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What I Learned Working in Retail

Like many people, my first ever job was in retail. From the ages of 15 to 18, I worked part time as a cashier at a drugstore. While I loved (most) of the people I worked with, the flexible hours, and the spending money, working in customer service also came with its fair share of difficulties. Dealing with customers is a difficult job for anyone, especially a shy 15-year-old, but the job taught me a lot of important skills and lessons. Here’s what I learned.


1. How to ask for help

Starting a new job can be really intimidating. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I was expected to remember. Operations on the cash register, store policies and product locations were thrown at me constantly during training and I felt the pressure to commit all of it to memory right away. This, of course, was not realistic, and when I was left to run the till on my own, I still had a lot of questions. At first, I tried to guess at how to do things and answer questions. This often resulted in mistakes, which required the help of my supervisor to fix anyway. I quickly learned that just asking for help in the first place would save me a lot of trouble and that there was no shame in needing help. So even if you feel like an inconvenience, remember that everyone was a newbie at some point and that your supervisor is there to help you.


2. How to fight through a hard day

In the wise words of Hannah Montana, “everybody has those days,” and unfortunately for many of us, we still have to go to work. Whether it’s something in your personal life, a particularly rude comment from a customer that’s stuck with you, or just a general bad mood, dealing with people when you’re having a bad day is not what most people want to be doing. Working in retail taught me how to fight through a bad day and remain composed on the job. During times I was finding it difficult to put on a happy customer service face, I would often try to take a few moments alone in the bathroom or lunch room to take some deep breaths and regain my composure. Taking an early lunch break or even finding an excuse to go for a walk and put something away also allowed me to take a much needed break from talking to people. While I absolutely recommend talking to your boss and taking a mental health day if you need it, sometimes a distraction is actually welcome. And hey—maybe a friendly customer or coworker will even brighten your day!


3. How to be a good customer

In my opinion, retail workers are some of the most underappreciated people. If you’ve never been in that position, it can be difficult to understand exactly how much cashiers and waitstaff have to put up with on a daily basis. Having dealt with it yourself certainly makes you more empathetic toward the people serving you or bagging your groceries. I always go out of my way to be friendly, avoid things that I know bother me (such as talking on the phone while going through a checkout), and make sure they know I appreciate their help.


4. How to carry myself like an adult and command respect

As a teenage girl, I often felt like adults didn’t take me seriously at work. Often, customers would look to my coworkers to confirm what I had told them, as if I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about. This was the first time I’d ever experienced sexism and ageism in such an obvious way and I found it really frustrating. Especially after working there for an extended period of time, it was unfair that a 30-year-old who had worked there for a month was seen as more reliable than me, an 18-year-old with three years of experience. At the end of the day, I had to realize that I couldn’t change these biases, but I did learn to carry myself in a way that commanded as much respect as I could possibly get from these people. Even demonstrating confidence by speaking louder and standing up straight can make a huge difference in how people perceive you.


5. How to listen

It always surprised me how much of their lives strangers were willing to share with me in the short amount of time it took me to ring up their purchases. People have always told me I have a quality that makes me easy to talk and open up to, but this was usually confined to people whose names I at least knew. So when customers began telling me about their personal lives and problems, it caught me off guard. What could I, a teenage girl, possibly say to console the old woman who was caring for her grandkids because their cocaine-addicted parents had left them? Or the couple who called my coworker by their late daughter’s name because she reminded them of her? After a while, I realized there was nothing I could say, so I just listened. I stood quietly while strangers poured their hearts out to me, and eventually I realized that was all they really needed: someone to listen.


6. The power of words

While it’s pretty much common sense that a conversation you have with someone has the power to make or break both of your days, I didn’t truly understand this until I had a job that required me to talk to strangers all day. From the sweet old ladies who would compliment my hair to the impatient people who swore at me for charging them for bags, each of my interactions with customers had a tremendous effect on my mood. I could see this working the other way, too. Giving a simple compliment or asking about someone’s day is always an easy way to strike up a conversation and make a stranger smile.


7. The customer service laugh

Finally, anyone who has ever worked in retail will be familiar with the customer service laugh. I’m talking about the polite fake smile and giggle that comes in handy when customers make comments like “it’s not scanning so it must be free.” Yes, we’ve all heard that one before, but usually it’s easier to laugh politely than tell them.


Sources: 1/2/3/4/5/6/7


Ashlee is a third year Creative Writing student, originally from Calgary(ish). When not drowning in writing assignments, she can be found drinking coffee or complaining about needing coffee. Her other hobbies include using reading to procrastinate, spending too much money in bookstores and reorganizing her bookshelves.
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