in the eye and steal a sweater, and there isn’t a damn thing I would do about it. One, I don’t care. At all. It probably looks great on you, and you’re cold. Two, my employee handbook has sanctioned this not-caring, due to the threat of a lawsuit. Three, life is fragile and out of my control, so I’d rather not get involved.
But in a slightly different direction in this whole Choose Your Own Shoplifting Adventure, let’s say that you buy the sweater. Let’s say that you buy the sweater from a fairly nice place, which we’re going to call Nordstram’s. Let’s say that you buy the sweater and then, months later, you really need $50 in cash. You can go back to Nordstram’s and, if you’re bullheaded enough, make them take the sweater back (even right off your sweaty back) for cash, because their return policy is a joke and not one person you’re dealing with gets paid enough to care.
Security guards who care about their jobs only exist in movies.
A friend of mine worked there for a while, and saw a girl buy a $700 bag using returns for jewelry she was a) wearing, b) didn’t have a receipt for, and c) could only partially prove she bought there.
It’s amazing, absolutely amazing, how much room for fucking up the ass Nordstram’s return policy leaves you. No receipt? Whatever. Didn’t actually buy it from there? Drink a double espresso on your way there and fuck it all, because they’ll probably take it back. Your sales associate will probably hate you, but who cares? Carpe Diem and all that jazz.
As I said before, we’re all doing our best to be enough. Unfortunately, when working a job that is physically and emotionally taxing, as well as shameful to a great many people, you sometimes need a little help to be enough.
#1. Working Under Adverse Conditions
Sales associates are supposed to represent everything you could be if only you bought their product. In boutiques, associates are always put together, fully made up, and have face-splitting smiles because they’re just so gosh darn happy to be alive, due to this $60 dress and $35 in matching accessories.
When being pretty and put-together is literally part of your job, it leaves little room for error — even if that error is a fucking monsoon or being so magnificently depressed that it’s a goddamn miracle you got out of bed this morning.
To your manager, the weather and your general mental health are unimportant, and you just need to watch more YouTube tutorial videos to fix both of those things. Have you ever wondered why perky sales associates have perfected the messy bun? It’s because that’s a hairstyle for the sad, windy days when your hair is 90 percent dry shampoo, but someone still wants to put their dick in you, so your look is still considered work appropriate.
It’s in the handbook, right after the part about no shorts.
OK, people are terrible occasionally. But you’re zen, right? You’ve taken a few deep breaths and we’re all good over here, thanks Carol. I mean, it’s not like you have time for a smoke break — heaven forbid you come back to these people smelling like smoke — but you’ve had a moment to yourself. Perhaps by the water cooler. Maybe you downed the cheap plastic handle vodka that you deposited into a Dasani water bottle this morning. On the one hand, that’s very juvenile. On the other, you’ve always sort of wanted the police to have to report “victim was carrying cigarettes, loose change, and half a bottle of vodka expertly camouflaged in a water bottle,” and you’re a college dropout working a terrible job.
Yes, it pains me to admit it, but I have gone to work intoxicated. Who cares? Certainly not you, with your deeply vague questions and desire to steal $30 sweaters. At a managerial level, you probably get paid enough to convince yourself that life has meaning, but on a sales associate level, you need a little help from some random cheap Russian vodka. Being helped by drunk, bored people isn’t even that bad, really.
You can’t deal with people day in and day out without a little bit of help, which is why the service and retail industries are so full of drunks that they might as well be a much more delicious and fashionable AA meeting.
This makes any job tolerable, actually.
I’m a huge fan of interior decoration during the holidays, so I recently went to JoAnne’s for spray glue for a project I was working on. It was my day off, and I was hellbent on making some Halloween decorations.
The young man helping me was probably my age, and much more intoxicated than most people would be comfortable being at 11 a.m. He showed me cake toppers, wallpaper, and weird sponges (I’m still not sure what you use them for), all before showing me the glue aisle (again, my whole reason for being there) and realizing that he needed a manager to unlock the case. I could have thrown a huge fit right then and ratted him out to the manager when she came to unlock the case. I didn’t, though, because I’m not a dick, and I understand the coping mechanisms that come about when you have to smile all day at people who are the human equivalent of reminder postcards from your dentist.
It’s been a while.
If I had to wear a ridiculous apron and show people knitting needles and questionable sponges day after day, I’d probably get high as fuck before work as well.
So if you go into a store and an employee is fucked up, be gentle with them. Walk a mile in their employee-handbook-sanctioned shoes, my sweets. Their life is probably hideously monotonous, and you’d probably drink too if you had to show people sponges all fucking day.
The next time you go participate in capitalism, just remember that the woman helping you try on shoes is a person. The man helpfully directing you to the pregnancy test aisle is a person. The sales associate patiently explaining the fall sale for the eighth fucking time since they clocked in 20 minutes ago is a person. We’re all delicate snowpeople, doing our best to help you find what you’re looking for. A smile — or hell, just not getting yelled at about something beyond our control, like the fact taxes exist or that we only carry certain sizes — goes a long way. Be kind. Or if not, we’ll mock you around the water cooler later that day; if only to keep ourselves together enough to sell another distressed wooden sign that says “Always Be Yourself … Unless You Can Be Batman. Then Always Be Batman.”