The Other Side Of The Register — Spare A Prayer For Those Working Retail

Pedestrians walk past a store with a holiday-t...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

With only six days left for anyone planning to offer Christmas gifts, the push — literally — is on. Stores are jammed, shelves are empty just when you wanted X in size Y, line-ups to pay are long. Customers tap their toes, click their credit cards on the counter, curse and sigh at the ineptitude of those they expect to help them. One woman, I heard this week, decided to toss a full, heavy box of shoes at someone behind the counter whose behavior annoyed her.

That’s assault, but the company — who I will name in my book — didn’t even call the police. Don’t be that person!

No matter how frustrated or tired you get, please don’t take it out on the people whose job it is to help you. As I told one furious female shopper last night,  as I worked my final night at a store in a suburban mall: “The store right now has two people to help you. I assure you they are doing the best that they can.” She harrumphed and clearly didn’t care.

It wasn’t even my place to say so, as I was not the manager, which she mistook me for. But the store was a vision of hell: dozens of shoppers facing, in New York today, a blizzard predicted to drop up to six inches of snow downstate. They were all desperate to buy gifts or warm clothes, gloves and shoes. And it was the leanest staff possible. I left at 8:00 p.m. as planned and the manager, not there last night, had budgeted for.

Today’s New York Times offers a shopping story, with the same limited perspective I’d have brought to it before I switched to the other side of the register, as a part-time sales associate for more than two years. The reporter caught every detail — but one. That of the exhausted and overwhelmed associates working there. Yesterday, fighting a bad cold, I stood ringing people up in an unbroken stream of commerce, for hours. It may be utterly inconvenient, but associates also get dehydrated and/or need to use the bathroom, none of which is possible under those circumstances.

I quit my job yesterday, with notice, and as planned. Last year I worked through Christmas Eve. Anyone who’s ever worked retail in the holidays gets it.

Smile, say thanks, wish them a happy holiday. They are doing their best.

11 thoughts on “The Other Side Of The Register — Spare A Prayer For Those Working Retail

  1. palavering

    I have little sympathy for “sales associates.” Although a few of them are dedicated to serving the public, most are unhappy in their work. A recent experience will serve my position well: I visited The Home Depot yesterday to complain (politely) that a part was missing from an item that I had purchased the day before. The associate with whom I spoke obliged me by removing the part needed from another package, which I found to be thoughtful and courteous. But as I turned to walk away, he placed the now incomplete package back on the shelf for another consumer to purchase. He’s probably the reason that the package I bought the day before was missing a part! It’s hard to be sympathetic when this kind of comportment is the norm, not the exception.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Interesting comment.

    1) What makes you feel so certain this is “the norm”?
    2) Did you say anything to management about this?
    3) Why do you think anyone is”dedicated to serving the public” at minimum wages? If they are polite, civil and competent, why is that insufficient? Cops or teachers, maybe — knowing a full pension awaits. You can also have unrealistic expectations, and be disappointed as a result of those.

    What the associate did was solve the problem for you. What the next customer gets, or doesn’t get, depends how carefully Home Depot watches their behavior.

    1. palavering

      Miss Kelly: What the associate did was irresponsible–and could keep customers away from the store. Second, it doesn’t matter what the associate is paid; he has an obligation to his employer and customers. If he doesn’t like the pay, then he can go elsewhere. I told the person at Customer Service what the associate did. She didn’t appear very concerned. “Okay. Have a good day,”
      was her response. Finally, there is a marked difference between dedication and responsibility.

  3. Caitlin Kelly

    Mr/Ms. palavering….to continue the conversation; have you worked one of these jobs? Here’s what can happen: a manager, or several, does their job poorly, leaving those whom s/he is well-paid to manage without the basic tools to do their jobs to the customers’ expectations. But because they’re the people you deal with, they’re the ones who get the brunt of your frustration.

    If you are ever this annoyed again, simply ask to the speak to the manager. Cut out all the middlemen.

    What do you see as the difference between dedication and responsibility? Serious question. Who exactly is the associate (most) responsible to — their employer or the customer? What happens when those needs come into direct conflict?

