A Retailer’s Guide to Life or: How Not to be a Dick, Part 1

Welcome to the start of a series of posts that’s been on the horizon for over a year now. I don’t know how many posts this will encompass and there’s not going to be a set schedule of any sort for releases, so it’s only a “series” in the sense that there will be more than one part to it. Disclaimers aside, let’s get started.

Part 1: How to Shop Retail: A Guide to Acting Like a Decent Human Being

Working retail, you learn a lot about the human condition. You learn that, in general, people are always in a hurry. You learn that, in general, people tend to be less than kind. And you learn that, in general, you, as a retailer, are viewed as almost the lowest life form that is still human, barely one step above fast food workers. You also learn that minimum wage doesn’t feel like nearly enough compensation for the amount of work you put in as well as what you have to deal with on a daily basis. So on behalf of retailers everywhere, I’d like to impart some tips to shoppers in the hopes that my words can help improve the experience for both the workers and the people shopping.

  1. Employees work for the store, not for you. I know, it’s a surprise, isn’t it? Yes, the customer always comes first. But our job as employees is to help you in your shopping experience, not to serve you. Now, for my part, and I can speak for a lot of employees on this as well, I’m more than happy to help you in whatever way I can. But that doesn’t mean you should be treating me like I’m your servant. Being polite goes a very long way, and I can guarantee you’ll get better service and a better experience if you’re polite to the employee helping you. When you get angry towards me because something is out of stock, or because you don’t like the price, or because someone else before I came along wasn’t able to help you, or whatever other reason, I’m not going to be quite as happy and helpful as I might be towards someone more understanding. I’ll still do my job, because it’s what I get paid for, but neither of us is going to come away happy. And on these notes:
  2. I don’t set the prices. The funny thing about stores is that they operate on the principle of making money. That is, we buy things from vendors, manufacturers, whatever, on the cheap, and then sell them for a higher cost to customers. We try to be competitive with other stores and give you the best price we can. But just like you, stores have bills to pay, and far more of them. Rent/lease, electricity and utilities, not to mention payroll, restocking the store, keeping all equipment in working order, shipping out dozens upon dozens of pallets of compressed cardboard, and all sorts of other overhead. And on top of that we still need to make money to keep the store, and in the long run, the company in the black. So pricing comes down from well above my paygrade as a floor associate. I can’t tell you the number of times people have gotten frustrated because they don’t like the price or because it’s cheaper somewhere else. I really don’t have any control over that. In fact, there are a lot of things I don’t have control over. Like…
  3. Things aren’t always in stock. The entire point of a store is to sell merchandise. And when that happens, sometimes we run out of a product. That’s because physics don’t change when you’re in a store. Just like when you make sandwiches often enough before shopping, you eventually run out of bread, when we sell something often enough before it’s had a chance to be replenished, we run out of that item. When we don’t have it in stock, it doesn’t help you to get upset about it or plead with me. I have had many people say things along the lines of “No, I can’t believe you don’t have it. How can you not have it?” Well, sir or madam, we don’t have it because we sold it. Because that is our job. When you’re in a store, it’s a free-for-all. The store isn’t made to cater to you, it’s made to cater to everyone, and on a first come, first served basis. And speaking of stock…
  4. The backroom is not a magic portal to Narnia. I mean, honestly I feel like I shouldn’t have to explain this, but the backroom isn’t some mystical alternate realm that gives us access to more of any item you might want. While it doesn’t hurt to ask if something is in stock, of course, the general feeling I’ve gotten is that people think we always have more or something in the back, which just isn’t the case. There’s only so much room, first off, and on top of that, it doesn’t pay — literally, it doesn’t pay — to have things in the back. Our goal is to have everything out of the back and on the sales floor, so that you can buy it. Do we get excess that has to be stored in the back? Of course. That’s what it’s there for. But the odds aren’t fantastic that the one specific item you want is in the back. This is especially true when it comes to toys and electronics, and to a lesser extent sporting goods and housewares. The items in these departments tend to ship in smaller quantities, though I wouldn’t hazard a guess at why. Most backstock is in food, household chemicals and detergent, and, at least in my store, bedding, curtains, tablecloths, towels, and related items. Long story short, don’t come in expecting that we’ll have something in the back. It won’t hurt to ask, but keep your hopes low.
  5. “Excuse me” gets you a long way. I’m not joking. When you were growing up and being taught your manners, you were probably taught that saying “excuse me” was a polite way to get someone’s attention when you needed something. That doesn’t change just because you’re an adult and shopping. I’ve been addressed in a pretty wide variety of ways in the past year, and pretty much the only one that I find acceptable is “excuse me.” It starts the interaction off on a good note. It’s polite and undemanding, and shows respect. Recently, I had someone get my attention by going “YO!” That instantly put me on guard. It’s rude and addressing me like that means I’m already going to be preparing for an unpleasant interaction. Other unacceptable forms of address include “HEY,” “HEY YOU,” and the sarcastic version of “excuse me.” You know, the one where your tone of voice and inflection is  full of impatience and indicates that you aren’t asking for assistance but expecting and demanding it.
  6. Sometimes you have to be patient. Look, our goal is always to make your experience as quick and pleasant as possible — even if you’re treating us like dirt. But sometimes stores get busy and you might have to wait a few minutes to be helped. It happens. We have to help customers as they come to us. I have on many occasion been clearly working with someone only to be very rudely interrupted by another customer who just HAS to have their question answered immediately. Not cool. Wait your turn. Again, childhood manners still apply, more than ever in fact.The principle of patience applies to all aspects of retail. When you call us up to ask a question, your call goes first to customer service. They will put you on hold and call an employee who can help you to answer the line. Most of the time, someone will pick up the line. Of course, human error still exists and sometimes you might not get an answer. But I have had people hang up no more than a minute after I’ve been paged to take a call — on at least one occasion, right as I answered the phone, making me look like an idiot standing there going “Hello? Hello?” waiting for someone to respond.The most important time for patience, of course, is at the checkouts. Except for Walmart, we in retail strive to have enough registers open to get everyone checked out in a timely manner. But it’s not always possible. Sometimes people call out, or we get a sudden rush when we weren’t expecting it and don’t have enough cashiers. There are any number of reasons there might be lines. We understand it’s frustrating to have to wait, but we need you to understand that the situation is not always in our control and we are working our hardest to rectify it. So many times I’ve dealt with or seen others dealing with customers who are unreasonably angry because they had to wait in line. Once I had someone get furious over waiting in line — where “line” means there was someone being checked out at each register and she would have had to wait a couple of minutes. She came over to complain to customer service on top of which she insulted me to my face, basically because I happened to be in the area doing my job, which wasn’t apparent to her, I guess.Really I don’t think it’s a lot to ask you to be patient and understanding if we happen to be flooded with customers. We’re only human, after all, and there are only so many employees and only so much we can do.
  7. Stop using the same tired jokes. Please. PLEASE. I know you think you’re funny, but I hear the following lines, almost word for word, constantly.
    • “No price, it’s free, right?” No. It’s just not marked. Please never say this to anyone again it’s infuriatingly annoying.
    • “It should be good, I just printed it today.” It’s unlikely that you would admit to counterfeiting money, and you’re not funny. Please stop, I just want to ring you up and get you on your way.

