The True Confessions of a Former Retail Slave
If you were to Google the phrase “working in retail”, the first five websites that come up are these: Seven Lessons Learned from Retail, 12 Tips for Working in Retail Without Killing Everyone Around You, Is Working in Retail Close to Slavery?, Retail-Sucks, and Why Working in Retail Sucks.
This is not news to me. I spent five years of my life working in that business as an assistant manager of a mid-level women’s apparel company. Let’s call this company J. Taylor Creek. Their main demographic is career women in their 30s and 40s, though over the past couple of years they seemed to have tried to lower that age and target the career-minded college student. But what college student do you know can afford $140 pants? Especially when they’ll probably end up working at Starbucks after graduation?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Or maybe they’ll have to settle for a part-time job making $8 an hour at J. Taylor Creek.
After spending three years working in the mortgage business as a loan processor (which I actually enjoyed), I got out just before the housing bubble burst. We were moving, I knew the company at which I worked was going to close down (it was only a matter of time), and my sister informed me of a new outdoor “Lifestyle Center” that was opening in the new city where we were moving. They were having a job fair in search of qualified people to work at all the fun stores that were going to open.
Now, working retail was not necessarily new to me. I was a part-time manager at Claire’s for one year during college. However I highly DO NOT recommend working at Claire’s. Oh yeah, they have cute accessories – jewelry, bags, hats, etc – but if you work there, you have to pierce people’s ears.
I could go into all the stories of ear-piercing I have locked away in my brain, but that would make this post extremely long. Let me just say this: never pierce a screaming baby’s ears no matter what the mother says, and never take a job where smelling salts are involved.
That being said, I figured I had enough retail experience to go into the job fair and come out with a well-paying, full-time management position. And I did! I interviewed with many companies that day, but the one who snagged me – and also the one I loved the most – was J. Taylor Creek. After talking to the woman who was going to be the new store manager, I felt like I belonged at this company. I liked what they stood for, and best of all, I liked their clothes.
I started out as an MIT, which stood for Manager-In-Training. It’s basically the lowest level of a full-time manager at J. Taylor Creek, and that was fine with me. I wanted responsibility and authority, but not too much, if you know what I mean.
Since the new store wasn’t due to open for another two months, I had to train at other J. Taylor Creek stores. This was all fine and dandy, though I quickly learned one thing about myself. I hate picking out clothes for people who don’t know what they want. I told myself that I would eventually get used to it, that I would learn to feel comfortable selling clothes to people, but it ended up haunting me for as long as I worked in retail.
Trust me, this will look horrible on you.
Once my home store opened, things got a little better. I loved the girls I worked with, and they were the ones who got me through the long 8-hour shifts. In fact, it would be my co-workers who got me through the FIVE YEARS of retail in which I worked. But more about that later.
Being an MIT had its perks, but it definitely had its downfall, that downfall being acting as “the middle man” most of the time. The assistant manager and senior assistant manager (managers #3 and #2) did not get along. They bickered like children, and would come to me complaining about the other one because apparently someone lower than them is easier to complain to than the store manager above them. I sat and listened like I always do, never really agreeing with them, just nodding and saying things like, “Wow, really?”
Luckily after about six months at this location, my district manager at the time told me about an opening for an assistant manager at another location a little bit further away. This would mean higher status and higher pay, and even though I was hesitant (my current store was literally five minutes from my apartment), I agreed to meet with the store manager.
We clicked right away, and I knew after about 15 minutes that I wanted to transfer. The store was in a better lifestyle center, too – there was nowhere to eat at my current mall, and this one had tons of restaurants and tons of stores and a Borders and a candy store…
So I was transferred, and I had to quickly get accustomed to a higher volume store. My old store was pretty quiet, not too many visits, even on the weekends. But this new place was a madhouse. Constantly running around, not even having time to pee or think about anything but “Does she have a room?” “Do you have any clients right now?” “Have you taken your break?” blah blah blah.
The good thing was that my days FLEW by. Well, most days. Even busy days have their crappy “oh my God, it’s only 2:00?” moments.
And here’s another crappy thing I started to really hate about retail. The hours. When I first thought about working in retail, I thought a change of hours and schedule would be interesting. I was bored with the whole 9-5 thing. My husband was a chef, which meant that his hours were all over the place, too, so it wasn’t like I exactly needed those weekends off.
