And I always thought the customers were the problem...
October 21, 2012 12:24 AM   Subscribe

Help me cope with retail hell.

So I'm in my mid-twenties and I have a degree in underwater basket weaving. I just got back from two years teaching English abroad (where I was paid nicely), and now I'm living in an expensive city doing two internships in a field I want to break into. I've reached the end of my savings and I'm working a part-time retail job to pay the bills, and I am about to completely lose my shit.

I worked for this company when I was in college, at a smaller store inside a mall, and had a pretty good experience overall. I made a lot of good friends and met my current boyfriend there, so I have mostly fond memories of the place. Now I'm at a huge flagship store downtown, and I hate everything about it. I'll admit I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about my (useless) degree and am a little embarrassed to still be working here at my age; I could use an attitude change, but I try not to let it show and I think I act like any other employee. That said, I try hard. We have to sell the store card and be all over customers telling them about our promotions and whatnot, and I'm not one of those people who is a fanatic about this (after offering it once I do take "no" as an answer because, I mean, come on), but I try to talk about them on the sales floor, and I'm perfectly peppy. I'm good at folding. I've had lots of customers go to my manager to tell them how helpful I was.

I'm mostly having trouble with management, which is completely disorganized; it's a huge store, so it's kind of understandable, but whenever I've had problems (setting up direct deposit, say, or the time when I was scheduled on all my internship days because of a computer glitch) I've been sent around to at least five different people only to finally be told to deal with it myself (set up direct deposit online; ask around to get my shifts covered to fix their mistake). I also feel like I don't get told a lot of fairly important information, like the rules for using the employee entrance, or what the promotions I'm supposed to be talking up actually are. Also, I requested a particular weekend off a month in advance to visit a friend who I haven't seen in 2 years (already bought tickets), and I just found out my request was denied; we get our schedules on Friday for the following Sunday, so I can't even ask around to get my shifts covered.

There's one particular manager who has always been snippy and rude to me; I accepted this stuff as part of life when I was 19, but it makes me bristle now and I've been dealing with it by putting on my best fake-chipper face. I thought this was working fine until today, when I got lectured about "smartmouthing" her every time we talk (!?). I took a deep breath and apologized, but it was kind of the last straw. I had an interview last week for a job that I should be hearing back about in the next few days, but if I don't get it, I don't know how I'm going to keep this up. I know lots of people have it worse than me and I'm lucky to even have a job (and an apartment that's affordable with said job, and so on), but that knowledge hasn't helped me get through the day. I don't know if I need a serious dose of humility, or a reality check, or meditation or hard drugs or what. Other than youthful naivete, I think my wonderful coworkers were what got me through my last stint in retail, but I've already been snapped at three times for daring to speak to coworkers on the sales floor when there were customers present, so even that approach is limited. This is exhausting and demeaning and I don't know what to do anymore. Please help me.
posted by sunset in snow country to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Working retail sucks. You probably didn't fully realize it when you were in college, but with a little more life experience, now you see it for how it is.

Do you know Microsoft Office applications? If so, you should go get a temp office job right away. Not only do temp agencies treat you a lot better than retail establishments, you also get the opportunity to try out working for different companies and gain work experience. If you don't know how to use Microsoft Office - you can learn enough Word and Excel to do basic office tasks in about a day. Good luck!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:35 AM on October 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

If you enjoyed teaching English, you could go back to school for ESL certification. I have a friend that did this and he's very happy now and works at USC where there are a lot of international students. If you don't feel like going back to school, you could also advertise around campuses to tutor ESL students or help proofread writing assignments.

Pretty soon holiday hiring will begin at lots of stores, so don't be too discouraged!
posted by dottiechang at 12:40 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, go to a temp agency. Take the assessments, find out how often you should call (some like you to call daily, some appreciate being called once in the morning and once in the afternoon, some prefer "don't call us, we'll call you"), and register with more than one.

To get money in the interim, there's the potential of waiting tables, but that can be surprisingly difficult to break into if you've never done it before. I'd still try, if it looked like there'd be a paycheck gap.

