10 Brutal Life Lessons You Learn Working Retail


From coast to coast retail sucks majorly, almost no matter where you work. I’ve been at a suite of establishments and no matter how different the clientele or coworkers, it’s almost always the same mundane and petty shit. Negatives aside, though, there are a few things that a good year of retail will teach you (whether you want to learn or not) that will stay with you forever.

1. Don’t tell people to calm down.

It’s literally the first rule of customer service and for good reason. No matter how goddamn stupid they’re being about a doorknob or missing a promotion that would have saved them two measly dollars on an item already over $100, it’s a surefire way to provoke ire, followed by a scoff, and the most indignant “let me speak to your supervisor” you could ever hear. But this is good advice outside of retail. People are going to overreact about a variety of things for a variety of reasons. Instead, as most of my retail brothers and sisters will tell you, you have to be understanding and let them know that you’re on their side. Much overblown frustration comes from people feeling unheard and “calm down” is a covert “shut up”.

2. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard managers say, “Hey, I think we can make it out of here early tonight.” Maybe you will but maybe within the last 20 minutes your store is open, a group of 15 tourists are going to walk in and do all but burn the place down. Whatever happens, be ready for it. If things go well, you’re nothing but excited. If things go poorly, you’ve already got a game plan (which might just include several racks of “go backs”).

3. You’re probably not the first person to think of that.

“Hmm.. the price isn’t printed here, give me one second.” “That means it’s free, right? Hahahaha” — No. It’s not. It’s not free and it’s not funny. Generally, though, be aware of what you’re saying to certain people. The most annoying thing is hearing the same thing from a hundred different people. If I tell you I’m from LA, don’t ask if celebrities grow on trees. If you meet someone from Canada, please avoid “eh?” at all costs. If someone tells you they’ve been raped, don’t ask them what they were wearing.

4. Pick your battles.

Getting into a tiff with your manager or coworker over something petty like product placement or how to do something basic isn’t worth anyone’s time or attention. Saying, “Okay!” is the easiest thing if you arrest your ego. Not to mention, you earn bonus points for having a good attitude or whatever. Similarly, if you’re in a discussion with a lover or friend over something menial and notice the road of conversation getting bumpy, if you feel that it’ll cost you nothing to acquiesce then just do it. No one will even remember in an hour.

5. Punctuality

Frankly, people have lives to live. There’s nothing more annoying than looking forward to the end of your shift only to find out that your relief is running late. If you say you’re going to be somewhere at some when, be there and then. Otherwise you look bad.

6. There’s always something nice to say.

Almost no matter what, there’s always an innocent piece of flattery to express. It makes people feel good and they warm up to you, not to mention that by constantly looking for some positive thing about a person, you’re less inclined to be negative yourself. It’s a great way to put you in the right frame of mind for dealing with almost anyone. You don’t have to overdo it but, “Hey, I really like your shirt, where did you get it?” will take you far.

7. People might not automatically empathize.

Before I worked retail, I never gave my in-store behavior much thought. After my experience in the trenches of petty interpersonal warfare, I try to do my best to minimize my impact. If I pull a shirt off a hanger and decide I don’t want it, I hang it back up. It’s a small action that takes the most negligible amount of my time as a customer. But employees usually have many other things to deal with, something you can only reflexively appreciate if you yourself have had to hang hundreds of clothes in the fitting room because customers tried on 20 things, bought two, and left the rest on the floor. So, if ever you’re in a discussion and someone isn’t quite understanding where you’re coming from, take a step back and appreciate that you two don’t have the same experiences so you’ll have to explain.

8. People often don’t see what’s right in front of them.

“Hey, where are your socks?” “Right behind you.” Or, almost more bizarre, when people hand you their credit card when there’s a card reader two inches from their hand. Whether they looked and missed it or didn’t bother looking at all, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where people haven’t noticed the obvious. Point it out to them graciously.

9. Have perspective.

At the end of the day, if something goes awry in retail, the world will spin on as it should. The building won’t catch fire and you’ll go home at the end of the day. It’s easy to be at work and make a logistical or coworker issue into some huge vendetta but do you really want to be someone who’s so compromised over things like discount sweaters and cash register bullshit? No, you don’t. That person is terrible at parties. This perspective leads you to having

10. Patience.

It’s the most versatile trait to have. You can’t rush a customer without being rude. When you first start working retail, you take a deep breath and grit your teeth through it. After a while, you realize that being upset that things aren’t moving at your pace is a waste of energy and puts everyone around you in a tense mood which, in retail, could lead to a host of issues. If ever you find yourself impatient, ask if there’s anything you can do about it within that moment. If there’s nothing you can do to politely speed things along, then take a step back and get comfortable wherever you are. Whether it’s a physical place or an emotional one.