What I Learned Working Retail

Many jobs in the customer service industry are undervalued and underappreciated, even though they are essential jobs. Since the pandemic began, we have started to see just how essential many customer service jobs are, as many employees had to continue working throughout the pandemic. Despite this, these essential workers continue to be undervalued and often do not receive livable wages. This past summer, I worked at a large retail store as an associate. Working there taught me a lot about retail and the overall challenges and experiences of having a customer service job. 

woman wearing sunflower dress and face mask Photo by Zach Vessels from Unsplash

Working retail this summer was, of course, very different because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the mornings before work, we would have to fill out a symptom survey and then get our temperature checked. There were plexiglass barriers between customers and employees at checkout. After every few customers, we would use hand sanitizer and wipe down the counter and check-out area.  

My first few days were overwhelming, with many things I needed to keep memorizing. Before starting, I was under the impression that I would pick up working at the cash register after one or two days, but it took several days, if not weeks, to be completely comfortable. It was not just ringing customers up for check out, but it also included returns, coupons, and rewards cards. There was a lot to learn.

Customer service jobs are often viewed as “unskilled labor,” which I have come to believe is an erroneous term considering how much skill is needed with these jobs. People in customer service are often on their feet all-day stocking shelves and dealing with discourteous customers who look down on them. The term “unskilled labor” is often used because there is no need for a college degree. However, it is flawed to think jobs that require a college degree automatically require more skill, and people who obtain them are more skilled and competent.

This is our happy place neon sign Photo by Dan Smedley from Unsplash

The people who worked retail with me this summer were some of the hardest workers I have ever met who were of all ages and backgrounds and came from countries worldwide. Many of these people had worked there for years. Over time, they received higher positions and became experts at helping different kinds of customers, obtaining rewards cards, and effectively communicating with other staff members to create a healthy workplace. The work was not easy and certainly not unskilled. 

Cam Morin via Unsplash

When I worked in customer service, there were far more positive interactions than negative ones. However, when there was an unpleasant interaction with a customer, it could sometimes overpower the good interactions. I believe it is important for people to remember that most people in customer service jobs want to help the customer as much as possible. If there is ever a situation where something can not be done, it is likely not the employee’s intention, and it is likely out of their control. However, some people do not understand this, try to ask for something against store policy, and then get upset when we cannot comply.

We should always be kind to everyone, but especially during a pandemic, being friendly can go a long way.

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