What have you learned working in retail?
February 1, 2017 9:25 AM   Subscribe

Retail / service hacks: how has specific knowledge you've picked up from your job impacted how you buy those products or services?

I am interested in the comments of those who have in-depth knowledge of retail or industry (or what friends and family have told you!). Particularly things that a layperson would not know - for example:

- having worked for an optician you always spring for this certain kind of Y lens coating, but know that X add-on is never worth it

- your mom worked at the Clinique counter for thirty years and has tried every single one of their moisturizers and always goes back to this certain product

- you currently work in the home insurance industry and now will always add fine art coverage to your own policy

- your friend worked at a hair salon and hands-down recommends this brand of shampoo

I'm not talking general knowledge that people learn, like "I'm always really nice to the waitstaff cause I know how hard it is" or "I make sure to cancel my hair appointment at least 24 hours in advance." I am talking specifically about products or services that you always go for now after having the opportunity to really vet them.

posted by amicamentis to Shopping (28 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
99% of the pills, mixtures, topicals, etc. sold in sex shops is a bunch of crap that at best does nothing and at worst will make you ill. The remaining 1% is either OTC stimulants, or a topical irritant or lidocaine.
posted by griphus at 9:36 AM on February 1, 2017 [12 favorites]

Always bring earplugs to (amplified) concerts, even if you don't expect it to be loud. Hearing damage is permanent.

If you're applying for a mortgage, expect seemingly ridiculous levels of scrutiny about small details. Make sure that the company names you say you worked for on your application exactly matches what the W2s says, for example. If the W2 says, "The Foo Company," don't say, "Foo Company" on your application.
posted by Candleman at 9:43 AM on February 1, 2017 [10 favorites]

My hair stylist is always looking out for cheaper alternatives to the things that salons typically try to upsell. She told me that .....

1. Any shampoo without sulphates/phosphates is fine. (I ended up going with Costco's Moisturizing shampoo in the purple bottle; it's a very close formula to the brand Pureology). $10 instead of $70. Woot!

2. She always recommends L'Oreal for any products not sold exclusively at the salon

3. Any moisturizer with Argan oil is fine. The expensive stuff is a ripoff.
posted by onecircleaday at 9:44 AM on February 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

"I'll wait for you to drop a fresh basket of fries, please."
posted by praemunire at 9:58 AM on February 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

Not retail, but since you mentioned insurance:
Buy term life insurance, not whole life. Take the difference in premiums & save and/or invest it. A large part of your life insurance premium is salesman's commission.
posted by mr vino at 10:01 AM on February 1, 2017 [10 favorites]

Having worked in the textbook department of a university bookstore, unless you are 100000% sure you will need your textbook after the class is over, it is more cost-effective to rent the textbook than to buy it and then try to sell it back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.
posted by coppermoss at 10:18 AM on February 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

I used to be a barista at a non-Starbucks chain. After working there:

I always, always buy unground beans and grind them myself. (They don't have to be expensive beans and my grinder cost like $12.) Preground coffee vs unground is like dried herbs vs fresh: you're losing a lot of the volatile oils that give the coffee its flavor.

I never get whipped cream on drinks anymore. I'm the least calorie-counting person you'll ever meet, but when I looked in the guide and saw that whipped cream adds around 100 calories to a drink, I noped the hell out. Even our absolute most fuckoff-giant super-mocha with a flavor shot wasn't going to be more than 400 calories - why would I want to add 25% more calories for something that adds very little flavor and melts in about three minutes?
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:42 AM on February 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

This might be common knowledge by now, but Monster Cables are complete bullshit.
posted by knownassociate at 10:45 AM on February 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

In wine retail, my biggest takeaway was that you should not buy the wine being offered on promo near the register, nor the wines being offered at the tasting bar unless the importer or winemaker is there with them. Otherwise, they're trying to get rid of stock. Also, so many tasting notes are just fantasies, and they're banking hard on the power of suggestion to make you think a wine is more complex than it is. If you think it's tasty, go with that. Don't try to make yourself like something that doesn't immediately appeal to you, especially if it's out of your price range. But you will be judged if you load up on white zinfandel.

I will also avoid buying any wines from Bordeaux or Napa because the price of real estate in those regions is so high that the grapes, winemaking, etc. are incidental. Bordeaux wines in particular are sold to like, Saudi businessmen in the futures market. Unless you can afford to pay $300+, there's no added value in choosing Bordeaux over, say, a Cotes-du-Rhone.

