Climbing The Ladder

4 Major Life Lessons I Only Learned From Working In Retail

By | Monday, March 13, 2017

Just before my sixteenth birthday, almost exactly a decade ago, I came home from school on a normal, Thursday to be told by my mom, “I spoke to Mary who runs the shop. You start on Monday.”

And that was how I got my first retail job. “The shop” was my local convenience store, selling predominantly milk, cigarettes, cheap vodka, and energy drinks. About 75% of our customers were perfectly clean and polite, but the remaining 25% were alcoholics, drug addicts and/or lacked all skill in personal hygiene. It was certainly a learning experience. I worked in the shop for about four years. I’ve also had several other retail jobs: supermarkets, petrol stations, clothing stores, and The Body Shop.

When I graduated and started working in childcare, I thought my retail days were finally over. Wrong! In June 2015, I moved home “temporarily” to save some money. I got my job back in the shop, and then somehow accidentally started working as lecturer in my local college, but it’s not quite a full-time position…so I still work in the shop. If you told me a decade ago that at age 26, I’d still be living in the same bedroom I lived in as a teenager, working in the same job, and with almost the same group of friends, I’d have cried my heart out. The truth is, now I’m here, I wouldn’t change a thing.( Okay, maybe a few less smelly customers.)

Most of the reason I wouldn’t change anything is because I have learned so much from a decade of working in retail. Some things are obvious — people skills, handling money, balancing work and school. But there are some things I learned while running around after customers that have had a particularly big impact on me.

1. How (and why) to befriend an angry customer

In the earliest days of my retail career, I dealt with a lot of difficult customers. I’m not exactly a shy person, and I’m a redhead with a very hot temper. I may or may not have told one particularly annoying lady, who wanted a whole plastic bag just for a packet of 10 Marlboro, to fuck off. Whenever my boss would tell me to learn to “stay calm,” I’d laugh. No way was I putting up with shit from anyone — customer or not. They would be polite and reasonable, or I’d tell them to fuck off — it was that simple.

Obviously, my retail career would have been short-lived had I not discovered that there is, in fact, a way of retaining control of a situation without getting in an altercation. I don’t know if I could explain exactly what that way is, but it has something to do with the old “kill ‘em with kindness” technique. It’s very difficult to fall out with someone who is being kind, patient, and attentive with you. Nowadays, when customers are spitting fire because the price of Smirnoff Ice has doubled, I’ve learned to convince them I fully empathize, and I too am gutted Smirnoff Ice is so expensive. Can I suggest the cheaper stuff instead? I smile and nod and soothe, and eventually they calm down, buy something, and leave.

Much later, when I began working as a lecturer, that same skill came in handy. Some of my students are as young as 16, and lots of them come from difficult backgrounds and have behavioral problems, low self-esteem, or a general tendency to fly off the handle. It’s easy to plan an activity that you think seems harmless enough, only to get ten minutes into a lesson and find you’ve unwittingly started World War III. In those moments, I instinctively kick back into “retail mode,” and my pacifying voice comes out.

That’s not to say I pretend to empathize with my students, because most of the time, I genuinely do understand what they’re going through. However, staying calm and collected while someone shouts and throws chairs is definitely something I learned in retail.

2. The power of showing a genuine interest

When you deal with people day in and day out, it’s easy to switch to autopilot. Would you like a bag? Do you need the receipt? I used to find myself having these weird moments that were like coming out of a trance: I would look at the customer in front of me and think, I have no recollection of scanning all that shopping. They would be answering a question I didn’t remember asking, and I would be wondering why my screen was telling me to give the customer £20 cash-back when I didn’t remember typing that into the till. It happened more and more often, and it actually frightened me that I could “lose” whole hours just working on autopilot. I decided to make a concerted effort to pay attention at all times.

When I did, rewarding things began to happen. I made friends with an older lady named Kathy, who always buys a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a six-pack of Whiskas cat food. She struggles to carry her shopping, so I carry it outside to her car and put it in the back seat for her. Last year, she bought me a box of chocolates at Christmas to say thank you, and she always tells me that one day I’ll be rewarded for being such a good girl. Around the same time, I also made friends with a man I call “two number fives,” because he always buys two number five scratch cards. No one knows his real name — and we know everything about every one of our customers — because other than to ask for scratch cards, he never speaks. I made a point of being extra nice to him, because now that I was paying proper attention to what was going on around me, I realized he looked like a lonely sort of person. A year and a half after I first met him, I was putting his newspapers in a bag for him and he spoke.