But working nights and weekends and getting random Tuesdays and Thursdays off and working until 11:00 at night quickly lost its flair. Having to work on days like Black Friday and the day after Christmas and every other holiday that everyone else gets off was depressing. It didn’t take long for The Chip began to form on my shoulder.
I started dreading going to work, especially on days when I would close. I wouldn’t go into work until 2:00 in the afternoon (if it was a weekend), and I couldn’t enjoy the first half of my day knowing that I still had to go into work for nine hours. I couldn’t even enjoy my days off because I usually only got one day off (two days in a row is a rarity in the retail world), and I would spend most of that day dreading the next day.
And then I got pregnant.
Having to work at any job is probably difficult when you’re pregnant, what with all the morning sickness and moodiness and the getting fat business. But working retail is extra hard when you’re pregnant. First of all, you’re on your feet for eight hours and only get to sit down during your lunch break. Second of all, you have to deal with customers.
And customers suck.
This is probably the main reason why I started to hate retail so much. As I mentioned before, I quickly realized that I hated helping people find clothes to wear. I know that sounds ridiculous, since that’s all that retail is, basically, but I figured that since I was management, I knew that my job was to make sure my associates were helping customers, not me.
And that was slightly true. But that didn’t mean I was totally off the hook. And it seemed that the more pregnant I got, the worse the customers became (the whole economy going to shiz may have had something to do with it as well, but whatever). Constantly arguing about a return, the price of something, a coupon they couldn’t combine with a promo…you name it.
Courtesy of Customers Suck
And you’d be surprised at how many awful, evil people there are in this world (or at least in California). I’ve had women call me a bitch, I’ve had women throw clothes at me, I’ve had women threaten me…all because I was trying to do my freaking job.
And the crappy part? I couldn’t do a thing about it. I couldn’t yell back, I couldn’t throw clothes at them, and I certainly couldn’t call them a bitch or else I would get written up or fired. That’s one of the rules of retail.
You just have to stand there and take it.
There was one time I got a little “testy” with a client. I was eight months pregnant, it was 11:15 on a Friday night – we had been closed for 15 minutes – and there was a woman arguing with me about wanting to return an item that wasn’t even from our store. At J. Taylor Creek there are different divisions of stores, kind of like how Banana Republic, Gap, and Old Navy are all run by the same company, but they’re totally different stores. This woman was basically trying to return an item from Banana Republic to Gap. Which you can’t do.
She didn’t understand this, and no matter how much I tried to explain it, she refused. I was getting PISSED. And when she said, “Well, they let me do this at Macy’s”, I responded with, “Well, this isn’t Macy’s.”
That shut her up, but she filed a complaint against me and I got a written warning.
You’d be surprised at the stuff customers will do while in your store, stuff that should be on an episode of Dirty Jobs. Makeup smeared on blouses? Happens all the time. Blood in the crotch of white pants? I’ve seen it. Clothes stuffed in the tank of a toilet? Yep. Sex in the fitting rooms? Thankfully not at my store, but at another one in the district.
I went on maternity leave a whole month before my due date simply because I could not handle working in retail anymore without totally going postal on someone. And about halfway into my leave after my daughter was born, I realized that I wasn’t going to go back to retail. My daughter was way too important, and I didn’t want her to suffer the effects of a mom who hated her job.
That lasted for a year.
We moved back to the previous city we lived in to be close to in-laws, and since we were paying more for our apartment, I decided I would get a part-time job. And since I knew that I could easily get a job at J. Taylor Creek, I went to the Lifestyle Center in our area, talked to the manager, and the next day was the new part-time sales lead.
I was at a different division as my previous store – now I was high-end. But it was basically the same stuff I did before, just a slightly different client, and since I was now only working 4-hour shifts instead of 8-hour shifts, I thought it was going to be great.
How quickly and easily one forgets.
A lot had changed over a year, however, with the economy and with the company as well. They were suddenly more, how should I put this, anal about things. Business at the entire company wasn’t very great, and when that happens people begin to panic. People at the top lose jobs. Management changes, turnover happens, and it starts to snowball into a big ol’ mess.
But it turns out that one year off does not change the suckiness of customers. I thought that since I was now working in a very affluent part of Los Angeles, the women wouldn’t be so concerned about price and deals and discounts. But you know what?
They’re even worse.
