The New Mall Culture (And Tips for Surviving It)

Changing fashion trends and the rise of online retailers has changed malls from the malls we grew up seeing depicted in 90s teen movies. Despite major rebranding efforts from wildly popular malls from the 90s and 00s, stores like Delia’s and Abercrombie & Fitch seem to have missed the mark with teens today. This year, Delia’s closed all its stores and Gap announced its plans to reduce their number of stores by 175. It seems teens would rather shop at thrift stores and Forever 21 than buy a shirt branded with the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch logo. American retailers appear to be struggling to maintain steady business as fashion trends and methods of shopping drastically change.

As an employee of the same mall on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts for the past four years, I have seen the decline in foot traffic. Even with the allure of no sales tax just over the New Hampshire border, malls seem to have transformed from suburban gathering places on weekends to now being the destination for sporadic trips at best. I have gone from working in a children’s clothing store where it seemed like my main job was to keep kids under control to now working in a high end women’s clothing store, where a pair of pants cost more than what I make in a day, and my main job is to entertain bored housewives with small talk.

Tips for surviving retail employment:

  • Make friends with employees at the other stores. It can lead to discounts and insider scoop on upcoming sales.
  • Similarly, befriend the employees of food stands and food court restaurants in order to receive discounts. (For me, I know becoming friendly with the people at the pretzel place has worked in my favor.)
  • Bring a book to make it through the lulls when no one in the store is intellectually stimulating.
  • Turn the bizarre coworker and customer encounters into inspiration to further creative projects.
  • If not inspiration for writing, at least let them become funny anecdotes to tell your friends.
  • Embrace the diversity of stores within the mall, as well as the diversity of the different employees that work at each store. It can lead to a very eclectic environment.
  • Learn all you can from working at a supposedly “dead end retail job,” because customer service skills look great on a resume. (Not sure how to do this? Check out my article about it here.)

American brand stores, such as Gap, J. Crew, and Abercrombie & Fitch, have reported slumping sales. Instead, consumers are spending their money at foreign-owned, fast-fashioned retailers, such as H&M and Zara. It seems American malls filled with American stores may be on the decline without a lot of hope to make a rebound. Only time will tell.

Even though working at a mall has had it ups and down, from the larger than usual paychecks after working long holiday hours to the irate customers who are more full of self-loathing than anger towards the store, I will always hold on to a bit of nostalgia towards the suburban American mall. After all, it provided me with employment throughout my teen years and bizarre inspiration for countless years to come.


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:


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. 


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.


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.