“Did you have a nice weekend?” I was shocked. So was my colleague. He never spoke, and yet here he was, asking about my life. He also wished me a Merry Christmas a few months later, and began to talk a little whenever I served him (although I still haven’t learned his name).

I can’t explain how rewarding it feels when you connect with someone in that way. For some people, especially older people, you may be the only person they speak to that day, or even that week. You can make a huge difference just by paying attention — a little eye contact, a smile, acknowledgement. Making them feel like they’re not a burden, or like you haven’t said “how’s your day been?” to fifty thousand other people that day, and seeming like you’re actually interested in their response will have a big impact on them. It’s difficult, no doubt about it, and I definitely still find myself slipping into autopilot occasionally, but I’m so glad I decided to pay attention to the people around me, because it’s made my job 100x more satisfying.

3. It’s extremely difficult to get your financial shit together on minimum wage

When I earned minimum wage, it was all I could do to pay my bills. Any time I did have a little extra, I blew it all on nights out or cheap holidays, not because I was irresponsible, but because I was miserable. I was staring down the barrel of a lifetime of not having enough to get by on, and the furthest ahead I could think was the next pay day. When it got to the last weekend of the month and I still had £20, it would always cross my mind that I should do something “good” with it — invest it or save it or something. But then £20 a month over the span of a year was still less than £250, plus I couldn’t always manage to save that £20. And what the hell was the point in saving a measly £200 a year? Where would that get me? Hence, I’d spend it all on vodka & red bull.

It’s easy to look down our noses at the poor, to show them the math and use it as a stick with which to beat them — “If you took the money you spend on cheap energy drinks and invested it at an average of 8% per annum for 40 years blah blah blah!” But what people don’t talk about is the fact that knowing how to become rich and actually being able to do it are two different things. Because when you live in such a way that you spend 29 days of every month dealing with the fact that the most exciting thing you can afford to do is watch TV with a pot noodle, I defy you not to spend that last £20 getting shit faced in a crap nightclub once a month to drown your sorrows.

4. How to straddle the line between humility and self-worth

There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from low-paid work: at the end of the month, you feel like you properly earned your money, it keeps you humble, and it also keeps you connected to the community you work in. But, spend long enough doing it, and it becomes who you are. I was always so proud of not being one of those people who needs a fancy job or fancy clothes to feel valuable. “Look at me!” I’d think, “I’m confident and happy and I stack shelves for a living while being unable to afford a car. That’s real confidence!” I based my identity on being the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and didn’t need to feel a sense of superiority over others in order to feel worthy. That might be admirable, but it was also limiting.

It was limiting because it fostered a negative attitude towards “success” (a decent wage, good standard of living) that I couldn’t disengage from. Like, I wanted that kind of success, but I didn’t want to be that kind of person. When I started earning more money, I actually made a big effort not to look like I was earning more money — which was good, because it meant most of my money went into savings, but from a psychological point of view it was ridiculous. And all of this is still on-going: it’s a battle with myself I haven’t won yet. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m “too good” for retail — I’m not too good for a bit of scanning toilet rolls, or a bit of cleaning shelves, and I’m definitely not too good to be friends with my colleagues. However, what I’m slowly having to face is the cold hard truth that if I want success, if I want a rewarding career and a higher income — and I do! — then sooner or later, I will have to accept that I am too good for low-paid work. We all are.

Now that I have graduated into better-paid work, I can emphatically say that there is a definite link between how much we are paid, and how valuable we feel. While I think that anyone out there earning a wage should be given credit where it’s due — whether they are brain surgeons or sales assistants — it is unfortunately very true that spending your days “serving” behind a till and being paid barely anything for it makes you feel worthless.


I’m not sure how much longer I’ll work in retail. I’ve made the mistake before of thinking I’m finally free of the tills, and then ended up right back behind them. It used to bother me, but now I realize that there was more to learn behind those tills, more I needed to understand. Or maybe there was no such “grand plan,” and it was just bad luck. Who really cares either way? At the end of the day, I have learned valuable life lessons from my retail experience, and while in some ways my enjoyment of retail is probably holding me back, I will always have a soft spot for scanning toilet rolls and telling customers to fuck off.

Naomi is a lecturer and incurable dreamer from the most northerly town on mainland Britain. She likes yoga, hot tea, the feeling you get when snow is in the air, and death metal. She doesn’t do social media because she’s easily sucked into the black hole of news feeds and would never get anything done.

Image via Unsplash

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