5 Ways Working in Retail Made Me a Better Person

Nothing like being up to your elbows in Bully Sticks to give you some perspective on life.

Jun 24, 2014 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

I will fully admit that I used to be a retail snob. 
 
Once I landed my first job with an office at just 20, I think I looked at working in retail as a job people took when they couldn't do anything else. 
 
And it wasn't the shop owners -- I was thinking about the paid workers who rang up purchases and talked up customers about the products the owner decided to stock. When I was a too-big-for-my-britches 20-year-old, I think I looked at the woman behind the counter at my favorite pet shop as someone who was very nice, and who I enjoyed chatting with, but as a person who was probably UNABLE to get a better, PROFESSIONAL job. 
 
Looking back on my 20-year-old self, I want to take her by the shoulders and say, "YOU WILL BE THE PET SHOP LADY. AND IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE IN WAYS YOUR SNOTTY LITTLE BRAIN CANNOT COMPREHEND RIGHT NOW."
 
I don't know where I got off being so high and mighty. One of my mom's numerous jobs to keep us afloat when I was a kid was the local Pay 'n' Save. That job made it possible for me to have almost zero understanding of "want" throughout my childhood. 
 
But somewhere along the way, with all the emphasis on being better than my humble beginnings, I acquired a sense of quiet entitlement. Sure, it was okay to work in a restaurant or a store when you were in your teens or 20's -- which I did -- but working in such a place as an adult was just not something an educated, intelligent, driven person did. 
 
I feel a little gross writing these words now, but to be honest, that was how I felt.
 
I'm now on the other side of things. For most of my time in Hawai'i, a retail job kept me afloat. It gave me a steady paycheck when the freelance "career" jobs weren't coming in. It gave me a community when I had none. More than anything, my retail job gave me a greater understanding of what it means to never judge a book by its cover.
 
Basically, working in retail, while frustrating and humbling (nothing like being up to your elbows in Bully Sticks to give you some perspective on life), opened me up. I didn't always love it, but it changed me. 
 
As I've now left my pet store retail job for another adventure in another place, I'd like to offer a few things I've learned from the other side of the cash register. 
 
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A photo from back in the day. Your friendly neighborhood pet supply store worker. 

 
1. Hard work comes in many different forms.
 
Before I worked in retail, I thought, "How hard could it be?" 
 
You stock some shelves, you get to use that fun price gun, you get to chat up customers -- cake! Most certainly it had to be easier than being in office that required writing reports, attending meetings, creating budgets, or overseeing interns. 
 
And while yes, retail work is not necessarily as stressful as many other jobs, it doesn't make the work any less difficult. There is no single definition of "hard work."
 
Staying up to date on products, handling sometimes thousands of dollars in transactions in a day, carrying giant bags of dog food to people's cars, stocking our store room with hundreds of pounds of said dog food and supplies when a delivery came in -- all with a smile for the customers -- was exhausting both physically and mentally. 
 
When I worked in an office, my work was definitely hard, but I could find time to hide at my desk, or pop out for a long lunch. I didn't always have to be on
 
On a busy day in the pet store, I had to learn a different sort of endurance. When my customers would say, "Your job looks like so much fun!" I often wanted to answer, "It's because we're being professional, and part of our job is to make it look that way." (Okay fine, sometimes it was fun. When feeding treats to dogs is part of the job, it's hard to complain.)
 
I quickly learned that while a job may be simple and straightforward, it doesn't mean that talent isn't required. Making it look fun is part of that talent. Retail redefined professionalism for me. 
 
2. Don't be too quick to judge who is on the other side of the register.
 
This goes for both workers and customers. 
 
My associates at the store were ex-lawyers, struggling writers/artists like me, ex-Fortune 500 investors, college students, and surf dudes. You'd never be able to guess who was who. Somehow we had all found our way to this store because it was right for us, and for many of us, it was a way to transition away from a career that had been unfulfilling.
 
