Real World Education in Retail

It was a typical day at work when my manager yelled at me from the fitting room to go get her a pair of scissors. Naively, I assumed I was fetching them in order to cut off tags. Instead, I found a woman stuck in a dress that was about 4 sizes too small, with the only options being to either leave her in the dress or cut it off.

You never expect your shift to include running to get your boss a pair of scissors to cut a women out of a dress, or that someone will emerge from a fitting room and hand you a live tick that they picked off of their daughter. I have worked in both children’s retail and in a high-end women’s chain boutique, and both have presented a lot of challenges. But I wouldn’t change either experience, because I feel they have given me a unique set of skills that only fellow retail workers understand.

While most college students see their retail job as temporary gig to earn money for school and spending, it can actually be a great skill-building job. I’m not just talking about the basic skills you’ll acquire such as working the register, conducting inventory, or stocking; it is also given that you’ll gain some valuable life skills that can be carried over to any job.

Here are some valuable skills that come from working retail:

Multitasking:

Retail is always a fast-paced environment. Particularly in higher-end retail, I often find myself juggling three to four clients at once, each of them expecting the same individual level of undivided attention from me. In addition to building sales and working the register, I’m expected to be watching for potential theft and making sure the store is presentable. Basically, retail workers always have to be attentive and alert. 

Self -control:

Depending on the store you work at, you may be tempted to buy its products. After hours of hearing the same sales pitch over and over, you may find that it is slowly getting inside your head and you have the sudden desire for that $250 blue leather jacket. However, when you receive your first paycheck, reality sets in and you learn to exercise self-control. And if you work in a mall and manage to not by a jumbo pretzel every shift, you have truly mastered the art of self-control and should write a self-help book. 

Organization:

With inventory constantly changing and customers messing up the floor set, you’re constantly reorganizing the store. Also, if taking of bunch of poorly-packed shipment boxes and turning them into a polished floor set isn’t organization, I don’t what is.

Interpersonal Communication:

A.K.A. talking to people without sounding awkward, interpersonal communication is a skill that I find most people lack today. Working in retail, you end up talking to people for the majority of the day. The mall that I work at has a diverse clientele, including many non-English speakers. As someone who is only fluent in English with a very elementary understanding of Spanish, often I find that my communication skills are tested when I assist clients and we both speak a different language. But it is possible to work around language barriers using context clues, physical cues, and other communication basics.

Deductive Reasoning:

I think a lot of people assume that working retail is mindless, but I have found that each shift involves a lot of problem solving. I have to anticipate what the customer needs and wants before they even ask. Additionally, finding the perfect fitting pair of jeans for a client involves a process of deductive reasoning that I have never seen inside of a college classroom.

Being Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations:

Shopping can be a very emotional outlet for a lot of people. On more than one occasion, a customer in the fitting room broke down crying or unleashed a fit of rage. Unlike in your personal life when you can simply remove yourself from a situation where someone is making you uncomfortable, you don’t have the option to leave while working — you just have to deal with it. There are definitely days when I feel more like a therapist or life coach than a sales associate, but it helps keep my shift from being mundane.

Thick Skin:

People will always be rude, and working with customers teaches you how to handle that. I have had a customer throw a hanger at me, and I didn’t even flinch; I just caught it and hung it back on the rack. Some would say that it’s because I’m jaded, but I would say it’s a typical day of work, exercising the ability to stay calm cool and collected.

Confidence:

I have learned that despite that saying we all know, the customer is not always right, and often I have to turn down customer requests. For example, people try to use expired coupons or RetailMeNot codes and try other sneaky ways to get a discount. But no matter how tenacious they are, I still have to draw the line and tell them I cannot take their expired coupons or their overdue returns. Working in retail has given me more confidence in saying “no” and upholding the companies’ policies.

Eventually you’ll learn to say “I work retail” with pride. The fact is, you should be proud. You deal with people all day, and most of them are either angry or frustrated about something and take it out on you because the store happens to be out of a size medium.

I have worked in retail for about three years now, and whenever I go into a job interview, it’s the first point I mention when talking about previous experience. Most of the time interviewers are interested to hear about what you learned working retail, and I never have a shortage of what to tell them. It has provided me with answers for questions like, “Describe a work situation where you stayed calm under pressure,” or “Tell as about a time you had to work with co-workers as a team.”

As an added bonus, you’ll have a dozen or so ridiculous work stories to share with friends or acquaintances. But if there is one thing I have learned working in customer service, it is taking absurd situations as they come at me.

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