I learned from working at a shoe store that Birkenstocks really are great for your feet, once you get the exact right fit. Danskos are better for your back, especially if you stand for long periods of time. Crocs are worthless pieces of shit, and sneakers aren't much better. Basically, anything that offers "comfort" in the form of crushable foam will ultimately cause injury. If you spend any time on your feet at all, it's worth it to invest in quality shoes. Shoes are definitely one of those "pay now or pay later" things.
posted by witchen at 11:00 AM on February 1, 2017 [27 favorites]

I worked in scheduling at a doctor's office and I learned two things:
1. The reason doctors are always running late is that they double-and triple-book appointments
2. There is *always* space to squeeze in an urgent/emergent appointment
posted by radioamy at 11:08 AM on February 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

Don't buy a printer that's not on sale. The way most of the printer industry works (or, at least, worked) is that more or less each week, a different retailer gets a sale price -- e.g.: one week, Office Depot would have the sale price, the next week, it's Costco, the week after, it's Target, etc...
posted by mhum at 11:23 AM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

you currently work in the home insurance industry and now will always add fine art coverage to your own policy

If you are a home insurance analyst and you peruse the fine art coverage riders and use the internet to look up the pictures expect a visit from the audit team. They track everything you access and you will look like a thief/accomplice [that was an awkward day].

Buy insurance yourself. Brokers are a scam.

They sell customers to insurance companies. They'll move your business and the rest of their clients to less ideal insurance company in exchange for steak or a weekend golf tournament. They are not really motivated to get you the best deal and a lawyer is better for getting your claim sorted. If you have a claim then you should claim everything you are entitled to. You've essentially pre-paid for it so don't leave it on the table because you feel rude or selfish.

Review your insurance annually. People buy and forget and keep paying for decades. Companies won't move you to their best deals by default and other companies will offer you better deals to get your business. You have to move or threaten to move.
posted by srboisvert at 11:25 AM on February 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

7 years in retail: An arguing customer is NEVER, EVER right. That is why they have a problem in the first place.
posted by TinWhistle at 11:31 AM on February 1, 2017 [13 favorites]

Don't cut your art to fit the frame. Don't let the salesperson cut your art to fit the frame. Choose the least invasive methods of framing that you can. Otherwise, here's what will happen: you will fall in love with the cheap poster or whatever, OR it will become a valuable collector's piece, and you will cry bitter tears to your framer in 30 years when you're stuck with the Ghost of Framing Past's damaging decision.

Don't make the same mistake that everyone else made that I had to listen to as a framer. Don't do it. If you really, truly, literally, seriously are going to change it out in one-five years, save yourself the $ and tack it up with thumbtacks or Command strips and commit to changing it or framing it in that short time frame. Or-- buy two, tack up the first one, and if you fall in love with it, preservation-frame the mint copy later in life.

Other framing tips: if you are flexible with your design choices, your framer-- especially a mom 'n' pop shop-- may have scrap items they can put together for you at a discount if you ask nicely. Also, if you have a whole room to do, pick a color but don't do everything in the same style or shape. If you start out with a mix of styles, you can add or replace pieces without having to disturb other pieces or replace everything because the 3/4" black moderne molding went out of production and all you can get is a 5/8" profile with a slightly glossier finish and looking at the slight mismatch drives you insane-- set yourself up for success.

Also, never pay retail for art supplies unless you're desperate. The wholesale cost is between 50% and 80% less. Wait for a sale or use a coupon, and shop around: different retailers will offer the same item at different prices because the buyers were able to negotiate a better or worse deal. Since art supplies mostly don't go bad, the margin is pretty padded.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:48 PM on February 1, 2017 [11 favorites]

Make sure your will specifies what's to be done with your pets, and specifies the amount of money that needs to be held back for the care of those pets.
posted by Ftsqg at 1:17 PM on February 1, 2017 [12 favorites]

If you have lots of produce and you are in a rush/don't want to make conversation, don't pick the teenage boy checkout operator. He'll very likely have to ask you what each one is. Apologies to more gourmet-food aware boys out there. My colleagues struggled to differentiate cabbage from iceberg lettuce.

Also don't buy the loose nuts (the serve scoop ones). The little mousies like them too. I buy prepackaged, at least if the mousies run around on those before they are packaged I don't know about it .
posted by kitten magic at 1:32 PM on February 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

Always read the terms and conditions, shipping and return policy in full before buying online or bidding in an auction. And always ask for condition reports!
posted by prewar lemonade at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2017

Department store clothing is marked up crazy high. The store still makes a profit even up to 60-70% off. NEVER PAY FULL PRICE if you can help it. Go for those big 75% and up markdowns to be sure to get the biggest savings.

