On The Record: Working In Retail


You can always tell if someone ever worked in retail or not by how they treat salespeople. Everyone should be required to work as a clerk at a store during the holiday season at least once in their lives, experience the physically and mentally exhausting work that follows, which also requires you to at least create the illusion of remaining chipper and unconditionally friendly throughout.

Only those who have worn the name tag understand that when you go to a store, you’ve left the real world. You’re  in an alternate dimension, designed to get you to open your wallet or purse and leave behind as much money as you have on you, in exchange for a few baubles and widgets. The people at a store wouldn’t always prefer to initiate a relationship with you based on almost complete and unconditional acceptance of what you say to them, an abject stranger with a favor to ask, if they hadn’t assumed a starring role in this little melodrama, in which you, the customer, are the star.

I spent decades in retail, and although this is only my second Christmas season that I haven’t been in those trenches, I may yet find myself there again. Much like Liam Neeson, I have a certain set of skills that make me particularly adept at a task, only instead of tracking people down and beating them to death, I happen to be good at a certain brand of easy going diplomacy,  maybe a little subtle charisma, and perhaps most importantly, knowledge and enthusiasm beyond my years for many different kinds of music. Running a music store, albeit one coasting inside of major national bookstore chain instead of busting and risking my ass building Rocko’s Records, proved to be my path of least resistance in life, keeping the rent paid for the duration of my young adulthood.

When I look at the glory days of around 2004, I still get a warm, bourbon warmth inside. Even though the music industry was in decline and the competition was fierce among the brick and mortars, fighting for the last scraps in a post apocalyptic (Well, post itunes) world, I was hanging in there, keeping the numbers good. Sales might not be so hot when the weather was, I would spend a lot of days doing something close to nothing around mid July, but coming into the Holiday season, it got to be my time to get my shine on. There’s an undeniable comfort to knowing that you did something, got something right. Somebody got something they needed. I got a little job security out of the sale, and maybe upper management will leave me alone and let me stock my store in a way that would bring the sales. I outlived 4 district managers, and with each new administration I had to prove myself all over again.

I was the man that could find the album with the guy from the, you know, that thing, oh what’s it called,  it was on that show. I was the guy who watched Oprah and TV I didn’t really want to watch, so I could know that Andrea Bocelli or Charlotte Church or someone was on, and I would order up extra copies and put them where you would see them. I was the guy who could answer the phone and handle the person who didn’t know for sure if I would have it but I’m “probably too young to know” while I was ordering that thing someone else couldn’t find for you as you stood before me, even as I’m also ringing up a line of customers. I’ve heard a lot of women say that men can’t multitask. Women who never saw me run a register.  Every holiday season, it was Game On.

Back then, Black Friday was an insider, industry term. It meant that if your sales were in the yellow, or even the red, you would soon take measures to get them into the black. Once the concept made it into the lexicon and zeitgeist of the public at large, the bloodlust for bargains grew ubiquitous. What chance does common courtesy, any sense of decorum stand when a mob of peckers want to buy a handful of merchandise at rock bottom prices?

I understood salesmanship innately. There’s not a tremendously long list of things in the world that I’m good at. I can’t throw a ball. I can’t balance a check book. Totally uncoordinated. Overweight. I wouldn’t describe myself as any sort of mental heavyweight. But if I have a product that I believe in, I will sell it to you. If you hire me to do that, you will make money. Proving that I could do that and being at it for years in a spot that was a short stop on life’s journey for most of the other employees meant that a few eccentricities of mine were tolerated. Since I didn’t want a promotion once I got the position I wanted, an unspoken understanding arose. I was granted latitude to bring my own attitude down from a latitude, because I could back it up with bucks. When corporate mandates regarding ill advised product placement and absurdly constructed “planograms” (If you know that word, you’ve worked retail) would come down, upper management usually kindly looked away as I usually disregarded it in favor of pushing things that sold. When customers I became friendly with came around, nobody made a fuss if I leisurely spoke with them during lulls, and was trusted enough to make the call. Nobody ever left empty handed, after all- if you weren’t gonna buy something, you knew better than to come around if you’re any friend of mine. It was a great arrangement for a long time.

It started to wear on me, though. This week, my town made the news because a woman acted in an exceedingly ugly way towards others while in line at a local mall store. The reactions have been the same: “Why did no one do anything? I would have done something!” Well, I hope that’s true, and I hope you would have,  but experience showed me most people let it go. The sad truth is, someone could attack you on the street,  right by your home, and people would be more inclined to record it than try to stop it. People don’t do anything until you call them on it. When you call them on it, they will usually do something, almost as if you just shook them and woke them up. Sometimes you can even get the offending party to check themselves. You can say “I need you to keep an eye on your kid, please,” or “I’m going to ask you to lower your voice,” or you can say “Thank you for your patience” to someone acting completely irrationally impatient. Otherwise, no, nothing. People behave badly, others observe and do nothing. I’ve seen it over and over and over again.20 years in retail taught me people don’t usually stand up when they should. People will say “Someone should do something!” all day. Rarely will they think of themselves as that somebody. You might call this cynicism. I call it pragmatism. If you don’t like it, and I hope you don’t, I hope you try being the change, because it gets dark out there.

Failing that, stores should train clerks to call a manager when this happens. Managers should be trained to ask the offending party why they are acting out, freeing the clerk to do their job. When they continue to act out for the benefit of the manager, the manager calls security, security makes them leave. Stores don’t have this line up of expectations, and they should. Direct from corporate: Do This. Here’s how you don’t end up on the news.

See, the person at the store, they’re not allowed to really defend themselves. They have to be nice to you. All a customer has to do is place a call and say “Your employee was mean to me,” and the circumstances cease to matter. The employee is in trouble. I’ll admit it- I got extremely good at a very sharp kind of passive-aggressiveness towards the nasty handful I would encounter. Judge me if you want, but when your hands are tied, you have no choice but to fight dirty in a scrap.

As Black Friday became more and more of a cultural phenomenon, as capitalism lost it’s luster, and as I got older and grew weary of the grind, the thrill was gone. Every year, there would be one person, a new one every time,  who would try me. Like the Ghost Of Christmas Past, someone would always cross a line and set my frazzled nerves on red alert. Someone who obviously never had to be on my side of the counter. Because the fact was, I was bluffing. I needed the gig, and the majority of people were OK or great, and you just had to put a face on it for the people that abused the situation.

So this year, don’t act terribly  when you go shopping. Don’t shop at 4 AM Black Friday next year. Don’t shop on Thanksgiving, certainly not on Christmas Day. Be patient. Don’t get mad if they say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas.” People at stores say that because they are trying to keep their day running as smoothly as possible. Everything that happens is on their head, and December in a store is exhausting. Physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting, even on a good day. Be nice. Act right. Because there but for the grace of God you are, the one without the name-tag on.