Strange as it sounds, I enjoyed working retail. Sure, it’s not all fun. Retail clerks work long, irregular hours for little pay and even less gratitude. And after a few months on the job you develop odd, retail-y habits, like never touching anything that you don’t intend to buy or shouting a prolonged “hello!” at anyone entering a room. But all of the fake smiles and brand-appropriate shoes are worth it. If you stick it out, retail will give you an invaluable skill: how to be nice to people you don’t even like.
I never expected to have my first retail job at 23 years old. I’m not a natural salesgirl, and smiling for eight hours a day is hard work for someone who’s used to squinting at computer screens. I’d always thought I’d spend my mid-twenties working my way up in some hip office with uncomfortable minimalist furniture, not measuring the feet of old men who couldn’t remember their shoe size.
I’d just spent a year doing technical writing at a competitive firm. There were few opportunities for advancement, and those were dangled like carrots to motivate the up-and-comers. Never one for excessive motivation, I floundered, and because I am ultimately a sissy, I eventually quit.
I wasn’t convinced that my failings qualified me for a job in customer service. And besides, I was used to offices, late nights, corporate-funded coffee machines, and coworkers with a nagging habit of asking me the “purpose” of my liberal arts degree. But my options were limited, and it was November, so like anyone out of work in the holidays, I cruised the outlet mall.
I got a job at a shoe store, and to my surprise, I adapted quickly to the long hours spent standing and grinning. In retail, like most jobs, the trick is creating a work-time persona that is separate from your real personality. Before leaving for work I undertook a conscious transformation: I changed my clothes, slapped on that perma-grin, and hitched up my customer-service voice—a bastardized face-to-face version of a “phone-voice,” the sickly-sweet tone of call center dames everywhere who ask you to please, sir, stop shouting.
My customer-service voice contributed the most to my modest success at the outlet mall. It was everything I wasn’t: calm, cheerful, and vaguely reminiscent of Disney’s Snow White. It allowed me to be both demanding and endearing, to alternate between soothing angry customers and shooing children who’d crawled under the dressing room doors. “Would you like to join our Rewards Card program today?” I’d ask each customer, in a tone of sugary surprise, as though the thought had just occurred to me and brought me both personal and professional joy. Daily I chased customers from the store with the sincerity of my “Have a nice day!”
After all, guilt—not intimidation—is the currency of a sales clerk. You can rarely make demands while working retail; keeping the customer in good humor is key. So you maintain a façade of violent cheerfulness, preying on the subconscious guilt most customers feel about pulling dozens of shoes off the shelf and scattering them on the floor. Customers rarely understand that smiling is a prerequisite of the job, but most understand that it’s a job they don’t want. Thus they buy things, wondering why you’re so pleased to do something so obviously unpleasant, and feeling bad about the loafers they piled behind the luggage display.
A few weeks before my last day at the shoe store, an ex-coworker (and ex-rival) from my cubicle days came in, searching, I suspect, for a juicy tale for the weekly staff meeting. I smiled insipidly as she stared at the clump of disposable nylon socks in my hand, telling me that she’d never been to the outlet mall before. I transitioned seamlessly into Rewards Card mode, feigning beatific surprise as she detailed the raise she’d received in my absence. She elaborated and I continued to make sympathetic noises, interrupting her periodically to bleat “hello!” at a customer coming through the door. When my ex-coworker finally left, she didn’t make any pretense of shopping in the store.
As I watched her walk toward the exit, I congratulated myself on having navigated an awkward situation—the same kind of passive-aggressive warfare that I dealt with in the office the year before. Ironically, the exchange made me feel less apprehensive about leaving retail to take a job in an office. Despite everything that the outlet mall gave me, the fact remains that an eight-hour day in a shoe store is roughly equivalent in pay to a four-hour shift in an office. Until that ratio changes, my path to financial security will be strewn with automatic staplers and office rivalries.
While she was leaving, I hollered the standard “Have a nice day!” after her. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but she looked a little guilty as she ducked empty-handed through the exit. It was probably just the customer-service voice, though. That’s what it’s good for.