Department store cosmetic counters always have samples. However the salesperson is on commission, so she will usually only be generous if you seem likely to buy something. Breezing up with "Got any samples?" usually fails. They are supposed to generate leads and gather customer profiles for mailing lists etc., so if you play along even a little, it can pay off. Go to the counter(s) of your choice. The cheapest thing in most lines is nail polish, an eye pencil or maybe mascara. Part with $20 or so for one of those items, and make a friend of the salesperson. It will bear dividends down the road.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2017

For outdoor clothes/gear: choose function over fashion!
posted by scrubjay at 2:17 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel like I talk about my experience working in a (high-end and independent) kitchen store when I was fresh out of college a lot here, but it taught me so much about what to look for in pots & pans, knives, and bakeware/wine glasses.

All-Clad is like 50% hype and I like to take every opportunity I can to point that out because I rarely came across a customer for whom they were a good choice unless they were buying it as a show-off thing or needed a super specific pan since All-Clad makes everything under the sun. They're just very expensive without much cause. They're not shitty, but there are much better pans out there. One example: I don't think many people would know that rivets that attach the handle to the pan body are actually not as strong as spot welded handles, and BONUS, crud won't build up if there are no rivets. All-Clad makes a point of bragging about their rivets. (Good alternative: I love Cuisinart, Chef's Classic is a good line. They're mostly made in China, but they do have some French made clad pans, French Classic line, that are an amazing value.)

Related to All-Clad, but just in general one of the most helpful things I learned: different style pans are good for different things. Clad cookware, where the conductive but reactive material (usually aluminum, can be copper too, silver rarely) is sandwiched by non-reactive material (usually stainless steel) and goes all the way up the sides, vs. a pan with a thick base with conductive material. This guide is really great at explaining when you'd want one or the other. I always recommend Demeyere brand because they're one of the few companies who make both styles specifically to what the purpose of the pan is and they have a lot of neat technology that, IMO, justifies their high price.

Linking to this long comment I made about non-stick pans because non-stick is definitely one thing most people don't know much about, if my retail experience tells me anything, and if you're looking to buy one anytime soon I really, really hope you'll buy my recommended brand.

Le Creuset: worth it, pronounce it "l'ugh crewsay", and also check out Staub which are made in France and very similar with a few differences: they glaze with white first, then put down color, so they turn out really vibrant, they only use stainless steel knobs so you don't have to worry about melting it like some of the Le Creuset's, and they use a black matte enamel inside which I like because it doesn't show stains. Oh, and no matter how much men will 'splain it to you differently, that black enamel on Staub and Le Creuset enameled cast iron frying pans is NOT raw cast iron and does not need to be treated as such, nor is it non-stick. And even cast iron isn't as fussy as people want you to believe: you can use soap on it, for pete's sake, once it's seasoned that shit is fused to the pan and isn't going to come off unless you use steel wool or whatnot. Use some damn dish soap and dry it and you'll be fine.

Knives: well, I guess snarkily, I can say that men often cut themselves while testing out knives and women rarely did, and men liked to have pissing contests with me that I "won" every time because I am a huge nerd who used to care deeply about knives and was basically an encyclopedia. But now I don't really care as much because really, a sharp knife is a sharp knife regardless of the brand — some may stay sharper longer, some may be less prone to chips, or rusting, or have a narrower angle or all sorts of things, but don't worry so much about that. If you're looking for a good cheap knife, buy a Forschner/Victorinox (Fibrox line). Otherwise, buy a knife based on how it feels in your hand. And FFS, please don't mistake a honing steel and a sharpening steel: one removes steel and sharpens, and one does not because it hones (it's a magnetic steel that realigns the edge of the knife so you can use it longer between sharpenings). You can guess which does what, but I crankily noted that Bon Appetit got this wrong a couple issues ago and am still pissy about it.

Bakeware: just buy the cheapest stuff from a restaurant supply store and buy pre-cut parchment paper.

Wine glasses: Schott Zwiesell are crystal reinforced with titanium. They are really cool. Dishwasher safe (does not cloud like pure cyrstal) and very strong. Our store's "trick" was to bang two of them together hard and watch customers step back in concern. My collection has lasted over six moves, including 3 cross-country, without breaking. If you do hand wash wine glasses, we learned that they almost always break when the stem comes apart from the bowl when people twist the glass during drying. Use one towel to hold the bottom and one to dry the top so they both turn.