The one manager sounds intimidated by you. That never works out. Faceless retail bureaucracy without motivation to take care of the people on the floor doesn't get better quickly, either.

I hope your internships transition into positions that support you ASAP.
posted by batmonkey at 12:42 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

ooh - why didn't I see dottiechang's excellent tutoring/proofreading advice when I previewed? that's a great way to make interim money.
posted by batmonkey at 12:49 AM on October 21, 2012

I've worked retail my entire working life. And yeah, it sucks, a LOT.

It seems that your problem isn't with the retail environment, though, but with incompetent managers. You can't win against that. You've no power to change things at the level you're at. I think your best option is to get out of where you are and move either to another branch within the same company or even move companies entirely. I've worked for several different branches of the company I work for and each branch had it's own atmosphere and attitude towards the working environment.

Staying in a toxic environment is going to leave you poisoned.
posted by Solomon at 1:23 AM on October 21, 2012 [10 favorites]

Echoing the sentiment that this is a problem with managers, not with retail itself. If you can get a transfer, wrangle it.

As for Princess Snippy, there are two ways to deal with this. One, you suck it up, concentrate on how this is just a bump in the road and in ten years you may not even remember her name. Two is to address it head on - take a moment to tell her that you two don't seem to have hit it off very well, and that you'd like to be the best employee you can for her and that you'd like to know how best to make that happen for her. Be careful of your language - focus on how you work *for her* and not the other way round. I had a manager who resented the fact I have a degree and was better at driving our retail software than her, and this is how we got around it. She was just trying to do her job, too, and that resentment got in the way for her as well. Dealing with it head on worked for me, but it took some quick talking to make it happen without it seeming patronizing, so really watch your language.
posted by Jilder at 2:29 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seriously, a poisonous environment will almost never get better without a change outside of your control, and it will continue to be just as toxic every day. I know that's not very good coping advice, but in my experience the best advice is to keep aggressively looking elsewhere. Have you tried hostessing at a restaurant? It is pretty difficult to break into the restaurant biz without experience, but hostessing is kind of "entry level." If you have any food experience whatsoever it might work in your favor. A lot of people dislike the restaurant business too, but I've always preferred it to retail hands down. Alternately, stick with ESL and check out universities, as dottiechang mentioned.

Just always be on the lookout. You never know when a job at a nice restaurant or a bank will pop-up and need someone right away, and you'll be one of the first applicants.
posted by stoneandstar at 3:04 AM on October 21, 2012

I'm impressed that you can pay your bills working one retail job! That you just got, anyway. Around here, everything you can walk into is very low hours/low pay.

There's one particular manager who has always been snippy and rude to me; I accepted this stuff as part of life when I was 19, but it makes me bristle now and I've been dealing with it by putting on my best fake-chipper face. I thought this was working fine until today, when I got lectured about "smartmouthing" her every time we talk (!?).

I agree with batmonkey; it sounds like she is intimidated by you or maybe she resents you. She may feel stuck in her job and see that for you it's temporary. In my retail jobs, there was usually a middle-level manager or even store manager who would pick on newer employees out of sort of-- it seemed to me-- general frustration. The only thing that helped me was to realize it was their problem and just ride it out until someone newer took my place. That and watching those people get fired a lot. Because anyone who resorts to lecturing an employee for "smartmouthing" is not holding it together very well. You may be able to improve your relationship with her by acting like you take her seriously, but unfortunately you have to sort of read her to see what changes would work. Smiling and acting superficial, as you have been, would work with a lot of managers-- it shows you're a good retail drone-- but it hasn't worked with her so now maybe you have to put on a more serious demeanor. Bringing it up with her might work but it might backfire by underlining that she hasn't been handling this very well.

This schedule nonsense is on a whole other level. The new schedule should not be going up a couple of days before. I would probably be looking for a new job just because of that, but in retail you have to watch out for that frying pan-fire situation. Anyway schedules are usually less flexible over the holiday season, so you will probably not find a retail situation that is much better in that regard for the next couple of months.
posted by BibiRose at 5:10 AM on October 21, 2012

The fact you can afford your apartment on this salary means this is not a typical retail job, but one that pays well.

