Respect Retail Workers

Retail workers, as well as customer service personnel in general, have a very tough job, in my opinion, because they have direct contact with the public.  We as customers, admittedly, can be awfully tough on salesmen and saleswomen at times–how often have you seen another customer yelling at a cashier in line at a big-box store, or getting agitated while trying to return an item?  Heck, haven’t we all BEEN that customer at some point?

What we as customers don’t realize is that we individually aren’t the only people that retail workers see all day.  Literally hundreds of people pass through their store every day, and each of them have their own set of demands to make.  Having worked retail myself, and having two parents who have worked pharmacy retail for nearly 40 years, I not only have heard horror stories, I’ve lived them, too.  Customer service and retail workers have a very difficult job, and it’s certainly not for everyone.

Why should we respect these people who chose to take on this job?  Here are several reasons:

They are expected to stand all day long.

Most healthy people don’t think twice about standing in line for a few minutes, even if the wait is boring.  But how about standing on your feet for 6 hours with no rest, or 8, or even 10 or 12?  This is what is demanded of most retail workers who have to serve at cashier counters and the like.  You cannot sit down–if you do, it looks like you’re on break, and you have to “look available,” no matter how bad you hurt.

For me, this turned out to be impossible to deal with–I have terrible nerve pain, bruising, and swelling of the legs and feet that make it excruciating to stand or walk for long periods of time.  Needless to say, I had to quit one of the retail positions I took because I hurt so badly.  But I saw many co-workers stand for hours without breaking a sweat or even losing their smiles.  They bore up under that physical strain, which is much more than it looks, and they did it while looking pleasant and friendly.  Not only do retail workers have to bear their physical pain day in and day out, but they have to make it look effortless so that their customers feel that they are being served by happy people.

They are expected to deal with people who treat them like sub-human beings.

Some people are just plain mean to customer service personnel.  As soon as they come in the door, retail workers cringe–suddenly, retail workers are the “enemy,” somehow, even though part of their job description is to be ready to help.  For instance, there was a woman I waited on in a local bookstore one time who barely even looked me in the eye, even as I tried to be friendly and assist her; she eventually called the manager on me twice, once because I was “hounding her,” and the second time because “I wasn’t assisting her.”  I was, admittedly, glad to see the back of her–I felt as if I were the lowest bug in the dirt when she spoke to me, and it made me mad, because I didn’t deserve to be treated that way.

When you walk into a store or restaurant, it is important to at least treat the workers with civility, even if you don’t feel much like being friendly.  They are fellow human beings, after all, doing honest work for a paycheck just like you.  Believe me, a friendly customer is a blessing–someone who understands how busy a store or restaurant can get, someone who waits patiently rather than shouting “serve me now!!”.  Unfortunately, these customers are a minority–more often, you get shouted at, cursed at, or generally ignored until needed, as if you are a soulless creature with no emotion.

They are expected to instinctively know when their place of employment is being robbed/defrauded.

No human is equipped with eyes in the back of his or her head.  But it sometimes feels as if you need that surgery to be effective employees in retail work!  Somehow, amid your regular work of serving customers, running their purchases through, and keeping the business clean and tidy, you are also supposed to know just when a shady customer is about to make a five-finger discount.  It’s not easy–those who like to steal usually disguise themselves pretty well, and it’s hard to be assertive enough to walk up to somebody and say “Have you paid for that yet?”, not knowing if you’re going to get a gun or knife pulled on you.  Bravery is one of those “hidden” job requirements for retail personnel of any sort.

They are expected to take on-the-fly schedule changes without a frown.

Someone sick on Wednesday night when you have choir practice?  No buts about it–you’re coming in to work.  Your kid have a performance on Tuesday night, but the boss needs you to do emergency inventory?  No way around it–you’re coming in to work.  Retail workers are expected to pretty much have no highly-scheduled life outside of their jobs, because you never know when you’ll be called upon to cover someone else’s shift, or do extra work outside of normal job hours.  You are literally supposed to drop everything, even if that “everything” is really important to you, because people must be on hand to man the storefront. Since retail these days rarely even stops for holidays, the whole career is very time-sensitive, and you have to be ready to work at any time.

Admittedly, many jobs are like this these days, with people becoming more mobile and business becoming more demanding.  Still, with retail being as punishing on the body as it is, you often need more time to recover than your schedule can give.

They are expected to be constantly ready to give 100% or better.

Are you a cashier?  You better scan and bag those items super-fast. Are you a waiter?  You better never drop a dish or forget a customer.  Are you a receptionist?  You better type at over 100 words a minute or bust.  And there’s tons of other retail- and customer-service-oriented jobs that demand more than your best.

Whenever you deal with customers, they generally expect you to be expert at your job, know where everything is, be able to answer any questions–you are their window into the business, and they need information and service fast.  Many things are automated by machines these days, so it’s not surprising that many people treat human service personnel as if they should be machines too, never making a mistake, never forgetting a detail, and never needing to rest.  Unfortunately, not all of us can be Commander Data of the U.S.S. Enterprise; we get stressed out, overtired, or just plain sick, and things tend to go awry because we’re not functioning at 100% anymore.  But we still have to look and act like we’re functioning at 100%.


When you’re a customer, keep in mind that the person waiting on you has likely been there for hours. He or she may be in pain, stressed or tired, or may be missing out on a part of life that doesn’t involve their job. But he or she is still serving you, and trying hard to meet your needs. 

Even if salespeople seem surly or rude, patience and a smile can alleviate that very quickly–answering them with rude comments of your own will only exacerbate the situation.  Be kind to retail workers; they’re doing their job so you don’t have to do it for yourself!

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