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What 3 Years Working Retail Taught Me

What 3 Years Working Retail Taught Me

On a whiteboard in a communal space at my university, a student wrote this question: “If you could make one law, what would it be?”

The answers, written by students from a variety of different majors, were sometimes funny. “Everyone gets free ice cream on Fridays,” one person wrote. Others were more serious and ideologically weighted: “Therapy is mandatory for all who need it.” The one that really caught me, though, was straightforward and simple: “Everybody must work at least one month in retail.”

While I can’t say I’d vouch for the practicality of that law, part of me applauded. I’ve spent three years working retail on and off, and it’s certainly taught me significant things about people, systems, and the value of hard work. So, here are three helpful things that I’ve learned so far.

1. People Need the Benefit of the Doubt.

Through hundreds (probably thousands) of hours cashiering over summers, weekends, and school holidays, I’ve met many different people. From the girls with spiderweb earrings and black lacy skirts to the joking older men, most customers only interact with me for a few minutes—sometimes less.

Because of that, I frequently get impressions of people that may or may not be true. For example, a young mother may seem inattentive and socially careless as she texts a friend instead of answering my questions, and a frustrated elderly man may appear grumpy when I explain that his item isn’t on sale.

When this happens, I remember that there’s much more to a person’s character than what I see. While first impressions can be correct, they aren’t always accurate. The mother, for instance, may normally be an excellent and engaging communicator who’s distracted by her never-ending to-do list back home, and the old man may be remembering his late wife’s love for the dream catchers two aisles back. When it comes to short interactions, we scarcely know anything about who the person truly is. We should be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

2. Systems Are More Complex Than They Seem.

After a few months working at my nearby retail store, I began to appreciate the intricacies of how businesses work. Every in-store product has traveled from a factory to the local shelf. It has seen dozens of hands crafting, embellishing, wrapping, boxing, storing, unboxing, and sorting it. The process isn’t simple.

In addition to that, a clean store doesn’t come by accident: In the retail place I work at, the employees spend hours every day returning unpurchased merchandise to their departments and pulling items neatly to the front of the shelf.

Because of this, I believe we should all have some measure of sympathy for hard-working retail and service industry employees. Often, the problems that may appear easy to solve—such as restocking an item on a shelf or fixing up a messy display—exist as part of a larger web of duties and responsibilities. Beyond just the retail components, hard-working people play an important role through every stage of an item’s creation, from manufacturing to selling.

From the outside it’s easy to suggest how to improve these systems—stocking, cashiering, and even the manufacturing process or supply chain—but at only a first glance, we won’t fully understand why a system is the way it is. Our suggested changes may actually make things worse. This same principle can be applied to everything from traffic rules to the U.S. economy to long-standing religious or cultural traditions. There’s a lot that goes into allowing us to live our everyday lives that we may not notice.

3. Good Work Doesn’t Require Flashy Duties.

I’ll confess: Working retail is not my natural strength. I tend to do better writing an essay than finding the hook for an obscure piece of merchandise, and—while I genuinely enjoy interacting with people—the hordes of 30-second checkout conversations are often draining.

Still, I’ve found value in the fact that—even in work I may not be good at—I can still work well. I can train myself to do my duty in small tasks, building my character for the bigger responsibilities that will eventually come my way.

For most of us, virtue doesn’t consist of completing massive tasks or spectacular projects; rather, it focuses on faithfully fulfilling the small duties of life. Retail has shown me to do those small things with care—to do them remembering that we can work well despite the seemingly insignificant nature of the responsibility.

Image credit: Pexels-Gustavo Fring



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  • Avatar
    Stephen W Browne
    April 21, 2023, 2:28 am

    To which I'd add, and another couple months waiting tables.

  • Avatar
    John Broomfield
    April 21, 2023, 5:50 am

    Two questions for the clothing retail experts:

    Why display the shorter (smaller) sizes high and the taller (larger) sizes low?

    Why not display your care for your customers?


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