Oh, and a wine aerator works magic. They're not a gimmick, nor are deep bowled wine glasses. They really do make even cheap wine taste better!

Thank you for indulging my favorite thing to rant about on the Green. I may not have gotten a 'real' job right out of college, but this one was almost worth the retail nightmares it still gives me, ten years later.

Also, my boss said something during our first training that I have learned to be true: you don't know how much money someone has, and you don't know what's expensive to that person. To one person $10 seems like $100, and to another person it could be the opposite. And if a customer knows what they want and you talk them out of it, they will never be as happy as if you had just given them what they had in mind in the first place. Which is why I sold more All-Clad than anyone there!
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 2:29 PM on February 1, 2017 [101 favorites]

Oh, and a wine aerator works magic. They're not a gimmick, nor are deep bowled wine glasses. They really do make even cheap wine taste better!

FYI try both the aerated and un-aerated versions of your wine. The aerators change the flavor, sometimes spectacularly well, other times quite BADLY.
posted by lalochezia at 3:41 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I ran a Clinique counter for a few years. Nearly ten years later I still use the DDM Gel which doesn't break out my skin like every other moisturiser, and their number 3,4 (combination,oily) treatment moisturisers (which go over the top) also suit my skin whereas everything else I've ever tried makes me shiny. Ive also tried a million mascaras and I always go back to their Lash Power because it lasts all day no matter what and doesn't irritate my sensitive, contact-lens wearing eyes.

More generally, spend money on foundations but don't spend a fortune on powders, a good lipstick will wear much better than a cheap one, be specific when asking for a makeover - "give me defined cheekbones/glowing skin", don't just say "natural" because that's so vague as to be useless - and yeah don't ask for samples if you're not buying anything because you don't go into Starbucks and ask for free coffee or whatever. Also Clarins have the most samples always out of every counter, definitely make friends with the Clarins person.
posted by billiebee at 3:49 PM on February 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

Never buy lift tickets at the gate. You'll usually save double digit percentage by buying 7 days out, but it can vary as little as 3 days out. Ticket prices are inflated at the gate so that the savings they can offer you in advance look higher than they are. They don't actually want you to pay full price.
posted by furtive at 7:32 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Restaurant specials on weeknights are often leftovers, remixed to move them out. Get specials on Friday and Saturday if they sound good - those are probably fresh for the weekend - but skip them on weeknights - especially skip soups or stews that combine a lot of things, or things like shepherd's pie or chicken pot pie or enchiladas if the place doesn't usually have them.

If you join the American Association of Museums, you can get into just about any AAM-accredited museum for free with your membership card.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on February 1, 2017 [7 favorites]

The independent bookstore where I worked had an entire back room full of ARCs and Donate/Destroy titles (books that arrived from the publisher damaged that they don't want to bother paying the shipping to send back) that we couldn't donate fast enough.

I'm absolutely not suggesting it's a good idea to ask to look through them, it's a bookstore & they want ppl to buy the books, but if you've got a good rapport with a bookseller and you buy a lot of books, you could offer to take whatever boxes they have to the WRC or school library or whatever and if you "sort through" them on the drive there, ain't nobody gonna stop you.

We also let kids who read like crazy and were awesome back there to pick out a book sometimes. Or if we knew they were into a series and there was a freebie version available, it'd make it into their checkout bag.

It's also a great place to check for cardboard boxes if you're moving.
posted by moons in june at 9:10 PM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

At the grocery store, never buy cut up stew or stir fry meat. When meat is starting to go bad, some places cut out the bad parts and cut up the rest. Source: employee in butcher department.
posted by FencingGal at 8:02 AM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

From the paint desk at your friendly orange box:

*A Zinsser primer is worth the time and effort.
*Frogtape is better than 3M blue tape.
*Expensive Purdy brushes are the best, but cheaper knock-off brushes are not that bad.
*Those little stubby-handled Wooster Sash paint brushes designed for trim work are really easy to use for any application and all I buy any more.
*Almost no matter the application and assuming you never want it to come undone, just use the Heavy Duty Liquid Nails.
*The life hack saying you can fill holes and scratches in your floor by rubbing almonds across them are correct. For a while at least, until the oil dries out. Then the almond residue turns white and you are back to square one. Just get the proper Minwax wood putty.
posted by lstanley at 11:06 AM on February 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

As someone who worked at an Indian restaurant I can tell you that they use shocking amounts of food coloring in addition to godawful amounts of salt and butter.
posted by Lucubrator at 1:17 PM on February 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

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