4 Harsh Realities About Working at a Thrift Store
Cracked has had articles from some pretty wild sources -- doctors, child stars, spies -- but I know what you've all been thinking this whole time: "When are we going to hear from someone who worked at a thrift store?!"
That time is now, my babies.
I worked at a very popular thrift chain, the name of which has been removed because I don't actually know anything about the law and have no idea if what I'm doing might blow this whole operation wide open. Just to be on the safe side. I might not end up unveiling a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, but I bet I've got one or two things about working in a thrift store that might surprise you.
The Wealthiest Customers Are the Worst
This might come as a shock to some of you, but did you know that sometimes having lots of money turns a person into a huge dick? It's true! Many wealthy people have no true concept of poverty and, well-bred though they may be, often delight in patronizing people whose lives are already hard enough as a way of re-affirming their financial and douchebag superiority. Working at a discount store leads even middle-class customers to either treat you like a discount human or an exciting foreign adventure, like, "Hey Bertrand, wouldn't it be a lark if, just this once, we vacationed on one of the not secret islands that only rich people know about? I'm serious, let's go to the Bahamas or Jamaica; we'll be slumming it just like the poor! Ah, the poor."
"Oh, honey, isn't this just like if we were on The Wire? I'm such an Omar!"
The thrift store I worked at was in a really wealthy neighborhood, so obviously we got a solid handful of rich, bored housewives who'd come in out of idle curiosity for how the other half lives (spoiler alert, rich people: not as well as you). The wealthy customers would talk to me as if being around donated clothes meant that I was also some kind of discount, donated human. One such woman sneered when I told her an Abercrombie shirt was $2.99, because she expected it to be free, apparently. After I finished ringing her up, she stood by the register and pointed out every dismal aspect of our store like a judgmental stepmother.
"Where am I supposed to park my nice car or my tiny dog? And what
about OTHER stereotypes about rich people? What about THOSE?!"
If they're not being rude and judgmental, they're just taken by how positively quaint the idea of a thrift shop is. Another clearly rich woman was totally enthralled by how "cute" all our recycled, dusty clothes and barely-making-rent employees looked. She was really curious about my life, totally amazed that I was in school, even complimentary about how well I socialized with her. She looked at me with sad, sympathetic eyes like I was a toddler in a Russian orphanage and she was Angelina Jolie.
I can't decide which is worse: being openly thought of as a shit stain on society's otherwise perfect silk tapestry or being treated like an alien in a laboratory -- fascinating, yet still very much different and intrinsically inferior.
A quiet majority of our customers, however, were people looking to steal.
Theft Is a Huge Non-Problem
The way our system was set up, unless a customer was the worst thief in the world, there was no way we could actually stop them. There's no barcode system to track our inventory -- we had to manually count everything once a month. We had cameras, but those were to watch the employees, not the customers. We were supposed to have plain-clothes anti-theft people wander the store, but we were in a nice neighborhood, so they only ever came in to train new police academy dropouts.
"If you see anyone taking anything just start making Michael Winslow noises."
An ongoing problem my store had was that we never had enough people on the floor to do everything our jobs entailed. (Surprise! Not a lot of people sign up to work at thrift stores, and most stores don't have enough money to pay the amount of employees they need!) We had to put out 800 items per employee for an 8-hour shift on top of letting customers into fitting rooms and checking on them so they don't steal, working the register on the exact opposite side of the store, helping customers find things, and keeping the store tidy. Even splitting all of that between two people (which is all we ever had on the floor), you still find yourself constantly rushing like a chicken with its head cut off who's also high on crack.
In my particular store, the only time we ever caught someone stealing, it happened by accident. A very drunk guy brought his stuff up to the register to buy a single shirt. The hat he was wearing had our price tag on it. When I pointed it out to him, he lifted his arm to take off the hat and I saw his shirt had another one of our price tags on it. I pointed that out to him too. He went to reach into his bag where his original shirt was, presumably forgetting the hat and shirt weren't his, and when he opened the bag, I saw another one of our price tags inside it. He took off the shirt and hat at the register and walked out topless, leaving his original shirt inside the bag on the counter. And thus, my career as a crime fighter began and then abruptly ended.
Criminals are a superstitious and half-naked lot.
The Pay Is Terrible
The risk of injury at most thrift stores is less of an "if" and more of a "when." We risked spider bites, inhaling mold spores, needle pricks, tetanus -- you name it. That means a larger portion of your check goes to workers compensation. Coming from a background of retail jobs, I expected about $120 a week working part-time, but every paycheck I got seemed curiously light. Sure, I'd get workers comp if injured. The only problem is that usually rejects your insurance provider and makes you use the one that's run by itself.
So a noticeable portion of your paycheck goes straight back to the source, because it's better for their bottom line. Plus, they operate on an "at will" employment model, meaning they can fire you for whatever reason and you can't do shit about it because you signed a contract. So if you do get injured and can't go to work for two weeks, you're probably going to get fired, but they can cite other reasons about your job performance pre-injury.
"You once referred to capris as shorts. You can take that bullshit to Walmart. Good luck with the hernia."
One day, the anti-theft team came to our store and seized the computer that recorded all of our camera footage in a sweep involving six other stores. More than half of our employees were called to the main office, where they were accused of a variety of stupidly harmless things that don't jive with the store's dictatorial policy. One of my co-workers got fired because footage showed him wearing pants from off the rack that he didn't pay for. But there was a good reason for that: he came to work in dark jeans that didn't fit dress code. Our manager said he should get a pair of slacks off the floor and wear those. Even though he put them back after his shift, this guy got fired for doing what he was told to do by his boss. I should have been fired too, because I once wore a blue shirt that my manager said was more green than blue (I'm wearing it now and it's totally blue, Michelle). She told me to get a blue shirt off the floor and wear it for the rest of my shift. I ended up forgetting to change out of it and took it home. I didn't get fired because I was new. In retrospect, I should've done a whole bunch of bad stuff simply because they'd excuse it as me not knowing any better.
"You said to clean the store. Isn't the register part of the store?"
Everyone else that got called into the main office got fired for "stashing." When a really dope item gets donated, our policy practically ensures no employee will have a fighting chance at buying it: staff can buy an item only after it's been on the floor for at least 24 hours. So, when an employee wants to buy something, sometimes another employee will price it and keep it in the stockroom until the date on the price tag passes the 24-hour mark. When the employee who wants the item is off work, they come in and another employee will casually put the item out on the floor for the employee who wants to buy it. According to store logic, being able to buy donated stuff using your employee discount is super illegal unless 24 hours has passed. We're all going to hell, but the employees who skirt that rule are going to Super Hell.
"Hope your cardigan was worth it."
This is a company that, to be clear, often "forgets" to give drug tests because it acknowledges that most of the people who would want to work there would fail. It's a company that, at least in my time, "forgot" to give someone a background check (that person ended up using a fake name to get hired in the first place). But don't you dare try to buy donated goods at a discount in a timely manner you underpaid monster.
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