While most of my customers were pretty great, there was always the few who spoke to me like I was stupid. It really bothered me at first, as I like to fancy myself smarter than the average bear, but over time it amused me. 
 
Just like my 20-year-old self, those people thought they had me pegged. I learned very quickly that you never know who you're talking to. 
 
The ditzy, chirpy young woman with the adorable bulldog mix who came in to buy hundred dollar bags of dog food, I quickly judged to be living on the dole and frankly, kind of a dummy. Turns out, after chatting with her on a slow day, she worked three jobs to not only put herself through business school, but also so that she could feed her beloved dog the only food that didn't make his highly allergic stomach sick. 
 
"I love him so much, he is the only constant in my life. I don't have any family but I have him. If I have to work extra hard to keep him happy and healthy, I'll do it."
 
And because I'm an obsessive truth-teller, I told her right then and there that I had misjudged her and that I was sorry. She just laughed and said, "Oh, everyone does! I just do my thing."
 
Lesson learned. 
 
3. When in doubt, it doesn't kill you to be kind.
 
I'll admit it, I'm not always exactly a bouquet of kittens. 
 
I can be cranky, impatient, and I take to heart the saying, "If you ask a stupid question, you'll have to call an ambulance because my eyes will be stuck rolled up in the back of my head."
 
But I can't tell you how many times I swallowed my snark, forced myself to be kind to a customer, and lo and behold I felt good. Really good. 
 
Just being NICE to someone, until they give me a real reason to treat them otherwise, has been a huge lesson for me to learn. Everyone has their crap to deal with, you don't necessarily know what a person is going through when they walk through your door. 
 
Defaulting to kindness in my daily dealings and trying to give people the benefit of the doubt has been a remarkably uplifting exercise for me. 
 
4. Sometimes people are butt-heads, but that doesn't mean they get to ruin your day.
 
Any person who has worked in a customer service job is familiar with the kind of jerks that you encounter. 
 
People yell at you, belittle you, treat you like their servant -- and then expect you to be grateful for their patronage. Hulk SMASH, am I right?
 
Working in retail, particularly in upscale retail, I encountered more than my fair share of people who felt it was absolutely within their right to treat me badly. Early on, I'd spend a good part of my day after an encounter feeling just BAD about myself. 
 
With all my piss and vinegar, I'm actually a pretty sensitive person, and sometimes all it took was a person calling me "incompetent" or asking to see my manager to make me feel like I was THE WORST. 
 
But somewhere along the way I discovered the uselessness of dwelling. More and more I'm learning to let things go. That doesn't necessarily mean numbly allowing asshats to trample all over me -- there is always an appropriate way to stand up for oneself. It does mean is that when somebody is nasty to me, I have some control as to how it affects me. 
 
As soon as an unkind customer walks away, I become a memory to them, nothing else. Why should they be anything more to me?
 
Just because you're working in service to someone, doesn't mean you have to lose your dignity. 
 
5. YOU choose how to define yourself.
 
For so long I defined myself by my job. 
 
I staked my worth in how I brought a paycheck home. And while I came to terms with working in retail, and even embraced it, I still at times struggled with the question, "Is THIS who I am?" 
 
NO. 
 
I'm still muddling through this, but after working at a job that very few people are "impressed" by, the definition of who I am has expanded to go beyond what people think of me, to what I think of myself. 
 
Who I am, my worth, is not dictated by a job description. This is true for me, this is true for the people around me. 
 
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Remember how I don't take good pictures? Where did my eye go?

 
And those are my life lessons from the pet shop. I realize, all things considered, I had a really good experience. I was fortunate to have bosses who valued me, and co-workers I largely respected and admired. You don't get that with every job -- retail or not.
 
And my younger self would be shocked to read this, but I feel so lucky to have had this job. 
 
Have any of you ever worked in retail? Do you currently? What was/is your experience? Any lessons learned? 
Posted in Relationships, work, jobs, retail