In Defense of the Retail Worker


I spent a lot of years working in all levels of retail. So, if you’re thinking I am going to be saying, “Not all heroes wear capes,” you are damn right I am!

But hold on, I have some evidence.

Let’s take the Nick Offerman meme as an example.  (Which is the left side of the picture above) When I first saw it, I got out of it what I think most people do, “I am Nick, and I do know more than some kid at Lowe’s.  I hate it when they get me trapped in my own politeness when I am in a hurry.”

So, I think that would be so efficient and, yeah, cathartic!

But, guess what?  A certain percentage of the time, like if I was in a hurry for something, and I was having anxiety about that, I may forget something.

It made me think of how that scene would play-out in the presence of some of the great retail employees I’ve known over the years:

I stroll past the kid with the words of, “I know more than you.”  Still lingering in my mind as I head towards the cashiers.  Then another employee greets me.  And, I half smugly, start to explain I am all good, when;

“It’s just that I couldn’t help notice that the floor product you have there is a proprietary blend that also requires special earth friendly solvent to adhere properly.”

“Oh. Thank you.  You saved me a second trip and a lot of time.”

I then turn around and slowly pass the kid as he’s facing shelves.

“I forgot something.” I say to my cart handle.

I’ve known people who were that subtle, guys that do the metaphorical, Is that a stain on your shirt, boop got your nose, just to take them down a peg.  Even some who would really make them look stupid.  The most common tactic of course is, “whatever jerk, see you later when you need that solvent.”

A know-it-all is a welcome problem on most days though.  Because right after you go out of your way to solve the guys solvent problem, you walk to the next aisle and find a line of customers.  Now, this isn’t your department, you just happen to be walking through after walking Nick to the flooring department.  But, you want to help if you can.

The first customer you meet is an old man and he asks about the products in front of him and you answer them, everything is great.  So, great in fact, this old man who lives alone and hasn’t spoken to anyone in four days, decides this is the perfect time to share his racist views replete with the n-word.  So, your day just got really awkward!  Great.

As, you look around him at the other customers, while you are desperately looking for an opening in the conversation to bring this old racist back to the purchase and out the door.  While he speaks a mile-a-minute.

The lady behind him who is now getting animated standing still, has a $500 blue range hood that you ordered for her, waited 8-weeks to receive, and she picked up last week, sitting in her cart.  So, that and her look of, “do something!” is totally in your head now.

You focus back on Adolf. Now, when this happens you are supposed to be the voice and representative of society and shut him down.  Except, you know that is a fine line to walk, because a co-worker did that to a customer for the same reasons and the customer complained to management and they got fired.  So, what do you do?  Do you be the voice of society and shut him down? Yes, but you do it in a manner that gets the sale and also lets him know that those words are not welcome. Razors edge.

You now turn to the woman that you know is going to say, “I just realized this blue doesn’t go with the tile I picked out.” (Even though you tried to point out the subtle difference in color will actually clash.  Before she ordered it!  But, she was too busy taking pictures of it for her social media to actually hear you.)  She is now going to demand you take it back because, somehow it’s your fault.  Three minutes into explaining it’s not, she turns super rude and now, “you are an incompetent fool and shouldn’t be in charge of anything.”   Except you’re the king of aisle 14 when a racist is talking.

She demands to see the manager.  That, of course, is the cue for the four other people to chime in with, “Is there someone who works in this department?!”

“I will get someone here as soon as possible”

To yet, another chorus of exasperated sighs.  Your third such chorus today.

You leave the aisle with the upset woman in tow.  You still attempt to be courteous and have a little chit chat.  It doesn’t go real well so, you just stay quiet as you walk toward the customer service desk.

As you are walking you see two kids playing a game of; how many price tags can we remove from the shelves and then cover ourselves with them?  You can already hear the hilarious refrain of, “then I guess it’s free,” …one. for. every. price-tag.

You are extremely thankful the parent caught your eye and corralled the kids.  The idea of having to disengage from this charming lady you are helping, and address a clearly bad parent, was a landmine cheerfully side-stepped.

But, it does get you thinking about your own kids.  Who are staying with your mom because you weren’t actually supposed to be working today, but they changed your schedule because corporate wanted to add another sale event for the weekend.

You arrive at the customer service desk and the manager is not there yet.  Luckily, the department manager of customer service is there, and she’s been involved with the special order from the start.  So, it’s a short conversation to get her up to speed, and she tells you to head back to your department and help a line of people back there, and the angry woman doesn’t care.  So, you disengage and head back to your department.

As you attempt to hurriedly traverse the retail space, you walk really fast and attempt to look very busy, which you are.  That way, other customers in departments you don’t work in, don’t grab you, and keep your customers waiting longer.  If they do grab you and you don’t know that department well, it’s going to be a catch-22 with all options ending poorly for all.

[Most customers acknowledge your body language and assume you are very busy and will help when you can.  But, then there are those who either have an excessively low opinion of you, or an excessively high opinion of themselves who will demandingly wave you over.

Quite often after being waved in an aisle by customer I wanted to say,”I just clearly communicated with all of my being, that I am busy and not available to you.  Now, I understand in your mind that you think I am the person who is supposed to be helping you, and because I am just a retail worker, I am clearly just shirking my duties and that means it’s okay to assume my body language is a lie.

But, because of how this all went down, I can assure you, when you ask your question, and I don’t have the answer, you’re going to be mad at me for even coming over here.

So, this is me verbally communicating what my body just was; I am super busy, I will attempt to get you help, but I have customers in my department who’s purchases establish if I do or do not, get a raise, and they have been waiting for a long enough time to have called customer service with their phones from inside the store. S0, good day sir.”]

You make it to your department, luckily the customers you encountered along the way had quick questions and you had quick answers.

Things go pretty normal from there.  You get the end-cap set for the sale and the manager comes over and let’s you know you can go home right after you pick up the range-hood he took back and has already tagged with a discounted sales tag in the returns department, and put it in you clearance area.

“Great, I get to go home.”  You, think walking to returns.

When you get there you see it has gone from $500 to $389.  As you are walking it back and answering more quick questions you think, “Somebody is going to love this range hood when they buy it dented for $150 next year.  And, who is training who?”

When you get to your parents house your Dad starts asking, “Are any of your stores closing?”

“I don’t think so Dad. We just had a big video conference from the CEO telling us we are solid, and we are rolling out new technology and training.”

“Isn’t that what your cousin Tom was saying about where he works?  And now they are closing most stores in this region.” Your Mom chimes in.

“Yeah, I guess so.” You say to yourself.

Now, that is a pretty bad day.  But, I’ve had way worse in my twenty years of retail.

“Then why would you do it?!”

For one thing, I get to help people.  I used to help over 50 customers a day, everyday.  A number of those people were in a crisis.  They thought they were too ignorant to do solve their problem themselves, but they knew they couldn’t afford to pay a professional.  So, everyday I could talk people off the ledge, educate them, sell them what they needed and could afford, then gave them a confident pat on the back, and sent them on their way.

For that, I got hugged, kissed, offered tips, etc. but, it was just helping them live in a better world where they have more confidence and skills, that made me happy.

I rescued them from their crisis and left them a better person.

If you are someone whose retail working friend or family member sent this to you to understand their world a little better; know this as well…

There are millions of people who work retail, and are good at it.  They are good at it because they care deeply about people.  They are a big part of the zigzagging glue line that holds this society together.

So, when you see or are helped by a good retail worker, tell them so.  Then take the time to tell their boss and do the survey once in awhile (if the survey has stars or whatever do the max or the least.  Most middle scores are negated. Skynet doesn’t care about nuance.)





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