Retail Workers Are People Too: A Memoir

“Excuse me, do you work here?”

Have you ever worn a red shirt to Target? No? You’re lucky. People automatically assume you work there. Since Target employees have the freedom to wear whatever the heck red shirt they want, innocent bystanders are targeted (no pun intended) and sought out by curious customers.

On one particular day, I happened to be wearing a red shirt to Target. A red dress shirt. Who does that? Apparently I do.

And of course, someone thought I worked there. So she said those six words that every retail worker has heard:

“Excuse me, do you work here?”

The next time I heard this phrase, I was a retail worker myself. Innocent, young, red-shirt-wearing me had no idea what the typical retail worker went through on a daily basis. It wasn’t until I started working at Meijer, a local grocery store, that I understood what it truly meant to be an underpayed, overworked individual.

I was wearing a navy-blue shirt that everyone at Meijer had to wear. I was wearing my name tag that said “Audrey – happy to serve you! :D” And khakis. And black, durable shoes in case I dropped glass or hydrochloric acid or whatever all those OSHA videos warned me about. On that particular day, I was walking back to the breakroom.

Someone stopped me and asked,

“Excuse me, do you work here?”

I looked incredulously down at my nametag, my khakis, and my oversized blue shirt which I was apparently just wearing for fun. Every ounce of my being wanted to give the customer a surly look and say, “Duh.” But every retail worker has been meticulously trained to do exactly the opposite no matter what the circumstance. Because we’re not working to serve ourselves. Retail is about grinning and bearing it.

“Yes, I do. How may I help you?”

I have said this before (not on the Internet), but I’ll say it again: everyone should work retail at some point, even if only for a day. Because a day would be plenty for some people. It’s not easy, and that’s probably why some people are demanding retail workers get paid more (I won’t spout my opinion on that; that’s not necessary for this post).

Like the title of this post says: Retail workers are people too. “What?!” exclaims thousands of suburbanites, falling out of their chairs. “Retail workers are actual people?!” Hopefully it’s not that much of a surprise to anyone that the person who is scanning your groceries, pulling the hangers off your clothes, or handing you your mall pretzel is an actual human being, not a weird robot from one of those modern dystopian robot movies. You look in their face and you see that they’re a person.

But do you acknowledge them as a person?

I’m not going to rip on everyone, I promise. Most people are incredibly kind and cordial to retail workers, because they acknowledge that person as a human being with emotions and problems, just like them. I’m addressing the people who are the exact opposite. And usually, these people are like this to everyone they encounter, not just cashiers or service clerks. You probably know someone who works in retail who comes home every night with story after story. Who knew someone would get so hung up over saving fifty cents on a can of soup? People, right??

Right. People.

I  could tell you stories. Customer stories are to cashiers as war stories are to veterans. You never forget them. You tell them to your grandchildren. I’ve watched a couple make out in front of me as I scanned their groceries. I’ve been cussed out over a few coupons. People have had incredibly private conversations right in front of me.

It’s as if when someone puts on a uniform, their humanness becomes invisible, and they become a mere commodity. People don’t see past the nametag to see a person who is struggling through life just as much as they themselves are.

I know that it’s a retail worker’s job to serve a customer, no matter who they are or what they say or how they treat people. It’s their job. But that still leaves room for making connections, for being kind to one another.

The next time you come into contact with a retail worker, look them in the eye. Acknowledge them as a human being first and an employee second. If they’re in a bad mood, empathize with them. Step into their shoes for just one second. Don’t cuss them out. Hopefully they are kind to you in return (they should be; it’s their job no matter what mood they’re in). If something goes wrong, there’s a 90% chance it’s not their fault. Just remember that. They’ll probably (hopefully) apologize all over themselves. Maybe they’re new. Maybe it’s just an off day. Take the time to recognize that. The world’s not going to pass you by if you stop for one second and acknowledge another human.

I hope I’m not preaching. I’m just trying to give you a little perspective. Like I said before, I know most people are empathetic. But some people can’t see past themselves, and those people become the subject of Customer Stories.

And to retail workers (myself included), I say this: remember the people you interact with daily are humans too. You only encounter them for a few minutes or even just a few seconds, but acknowledge their humanness too. And be nice. Being rude or stand-offish doesn’t help anyone. Those people aren’t commodities either. They might only say three words to you and handle money, but Customers are people too, rude or otherwise. Take a moment to see the world from their perspective too. And maybe you’ll make a connection.

If all else fails, smile. (“Happy to serve you! :D”)

TL;DR version of this post: be nice to everyone you meet, whether they’re a cashier or Albert Einstein (I hope you don’t meet Albert Einstein; if you do you’d be graverobbing and that’s not very cool). We’re all humans first. Even if we’re wearing a red dress shirt and khakis. Even if we have a nametag that says “Happy to serve you :D” but we have a face that might not say that.

And please, don’t make out in grocery stores. Just don’t. I don’t care who you are.



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