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Things I’ve learned from working in retail

I've been in retail for over a decade (even longer if you count my high school job and that gas station I worked at during my summers home from college). That's a long time compared to a lot of my coworkers and peers. Still, I'm grateful for all the experience I've had. Retail's been good to me. I've met some of my closest friends through my retail jobs, I've gotten some fun stories, and I've learned a lot. With that in mind, here are ten of the things I've learned from a decade in retail.

Things I’ve learned from working in retail

    1. Most employees just want to do their job, collect a paycheck, and go home

    Know what? That's not a bad thing. The world needs those folks. If everyone was motivated to take charge and lead the way, people would be butting heads far more than they already do. And honestly, I kind of wish I had the "show up, do work, go home" mindset.

    2. Hard work and results aren’t the biggest factor in promotion

    They matter, of course. And one can argue that they should be the only thing that matters. But that's not how it works in practice. How personable you are with management is important. How good you are with customers matters a whole lot, too. Those intangibles are easy to overlook. I used to downplay how much they matter.

    3. “Leadership” is a loaded word

    Big retails love that word. Smaller ones probably do, as well. Some businesses refer to their managers as "leaders". Others value "leadership" as an important value, but are often vague as to what that really means. Over the past decade, many of the best leaders I've worked with haven't been in a managerial role at all. And I've also seen my fair share of supervisors who lack genuine leadership ability.

    4. The customer is often wrong

    Talk to anyone with real retail experience, and they'll tell you "he customer is always right" is wrong. That doesn't mean the customer should be disrespected or such, but it does mean that it's not always the right idea to bend over backward to appease an angry customer. The customer deserves to be heard. The customer deserves to be treated with respect. And the customer deserves your best effort. But they can certainly be in the wrong.

    5. Being pleasant goes a long way…

    I've seen many people show up, be enraged, and eventually walk away either happy or not angry. Sometimes, just listening to people and being friendly is a quick way to erase their bad attitude.

    6. …and being honest will sometimes ruffle feathers.

    I make it a point to do my best to not lie. Partially because I don't want to have to go to confession for intentionally lying. But mostly because lying will--at some point--come back and bite you. Some truths are ones people don't want to hear ("We only sell the product, we do not offer tech support."). And others can make them outright angry ("We can't accept this return as you do not have the receipt"). In the end, I'll risk it as long as I'm being truthful.

    7. Being a perfectionist isn’t (usually) an option

    Whatever thing you're trying to do in retail, you can bet you're going to be interrupted multiple times when doing it. Or you'll be dragged away from it for so long that you won't be able to finish before you have to leave. It's not uncommon to have to hand off tasks or to not have time to put on the finishing touches to something. I'd love to be in a position where I can do everything I need to without interruption from customers or coworkers, but that ain't reasonable.

    8. Most upset customers can be calmed (but not all of them)

    Referencing back to point 5, sometimes people are so out of it, that no matter what you do, they're going to be angry.

    WORKER: "Yes, the box is dented, but it's the only one we have in stock. I can offer ten percent off if that's fine with you?"

    CUSTOMER: "How do I know you didn't dent the box in the first place?"

    Exchanges like that aren't uncommon in my experience, but you either grow a thick skin quickly or you get out of retail ASAP. Remember: The angry rude customers will never leave.

    9. Sometimes, the decisions you have to stick with don’t make any sense

    Retail hierarchy is weird. In all honesty, nobody can be an expert of all areas of a store (except for a small specialty store). Sometimes an order will come down the pipeline requesting you do something that makes no sense. At that time, it's either voice opposition or shut up and work. I've done both. I will continue to do both. "Pick your battles" applies here.

    10. It’s not a glamorous field, but it’s very possible to do good work and enjoy it

    Some people will enjoy their time in retail. I like to think that's me. Others will do it but whine the whole time. And some will show up, realize that the work is harder than they expected, and jump ship. Maybe some day I'll get out of retail. Until then, I think I'll continue to enjoy myself.

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