Retail: a most necessary evil

Hungry and Foolish

I got involved with the funny business of selling people clothes (and other knickknacks they don’t need) two years ago, when I was looking to make some pocket change for the weekends (see: beer money). I felt a bit guilty squandering what few allowances my parents gave me, so I looked around and took a job at a chain clothing store near campus. Once I graduated and my circumstances changed, the job magically transformed overnight from a fountain of pocket change to the sole mean I had to pay my rent (and for exclusively cheap beer). My problem, though, was that with this being my sole source of income, I couldn’t view the position any longer as something I could give up on a whim.

For obvious reasons, I won’t be disclosing the name of my place of employment. I don’t consider retail to be the worst thing in the world, but it’s not exactly a walk in the park working in the service industry. It is known to be something you might want to avoid if you can: grueling hours, condescending customers and competitive staff are the burdens one must bear in these jobs. Not to mention the tedium that plagues every job in the industry — over the past year, my idea of hell has come to resemble something close to a day at work, folding t-shirts and staring out the window ad infinitum. I don’t fancy myself a Wikileaks whistleblower, but there are indeed a few dirty little truths worth sharing here. Some of them may convince you to steer clear of the retail path should the choice be presented, but all of them will surely prove therapeutic for me to rant and rave about for just a few minutes.

Dealing with customers is not something I always feel I’m well-equipped to do. I am by no means an introvert, but one must expect to be talking to strangers for just about every waking second of every hour they have one foot set on the sales floor. All of this socializing must be done with an enormous and mostly contrived smile on, regardless of how rude a patron might act (which is often).

Moreover, should you find yourself with a job near campus, you’ll quickly discover your clientele consists of a great many people that you just sort of know. That GSI who gave you a C on your midterm last semester? He’ll stop by. Or perhaps the international exchange student you shared an inebriated romantic evening with but whose name escapes you as soon as they approach you to say hello? They’ll be there, too. Although not the worst thing, it’s not quite as easy to dodge into the nearest restroom or avert your gaze like you might if you were to pass by one of these almost acquaintances on the long walk between Dwinelle and Evans.

Retail isn’t a job well-suited to Berkeley hippies either. It stings what environmentally conscious spirit I have when I ask if customers would like a printed or emailed receipt, a seemingly impressive and progressive feature at first. If you decline a receipt altogether (as most people do), thinking you’ve saved paper and some space in your inbox, then it is my sad duty to inform you that we just print those receipts and toss them in the trash. Our machines don’t have a way to sidestep this. The reusable bags we offer generally tear at the handles and fall apart after a few days of use. And everything we dispose of in our stores, even though most of the waste is cardboard and paper, goes straight to a landfill.

Last but not least is the perpetual presence of shoplifting. When I took the job, I didn’t necessarily think it would be a whirlwind of gabbing with colleagues and dancing on tabletops like they do in the movie Empire Records, but I could not have anticipated the kind of policing a regular sales associate has to engage in. You’d be surprised how many high school kids come into the store and don’t realize that they are sure to beep on their way out if they put a pair of shoes in their backpack. I don’t feel destined to a career that has me accuse and shame nervous, remorseful 14-year-olds of stealing merchandise on a daily basis.

Perhaps I’m being far too whiney and cynical, and perhaps I should appreciate that I actually have a job, when others are much less fortunate. As much as I dislike what I do, I am grateful to have a job that affords me financial independence from my parents and one that builds character by virtue of all of its irks.

To get through the monotony of it all, I think about the little bits I save up with each paycheck and, as I stare out the window, thank my lucky stars that no one has decided to pee in the fitting rooms yet.

But truth be told, that has happened already. Twice now.

Max Rosen writes the Friday column on life after college. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @RosenMax.