Humility is your answer. Retail is filled with both insecure people and those with chips on their shoulders. You should think and look at it this way: There are thousands of people even more overqualified than you, who would be grateful to have your job, even with all the problems you are facing. Consider why a chip doesn't get in the way for them.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:22 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer:
Humility is your answer.

This, sort of. I mean, the real answer is to get a job in your field, and it sounds like you are working towards that, but you have to figure things out until that happens.

Have you sat back and listed out what it would take to honest-to-god kick ass at your current job, both in terms of whatever sales goals they set and the less quantifiable stuff like attitude, etc? I'm not saying that you should necessarily be doing that (it's crazy tiring, for one), but it's absolutely worth reflecting on what that would look like and being aware of the areas in which you are visibly falling short of that.

I've found that when I've been noticeably overqualified for a job, there has often been a lot of the same kinds of social friction that you describe. People who may feel stuck in a position and resent the same crappy things you describe (like the last minute scheduling) are not going to automatically feel positively towards someone who is openly in that situation temporarily and can choose to ignore things (like credit card sales targets) that long-term employees cannot.

The buffer for that, when I've been in that situation, has been to take the job seriously, including all the stupid trivial shit -- no matter how dumb and demeaning it is, to do it competently, which will make your fellow employees' and supervisors' lives easier. At some level that is about humility, because honestly, if I was as hot shit as I thought I was, would I really be standing there running a photocopier? But it's also just solving a pragmatic question -- what are the things I can do to make things easier, given that this is the life I am living at this moment?

Long term, again, you solve this by getting a job that is higher up the hierarchy and is less problematic. In the meantime there are tradeoffs, like choosing between a crappy job and taking on debt, both of which aren't great but for different reasons and will each have different impacts on your long term plans. And you need to be sure that you are really looking at the whole situation -- have you gone to the places you are interning at (and/or your other contacts in the field) and used your crappy job situation as the catalyst for asking about part time employment in your field? It will still be low paid and demeaning, but it's a lot easier to suck it up and smile when you can see a clear path forward.
posted by Forktine at 7:08 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Seconding Forktine's advice. I'm in the same position as you; I just graduated with a (fairly useless) degree, and am working in retail.

Focusing on your non-retail future helps, but focusing on your retail-filled present will definitely pull you through this. Try paying attention to the sales goals and AOVs and whatever sales-jargon gets announced over your headsets. Play little games with yourself: how many sales in x can I seal in two hours, four hours, six? Eventually, you can work yourself up to the Advanced Retail Coping Strategy: see how many people you can forge genuine, if fleeting, connections with while you're on the sales floor. I've had enough interesting conversations with people that the hours just flew by. And on those days, I actually didn't want to curl up into a ball and cry at 10pm.

Focusing on that - instead of the manager, who will continue to get in your face until you break out of there - does several things. First, it will make you too busy to engage the problematic manager. Second, it will bring the other managers over to your side. People like her use what little authority they have with an audience. She won't be able to derive any sort of satisfaction from sniping at a hard-working employee. Especially because if you prove yourself to be an asset, her picking on you will encourage upper management to see that she isn't.

The third thing is that even professional references from retail are useful. Make it so that when you finally give your two weeks' notice at Retail Hellhole Depot, those impressed managers are going to be terribly, terribly sorry to see you go. More often than not, they're going to struggle filling the boots you left behind. When they write that recommendation or speak with a potential employer, they will speak favorably of you, and then return to the sales floor where Nonchalant Teenage Employee is using Facetime, in plain sight, for the sixth time.

This is temporary for you; never, ever lose sight of that. I think the manager-inspired twinge of discomfort (okay, maybe more than a twinge) can be used to your advantage, because you will never get too comfortable in retail. Lean on those two internships to keep you craving more. Retail can be draining, but if you take the last seeds of your daily energy supply and toss them into job applications, eventually you'll have a budding career to tend to.

