“I did work at a mall in college- I think working retail/customer service is one of the most hideous jobs in the world.” – Jayma Mays (Actress/Singer)
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks so. I have in worked in retail since high school, in almost every capacity. While I made some great connections while working at those places, the job of putting on a happy face and trying to help everyone is exhausting. And what made it worse? Even after I was at my job for two years and was trained as a manager, no one believed I, a young woman, knew anything.
They would ask to speak with the department managers, or in a few cases, ask if there was a man they could speak to. Both men and women have done this and are probably doing it somewhere right now, much to my chagrin. Most of us are familiar with this narrative, but unless you’ve worked a service job or talked intimately with someone who has faced these issues, you can’t imagine how retail employees feel trapped. I think it’s high time to shed a little light on this.
Every retailer store I’ve worked at uses the classic model “the customer is always right”. That’s not a bad way to treat people who have gotten a bum product or have questions, but it is very seldom true. The customer is not always right.
Correcting customers in the wrong is like herding cats. They could just go with it, they might realize what you’re trying to do, but most of them will go their own way or may snap at you. This creates fear of the customer, especially when they change very quickly.
You’re probably thinking, but wait, isn’t the company supposed to protect employees? Can’t management handle these situations?
Companies, say they can and managers can only handle so much and most of them aren’t even prepared to handle situations. Training videos might describe and demonstrate how to handle a grumpy customer or when to get a manager, but every situation is unique and management just can’t always be there. This creates both a feeling of independence and one of isolation.
Now for the most part there is hope—grumpy customers usually just vent or go to Customer Service or can be handed off to a department. The problem I have faced as a woman is when primarily male customers start to get to friendly, flirt, ask out, or in a few cases make blatantly sexual advancements. In my case, I’m lucky none of them have gotten physical, but that is not always the case.
I worked with a girl, we’ll call her Gene. Gene worked in a clothing store, and she was helping a man find some pants. Management was in a meeting and while we all had our radios on, we all had different projects in a fairly large store. Gene helped the man even though she could “feel his eyes wandering.” They talked for a while, because in the world of retail you want to get to know your customers to help them. He started making comments, trying to flirt. Gene felt uncomfortable but was polite, trying to keep things professional. He took this politeness as an invitation to ask her out. She declined. He got very mad and started yelling all sorts of obscenities which I heard, and I rushed over to ask the man as politely as possible to leave. He called me and the other mostly female workers other obscenities, and then management escorted him out of the building.
Now if you’re wondering why Gene didn’t radio for back-up initially, let me remind you. In retail/customer service positions, politeness is key. Presentation is key. You cannot be rude to a customer unless it is a last resort, because bad behavior on your part reflects poorly on the store, and in many places can get you into trouble. We had a good management team but it’s hard to call for back-up when your customer is standing right there watching your every move. In some cases, it’s genuinely terrifying. So radioing for back-up vaguely usually results in “What do you need?” “Is it a question I can answer?”, and when you don’t have a radio, you can’t just hand a customer off to someone else in the same way at all.
I can tell you that after this, we developed phrases, we had signals, and for a while we tried to help customers in pairs because it was so scary. There is no one you protect more than your friends at work, because they really do become your family.
The worst thing is though, while not to this extreme those little microaggressions that have made me as a woman uncomfortable happen every day, and retail workers have to put up with them. Eyes will look everywhere they shouldn’t, people will get asked if they have significant others, what they’re doing later, when they get off, etc. Certain regulars will pick you and go only through your line and say “See you later” in an all-too-familiar tone. The worst things that happened to me were verbal, but I refused to interact with those customers again, and I told my management so. Did I still have to interact with them if there was no one else around? Yes. Did I plan my quickest escape route as soon as I registered they were in the store? Yes. Did I smile and do my job despite my skin crawling? Yes.
Is politeness while someone working a reason to flirt with that person?
No, it is not. It never is. They’re doing their jobs and their job should not include compromising themselves so that you leave happy.
Or at least that’s what every retail handbook says.