    These are the two worst offenders, but I’m sure there are others that I’m not remembering. I’ve probably repressed them, to be honest.

  8. We are not machines. I’m more than happy to check a price for you. But don’t expect me to know it off-hand. There are a LOT of items in the store, and the odds of my knowing the price of your specific one are beyond slim. I actually once had someone say to me “Oh, I thought you guys just knew the prices.” Yes. Because I am a walking computer. I memorized the prices of everything in the store. Never mind the fact that we get new items all the time, and things go on sale all the time — different things with each sale, or for different prices. But yes. I keep track of all of that.This also goes back to the patience thing. We try to be as efficient as we can, but we’re only human. We just can’t do everything. And on that note…
  9. Retail employees are people, too. I can’t stress this enough, and it goes for people working fast food and as waiters and waitresses, too. Those of us working minimum wage jobs, or less than that, quite often, if you’re wait staff, are still human beings with the same rights as anyone else. We are not less than you just because you don’t work our jobs, and we resent more than anything being treated as though we’re beneath you. Remember that without us, you wouldn’t be buying anything or eating out. We are probably in most cases making less money than you, but we are not beneath you, and without us your lifestyle would be completely disrupted. Minimum wage workers are just as important as anyone else, and integral to our society.Also keep in mind that you don’t know our circumstances. We all have different reasons to be working our jobs. Some of us are retired from careers and just doing this to fill time and get some extra cash flow. Some of us are in school and getting pocket money. Some of us are out of school and can’t get a job in our fields. Some of us are trying to get back to school and need the money to get there. And some of us are just trying to make ends meet. Just because we don’t have jobs as glamorous as yours doesn’t mean we aren’t important and deserving of respect and courtesy. And, honestly, higher wages, but that’s a totally separate issue.

Our jobs and our lives are stressful enough as it is — not just retailers, but shoppers too. The better you are at being a decent person and understanding our situations, the better things will be for everyone involved. If nothing else I implore you to keep in mind my last point — number nine, if already forgot what point I’m referring to. If we were all just a little more understanding and a little bit kinder to one another, at the very least your retail experience, and our jobs, would be a little more pleasant.


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