One of the things I do remember the most about my time working at a certain retail store was the customers.
I didn’t particularly like being a shop assistant. I liked being a shoe responsible a bit better, but it was more of the same really. I didn’t like my manager. My workmates were generally fine, except a couple of exceptions.
The customers… Ah, that’s another story. I used to work in a posh area in London, and there were many ladies around during the week that thought we were there to be their servants. They would treat us like we were nothing, and we couldn’t say anything about it. I remember this lady coming into the store at 11am on a Tuesday morning, stinking of alcohol. They might have had more money than us, but they had pitiful lives that needed alcohol first thing in the morning.
Many of these ladies were rude and dismissive. I didn’t like them one bit. I was usually polite and cheerful, despite their behaviour, but I hated when they were being rude to others in the shop!
During most of the week, especially Mondays, the store was empty. It was quite boring at times, and we had to keep ourselves busy, so we had to unfold and fold again the same pile of jumpers. Such a waste of time, but whatever.
On Saturdays, however, it was absolute madness. You would never stop running around, having to help 5 people at once and trying to remember endless strings of reference numbers in order to bring the items requested. Going at the speed of light to the stock room (upstairs, downstairs) and trying to figure out if the trouser you wanted had a reference number ending in 6, or maybe it was the jumper? Thinking: well, this one looks very similar to the one they want, I think, so I’ll bring this and cross my fingers. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
It’s not that I had no ability to remember, it was that sometimes, you were going to empty the fitting room, and walked around the shop floor with more than 20 items on your arms, barely seeing where you were going, and with pain on your muscles from lifting, say, 20 winter coats. Suddenly, 3 different customers would stop you, asking if you were busy (“not really, I just like walking around carrying stuff, please do tell me the story of your life in 30 minutes, I have nothing better to do”) wanting some item. Of course, the shop could not be a mess (Ha! On a Saturday…) so you needed to find some place where to leave all the stuff you were carrying.
This lady would follow you around, like a duckling, and finally ask you for that trouser in a size 10 (“er… maybe I should bring you 3, because if you’re a size 10 then I’m size -20”), and that top in that size, and that pair of shoes in that other, blah, blah, blah (fashion police, anyone?)
You then had 2 options. One, take the items with you to the stockroom, so you could search for the correct sizes (or if you were relatively close to the door run for your life!!) Two, if you really were that close to the door of the stockroom, you could always try to remember the reference.
I can’t remember the details now, but these numbers seemed longer than a telephone number!! They went something like 0000/000/000 plus the size. I think, or some other combination, in which the first group marked the collection (we had 3), and then another of the groups marked the actual trend (the checked suits, or the shirts, or blah, blah) and another one the colour (800 for black, 706 for chocolate brown, 300… I think that was green, can’t remember) and all that. If they asked you for just one thing, you could easily remember the number (and keep repeating it like a mantra until you reached your destination), but when they needed more than one item that was a different story.
Of course, when you’re almost running to the stockroom (to avoid being intercepted), let’s say repeating the string of numbers so you would remember, some other lady would stop you and ask you if you could bring her that dress in whatever size (“dammit, there goes the reference, ah, well, I’ll just have to wing it!”)
All. The. Time.
We would normally close the shop at 7pm (or 8pm, can’t remember), and would close the fitting rooms at the same time. Most shops close them 10 minutes before, but we didn’t. Every single night whoever was in charge of the changing rooms had to argue with these customers who wanted to go in the changing rooms after 7pm. Every. Single. Night.
Of course, they would be rude to you and/or think they were owed something and/or ask for favours (“I have these items to try, why do you let people in the shop if you don’t let them try the clothes? This is ridiculous, I’m spending my money here and you think you can… blah, blah”), and after a while, they would go, find your manager, moan, sometimes even shout, and then be allowed into the fitting room. You can imagine how unnerving that was. Especially when then, you had your manager putting pressure on you to get the shop empty and clean by 7.30pm because they didn’t want to pay you the extra hours. More than once we had to sign off 15 or 30 minutes earlier than the actual time, as a punishment for not being too fast – when you’re being paid just above the minimum pay, 30 minutes does make a difference.
As soon as we would close, some Saturdays closer to 10pm than 7pm, we would be running out of the store. but only after showing the contents of our handbags and rucksacks at the door, so they would check we were not stealing anything. Of course, they knew they weren’t paying us enough to be that loyal to the company. If you had bought anything from the store, yesterday or a month ago, you had to carry the receipt with you all the time, so the manager would see it. Even if you had been carrying the same damned handbag for the past two months, you would still be asked from time to time about it.
We would then go to the pub, or if we were too tired, straight back home. Whenever I was arriving home, the first thing I had to do was sit down for half an hour, before even thinking about dinner. I was exhausted.
I could eat burgers, and sandwiches, and pizza every single day and I dropped to a size 6-8. I was lean, not an ounce of fat in my body. I could run upstairs like the wind and work standing up for sometimes 10 hours. Delivery day was a taxing one as I had to carry the big boxes, full of shoes, to my stockroom upstairs, on my own, and have them all empty, the delivery checked and the new shoes out on the shop floor, all in 1 hour, 2 hours maximum. I used to say it was great because I was paid to go to the gym!
I hated my job. I hated my boss. I’ve never cried so often in my life.
However, interestingly enough, whenever people asked me if I was happy, my answer was always yes.
I had a job. I had health. I could go out if I wanted and the people I cared about were safe. Of course I was happy!
There was something else though…
If, on top of all that, there was one single nice customer that day, then it would be a brilliant day for me. No matter how rude someone had just been to me, or how busy we were. No matter if 10 people had been rude to me. There was always one person, one customer, who would be nice, a real pleasure to deal with. That one single person had the power to change my day completely.
They used to tell me that I had a knack for dealing with people. I had a bunch of regular customers that always came to see me and I always, always, had a bright smile on my face.
Working in retail has really made an impact on how I see others. I’ve never been rude to the people I deal with on a daily basis, or I try not to anyway; but I make a special point of being polite to the people that serve me (the fact that someone is serving you doesn’t make them your servant). A shop assistant might be having the worst day of their lives, but one single friendly customer can really brighten their day.
Now, I am proud of saying this is one of my mottos every day.
It doesn’t matter how I feel, or how my day is going, but if I can make one person, anyone, smile, even for a tiny bit; if I can make one single person happy for one single second, then my day would have been worth it.