4 Surprisingly Positive Things I Learned Working In Retail

Retail on a sales associate level is often counted as unskilled labor. I don't mean your Kate Spade "muses," or your bored Givenchy reps who work on commission. I'm talking about your low-level, "Here's an employee handbook, don't wear shorts to work" bullshit sales associate. The people who blatantly lie about what earrings look good with the dress you're buying, and then politely ask "Is the receipt in the bag OK?" as they wish for death.

At the tender age of 21, I've worked a few retail jobs -- all of which will look essentially useless on my resume until I get scared enough by the harsh realities of my bank account to apply for holiday work at Macy's. That said, working in this soul-destroying field has taught me a thing or two. For example ...

#4. Patience

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I'm not an inherently patient person. Retail taught me the importance of being patient when a situation spirals out of your control, as they so often do. The world is a big place, and circumstances are dictated by God, fate, random chance, and whatever your inspirational or bitingly cynical Zazzle coffee mug says. You need to be able to take a deep breath and do your best to accept and work with what the world sends your way. Even if it sends a high-strung soccer mom demanding to know why you don't have more fitting rooms, as if you personally had a hand in designing and constructing the store.

Rather than sarcastically telling her that you don't have enough fitting rooms because you're hoping to make her late for her This American Life Green Tea Discussion group, now would be a good time to inhale and ponder just how many fitting rooms would be enough. What is enough? We're all doing our best to be enough.

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But real talk: I hope you die in that fitting room.

Not only is the world an unpredictable place, but your life is also fleeting. Change happens quickly and unannounced, and it's important to fully grasp how much of our lives are purely ephemeral.

Tibetan monks display this process through gorgeous works of art called sand mandalas. These are fractal designs laid out grain by grain, only to be wiped away quickly after completion, to "symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life."

I have never made a mandala, but I have made several holiday displays. I've painstakingly arranged knickknack after cutesy wineglass after dog costume into Pinterest-worthy displays of wasting your money, only to have four bored teenage girls wreck it all in five minutes.

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For your first few shifts, you might be tempted to go into a murderous rage and try to stab someone with a polka dot corkscrew designed to make wine moms feel cutesy about their alcoholism. However, take a minute to reflect on your current financial situation, and let that deaden your soul enough to remind you that change is inevitable and out of your control. We are all specks in the grand scheme of things, and this job is but a speck in the grand scheme of your life.

However, you better rebuild that shit right quick before your manager Carol returns from her lunch break. Carol, who is not as enlightened as you on the speck spectrum, operates on the idea that a speck on your file is called a demerit, and the accumulation of three of them is grounds for dismissal. No zen at all, that woman. She's kind of a drag.

But that's okay! In being forced to interact with hundreds of people each day -- only some of whom recognize that you are a real person -- you quickly develop ...

#3. People Skills

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You may think you know something about people, but you don't unless you're an anthropologist or spent a summer working in a mall. Every human is a special snowflake comprised of trillions of tiny, varying decisions and life circumstances that made them who they are. I don't believe that all people are the same. What I do believe is that people often act in incredibly similar ways in certain situations. Often, they act in similarly assholish ways.

This is why you have to unfriend your co-worker who won't stop sharing retail memes about people saying "There's no price tag ... is this free?" You might find that monotonous, but rest assured that memes are the only thing between them and hanging themselves with an Hermes scarf in the break room.

Totally kidding. There's no break room.

Anyway, you learn a lot about people by watching them idly have fun while you stand in uncomfortable flats for seven-hour shifts. When I worked for a chain retailer which we'll call Francesco's, I became wonderfully skilled at figuring out what guests wanted when they gave me the absolute shittiest information.

Going to a wedding, you say? No idea if it's indoors, outdoors, casual, anything? Excellent. Let me show you to a random assortment of dresses I have right over here. Not sure of your girlfriend's size? Can't give me any description of her body type, or what she likes in general? Fantastic. Let's stick with jewelry, because I literally cannot help you. Don't know your own fucking shoe size and want to be really rude about it? Not a problem, ma'am, right this way.

Sure, I'll check for those in the back. But just so you know, the back is a tiny storage closet where we keep our water cooler and extras of maybe 20 things in the store. Unless you're looking for my purse, a size 4 in a very popular dress, and/or the water cooler, I can assure you it's not in the back. But of course I'll check.

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And this is what I'll do when I'm back there.

As a self-defense mechanism against people treating you like shit all day, you get really good at being rude enough to shitty customers to keep yourself sane while also maintaining a facade of unfailing politeness so that they can't rat you out to the manager. The only reason I started giving a fuck about my eyebrows was because it made hate-smiling at customers more enjoyable for me. A delicate eyebrow arch and hate-smizing goes a long way.

The first page of my employee handbook was entirely about smiling in every situation possible, including on the phone. In order to do my job correctly, I have to smile at you, even if you're being a complete jackoff asshat. If you've never thought smiling could be a hateful gesture, you've never dealt with someone yelling at you about a 30-day return policy on the 31st day.

Hate-smizing also is a crucial skill when gross dads hit on you. Up until the point where they physically try to hurt you, you have to be friendly and bubbly, even if they're staring at your tits and asking you about lingerie you don't sell. They're probably the husband of the woman with the blonde "I yell at my son's teachers about his behavior" bob haircut from earlier. You still have to grin at them like you're just thrilled they're taking an interest in the store's products.

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Alice Jane Axness

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