Also, get thee to a temp agency.

Good luck!
posted by Ashen at 8:34 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

From what other people have told me about retail, the scheduling thing happens to everyone. If you tell them you need a particular time off, they WILL make SURE that you cannot have it, preferably telling you that at the last minute to screw you. I would recommend not making any long or short term plans you can't cancel or buying tickets until you're out of there. I know that's a sad thing to have to do, but right now you have zero power at work until you get anything else.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:40 AM on October 21, 2012

I'll admit I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about my (useless) degree and am a little embarrassed to still be working here at my age

Your degree isn't useless, and furthermore, with two years teaching English under your belt, you're qualified for tons of stuff beyond working in a retail store. I see that you're doing internships in your field, but can you also look for other jobs that aren't folding sweaters or shelving Twilight or turning the scented candles so that all the labels face outward?

A friend of mine was recently in your exact situation and transitioned very easily from teaching English overseas to teaching ESL classes in the US. She did that for about a year and now has a job in Underwater Basketweaving.

But that doesn't really answer your question.

First things first, get the chip off your shoulder about whether you ought to be working there "at your age". Tons of people pick up extra cash working retail. When I did it in my early 20's, I was actually one of the younger people in my shop. A lot of my coworkers did it part time while they pursued a harder to break into/less remunerative fields. I also worked with lots of artists who did it as their day job. So, chill the fuck out, bro. You're in good company, and it could be a lot worse.

That said, what kind of store is this? If it's something very youth-oriented where most of the employees are teenagers (say you work at Forever 21 or something), I can see that being really grating. Can you pick up a retail gig somewhere that skews older? A bookstore? Gift shop? Housewares? Clothing that appeals to an older demographic?

Changing up the retail environment you work in might also help in terms of your issues with management. It sounds like you enjoyed working at a smaller store, and a lot of the problems you're having are because you can't get one solid "boss" to work with. Which is very alienating, I agree. Especially on the schedule thing. Scheduling was the hardest thing about retail work, and to this day I don't understand why it has to be so hard. If I were you, I'd accept that scheduling was going to be stressful in general, and then I'd try to find a new retail job somewhere that has only a small group of managers who each have specific roles. Which will probably be a smaller store.

The great thing about having retail as your day job is that there are usually a shitload of retail jobs out there. It's very easy to quit one place and go somewhere else.

Re your relationship with the "snippy" manager -- unfortunately, that's life. In most of the jobs I've ever had, there's been some boss-like person who I just didn't see eye to eye with and who made my life harder. You just have to learn how to stay off their radar, or barring that, to ignore them and remind yourself that people like this exist and there's nothing you can really do to stop it.

TL;DR - my instructions to you are to wear down that chip on your shoulder, look into other opportunities you'd be qualified for, look for a retail environment that would be a better fit, and to not worry so much about aspects of work life that are unavoidable (like working with assholes.)
posted by Sara C. at 9:11 AM on October 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for your answers, everyone. I thought for sure I was going to get roasted for complaining about a job that is, after all, a job, but it's good to know I'm not crazy and that this does suck.

Re: manager resentment, the funny thing is I thought the exact opposite--I don't think anyone at work knows anything about me or my background (I don't talk about it unless directly asked, and then I play it down), and I'm pretty sure everyone just assumes I'm a student like 90% of our employees. If this manager is at the level of resenting student employees, then I really do feel bad for her, but she claims to like her job and as far as I can tell she knows exactly how she comes off and just doesn't care.

Anyway, Forktine and Ashen's advice came the closest to what I'm looking for; I will totally ramp up my efforts to find something else, but even if I was hired at my dream job today, I intend to give proper two weeks' notice instead of just ragequitting because who knows when I'll have to work retail again. And those will be two long weeks if I don't find some way to stay sane. So thank you all again :)
posted by sunset in snow country at 9:20 AM on October 21, 2012

I don't think anyone at work knows anything about me
Your bosses do.
posted by LonnieK at 10:43 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

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