    Customers were fleeing the store I worked in on Friday because there was so little staff to help them and those there were utterly overhelmed. I certainly understand the decision to find a better-staffed store. But the choice to severely understaff our store that evening was made far away from the store — and the company clearly didn’t know or care how many furious customers it lost, then and likely for good, as a result. But the in-store staff get the (&%#@ beaten out of them verbally for decisions made far, far above their pay grade.

    1. palavering

      Dear Caitlin: For a woman with such impressive credentials and such an effulgent face, it is difficult for me to conceive why you think the world is fair. There are incompetents everywhere, at all levels of employment. It doesn’t matter whether you are a janitor or a university professor, there will always be those who will deny us our right to pursue happiness–or thwart our chances for success. But there are just as many lazy plebeian ne’er-do-wells who don’t believe they owe a day’s work for a day’s pay. This is the way that life is: fight it with all that you have, and hope that you have enough to win.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Palavering — this is a first. Effulgent. Great new word; I had to look it up, I confess. I do know the word palaver and it’s always been a favorite.

    I am prone to idealism and chronic naievete on some issues. Guilty as charged!

    I hear you on these other points. My feelings on this issue are still percolating as I start to process them and write them for my book on the topic.

    1. palavering

      Thank you, Caitlin, for your kind response. I wish you well with your new book, and it is my hope that you make a zillion dollars in the process, my patrician correspondent.

  5. Hilary Shenfeld

    Caitlyn, I do try to be polite to the sales associates but you have to admit that they can be frustrating. Two small examples out of many I could come up with:
    I was shopping in a department store where I always bought my favorite brand of jeans but one time saw they were nowhere to be found. I asked the associate about it. She glanced around and indeed, none on the shelves. She then replied that they no longer make those jeans. Huh. Really? Or is it more likely that your store just doesn’t carry them anymore (of course, I later found that brand at another store). How about saying, “I don’t know, but let me find out.”
    Another time I was at a chain crafts store and placed a special order for 10 apothecary jars. I dutifully waited the six weeks and then called to find out the status. The associate was able to find my order, but noted that when she had tried to place it the next day, the jars came back as discontinued. She never thought to call and tell me. I asked if she could call around to other stores and see if any of the jars were still around. She says she did, but couldn’t find any. So happened I was at another of the stores a few days later and spied one of my jars. I asked the associate there if they were discontinued. No, he said, and ordered me nine more of them.
    Sales associates can be incompetent, unhelpful, lazy and rude so it’s a joy to find someone like you or others who at least seem to want to help.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Hilary, of course, there are lousy/lazy associates. The challenge is the disconnect between what we, fairly, expect from them as shoppers — service! — and what we often get. I am now the shopper from hell as I know what good service looks like and rarely get it. I’ve been dissed in J. Crew and Saks, both of which charge plenty for their merchandise and from whom I’d expect a much better treatment. But, no.

    It’s hard to overstate the difference in how associates are treated — and may view themselves — from people with careers-versus- jobs. It’s a job. It’s dead-end, boring and pays crap. So, no matter what customers want and need, they may also end up bearing the brunt of that frustration. Unless, which seems rare, you are actually getting commission on your sales, there’s zero motivation — other than being helpful, which many people aren’t — to go beyond the bare minimum.

    Managers often communicate very poorly, if at all, so these associates may not have had the right information. I can’t tell you how many times we were asked “Is more of X coming in? When?” And we had NO idea. None. It made us all look stupid or lazy or incompetent, even if we weren’t.

  7. bonniestone

    I work retail, and I certainly have points in which I think that I don’t get paid enough to care, but I do my absolute best to find a solution as often as possible. Notice I didn’t say “all the time”, in fact there are many times that I will have come from a very tense and frustrating situation with a customer kicking myself for not thinking of a much better way, but “as often as possible.” I would estimate 80/20-which probably seems a little unfair if you have not worked behind the counter.

    I try to remember as both a clerk and a customer that we are all in our own little worlds and each of us has our days, and try to forgive myself and others when things don’t go as ideally as they could.

  8. Pingback: Hired! | mamagallanes

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