I guess that’s why they’re so rich…they’re super tight with their money and want to pay the least they possibly can for a top that’s on final clearance for $9.88. And when they can’t get their way, they get MAD.
I think the customers at this particular location and particular point in time were worse than before. I had at least one woman a day argue with me – mostly dealing with our return policy, which is 60 days WITH THE RECEIPT – and since J. Taylor Creek was so obsessed with not losing clients in this already sucky retail economy, we had to let them win. You want to return that without a receipt? You want to return that even though you bought it over a year ago? Well, since I’ll get written up if I get a complaint against me, I’ll let you return it. No problem. *fake smile*
Retail is all about fake smiles. I had a fake smile plastered on my face for five years. And you know what? It got really tiring. It got tiring pretending that I cared about the business when in reality all I cared about was when my next day off was. I know that sounds horrible – I was promoted to assistant manager at this J. Taylor Creek, and my job was to inspire my team to achieve our goals, and while I get that, it was really hard to be inspirational when Corporate is only focusing on the negative. You didn’t make this goal, you didn’t open this credit card (holy eff, do NOT get me started on trying to force people to open the J. Taylor Creek credit card), your folds are messy, you didn’t wear something current…
You begin to only focus on the negative as well, and that causes stress and disgruntled employees. J. Taylor Creek tried to be all about “engaged associates” and “empowered women”, but at the end of the day all they care about is money. And they will be the first to tell you that.
Retail is difficult enough without having to deal with crap from Corporate. In addition to making sure our associates are “doing their job”, we’re also sending hourly “reads” – how much money the store currently has in – to our district manager, doing “store set” at least twice a month (basically changing the entire store around), setting up window displays, changing the clothes on mannequins, ordering supplies, completing store operational audits, changing interior signage for promos that change every couple of days, cleaning out fitting rooms (which means picking up all the clothes bunched up into the corner and turning them right side out and putting them back where they belong), making sure our folds are military-grade acceptable, sweep the floors, clean the windows, take out the trash, receive new product twice a week and make sure it’s all steamed and put out within 24 hours, take never-ending conference calls, send out “action plan” emails when we’re unable to make our goal, make sure that we’re not over or under in hours, which means usually cutting or calling people in at the last minute, planning store events that no one ever turns up for anyway, soliciting clients on the phone…
…and all this must be done while we’re supposed to be 100% focused on the client walking through the door.
I was at this J. Taylor Creek location for about 2 ½ years. As before, I loved my co-workers. I had a great boss and still consider her and the other women to be great friends that I’ll always keep in contact with (thank you, Facebook). But I knew my time in retail had to come to an end. My daughter was getting older, and I knew she needed a mom who had a fixed work schedule. And a mom who didn’t come home stressed out and pissed off every day.
When we moved back to Minnesota I was all set to transfer to a J. Taylor Creek store at the Mall of America. There were no full-time positions available, so I was starting back at part-time sales lead. I wasn’t excited for this job, and felt myself dreading it before I even started it.
I was there for a week.
It was one of those “right place at the right time” moments where there was an opening at the company where my dad worked, and because it was Monday-Friday in an office at a desk where there weren’t any clothes or customers around, it took me about ½ second to agree to interview.
I got the job on the spot and started the following week, and since then I’m amazed at how happy I am at work. My job isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but when I think of all that blood, sweat and tears (oh yes, there were tears) I put into retail, I am so thankful. I love going into work at 7:00 am and going home at 3:30 pm. I love going home on a Friday afternoon knowing that I have the whole weekend off. TWO DAYS IN A ROW! I actually have an active social life now that I have the same days off as the rest of the world!
However, I don’t regret the five years I put into retail. I learned a lot about people and being a manager and how the corporate world works. I learned a lot about myself, and I’ve learned to accept the fact that there are some things I just wasn’t meant to do. Going to work every day made me feel guilty because I knew I didn’t like it and I knew I wasn’t “putting my best self forward” (another J. Taylor Creek mantra). I didn’t want to live my life like that, doing something half-assed that made me miserable. I didn’t want my daughter to grow up knowing that because I don’t want her to do the same thing.
I’m not here to tell you that retail is a crappy industry. It’s challenging, but if you’re good at it – and I know a lot of people who are really good at it and passionate about it, and that’s awesome – then it can be a truly rewarding career. Just make sure you’re true to yourself and that’s what you really want to do, because if it’s not, you’re not the only one who suffers.
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