The Reality of Working Retail

I assume you’ve been clothed at least once in your life and so have at least a vague idea of what retail is. Acquiring clothes is a task that has transformed greatly over the years. Where once they were pieces we cherished and preserved, they are now things we consume and discard at an alarming rate. I’m sure the ecological ramifications of this aren’t totally unknown to you. How this affects the people that work within the store seems to be something that is completely overlooked. On at least your single occasion of buying clothes you saw numerous options. If you shop with any regularity, you’ll see that those choices change frequently. You know there is a clearance section in the back corner and new product right up front. Changes are constant.

So is the work.

You may have rightly assumed such. If things are constantly moving someone must be moving them. You are correct. Someone moves the product off the truck, someone then sorts that product so that it goes to the proper areas of the store, someone takes that and sorts it onto the floor. But it continues. What if there is already too much on the floor? Then the extra must go in, what the public assumes is, the infinite ‘back.’ This is not a simple task however. The items must all be scanned and their place recorded. It doesn’t take overly long, but this is one task of dozens. What if there is too little on the floor and none came on the truck? You must go to the back, hope the last person recorded where they put the thing, and move it onto the floor. If new product has arrived the old must be moved. Where? If it is the last of a product it can’t go to the back, the people must see it. It is shuffled about on the floor that is already stuffed. Often the plans you are given on how to move these things are incomplete or have forgotten entire products that you now have to find a place for on your own. Again, not a difficult task, but one that can take quite some time. The moving continues. All the while you doing the previously mentioned, product magically falls to the floor or onto displays or into entirely different areas of the store. That task alone can be a shift’s worth of work. And before you do any of this you must dust every surface and wipe every mirror.

If you work quickly you can accomplish all of your tasks on a typical day. However…. Management. Oh management. Compelled by corporate they require that you memorize sales goals that change daily. You must be able to regurgitate current sales and deals and know what is selling best even though the product choices change weekly, sometimes daily. The place I worked had additional tasks. You had to drop everything and cashier if the lines became too long. If a customer needed to find something at the other end of the store you had to drop everything and help them find it (personally I loved this policy even when it made finishing everything impossible some days). If you found detached tags you had to record what you found and where and when you found it.

All of this could have been tolerable, and usually was. Even though customers would scream that you were terrible at your job because you couldn’t find something. Disregarding that you looked for 30 minutes and someone had put it behind the frozen peas on the opposite side of the store for who knows what reason. You get screamed at for not having the proper response to thank you. You’re welcome suffices for some, no problem is acceptable for others but get it wrong and they talk to your manager and give you a death stare for ten minutes as they watch to see what you say to the rest of the customers. (Both of these examples actually happened.) But sometimes people are just having a bad day so we try to be as forgiving as we can, even through the tears.

The thing that caused it to be intolerable wasn’t the ridiculous and growing workload, the disrespectful customers, or even the occasional vomit mop up, it was the attitude of anyone in a higher position. I understand you take your job seriously; I understand that you worked for your promotion, but damn. I was disheartened to watch a coworker that had recently been promoted fall prey to the same attitude. Slowly their productivity dropped and their demand on others rose. Their tone became more and more condescending… They had been so nice at first. Someone I had considered befriending, inviting to events, but not anymore. I began to notice other coworkers avoiding them too. It was sad.

At one point I even heard someone in an upper position blatantly say they didn’t care about entry level employees. It was not said in hushed tones. It was not said in a private office. They didn’t care who heard. “I don’t care….If you don’t like-You can leave. There’s a million more just like ya. I really don’t care.” I was shocked. It was said so brazenly. Going back to work after that took some extra effort.

This all results in a work force that cycles through at an alarming rate. Most workers are fairly new. They are still learning which direction to hang clothes, what order things have to be done in, and what the codes mean. This means things can take a little longer. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except, there is no time. The hours available are dictated by corporate and they don’t care how many new people you have. The sales were this, the profit was this, your hours are this. Often meaning that the hours you needed last week when it was busy you will get in two weeks. Greater assumptions are made of new hires. It is assumed that you have retained something after being told it once. Often you simply aren’t trained. At my last location it was common practice to tell new employees that you were there for orientation, promised you’d watch the safety videos and once you signed the paperwork stating that yes I do know how to do things safely you were shoved onto the floor with a two minute summary of what the job was and a promise that you’ll ‘learn as you go.’ I thought this was a rare thing, as I had worked retail previously but I was assured by those that had never worked retail before that they had all had the same experience.

So, when you shop realize that the person you are talking to probably wasn’t trained much, has 5 hours of work to do in 4 hours and has managers telling them they don’t matter. The back is not infinite. We are trying our best. Retail is treating its workers like machines more and more. If you could give them a smile, a little extra patience… Sometimes that’s all it takes to make our day.

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