So I work in retail. And I have worked in retail for 7 years. And it is such an interesting place for me to observe the human race as a whole because all sections of life have come before me. I could literally write a book based on the situations that I have come across. But even through all the bad shit that I see during the week, I still stay in retail. And I think it is because I have met some super magical people in the last seven years… ones who didn’t know they were special, ones who did, and ones who believed in me for no apparent reason. But I know that isn’t what all of you see when you walk into my store, or even if you apply for a job in my store. This is what most people see in the retail world:
For a large majority of people who work in retail, retail is like purgatory. It is the hell you work at for 15 hours a week until you get your “real job.” I spend most of my time not getting offended by the people who work for me, chatting regularly about getting “real” jobs when they finish school, when the economy gets better, or when they finally move out of their parent’s house. These people may be good to you, they may be horrible to you, and their actions largely depend on me as a leader.
I will be the first to admit, that there is some truly horrible customer service out there. Hopefully, few of them have come from my store. But I too have been ignored, discriminated against, etc. It happens to us all. I think where managers go wrong is that they don’t care enough about their people as individuals… and that is why they don’t care enough about their customers. Because they see them as a sea of people at checkout, rather than the mom, the father, daughter, teacher, runner, lawyer, etc.
So I try to get to know my people. It is done typically in a very professional way, asking them vague questions while we stock shelves in the hope that they will share a little piece of their life with me. Because I spend 40 hours a week with these people… I want to know that they are safe, that their studies make them happy, and that they have some balance in their lives. I do this partially because I know that happy people sell well, but also because I don’t want to work with people who are stressed out and mean. That makes my job no fun and your shopping experience no fun.
And over the years, I have met some people who changed the way I looked at the human race as a whole. Here are a few:
*A woman from Bangladesh worked for me at Pier 1, and about once a month, she would surprise me by bringing me authentic Bangladesh food she had cooked just because she cared about me as her boss. She had a full family to cook for, but she thought of me every once in a while. It always melted my heart. And it was always freakin’ delicious!!!
*A gentleman worked for me one Christmas when our store was doing a toys for tots drive. One day, a customer brought in this ridiculous dragon stuffed animal that I fell in love with. I carried it around the store one afternoon having it give me kisses on my cheek. Randomly one day, the guy who worked for me asked if he put two toys into the charity bin, would that negate taking one out. I didn’t think much of it, and told him to do whatever. A week later the dragon stuffed animal showed up on my desk as a Christmas present. I still have “Scorch” the dragon. He reminds me of the random acts of love that are in this world.
*I have been invited to their family’s birthdays, graduation parties, and funerals. I have shown up to almost every one because inviting a random retail manager to an event seems like an honor to me. I am happy to share in their lives… even for just a moment.
*I had an employee who died unexpectedly while working for me. I watched a team grieve for the loss of their friend, and let them go to the funeral while I stayed and worked because some of them needed the opportunity to share their feelings without me.
*I had a woman whose husband died while she was working for me. I was one of the first three people she called when it happened because she didn’t want to let me down even though she was devastated by the loss. I gave her a month off with pay because she deserved it… she was beyond dependable and a mainstay at my store. And I went to his funeral and cried even though I had met him only a handful of times.
*I have maintained friendships with some of the most amazing people I met in retail. There is a magical group of about four of us who shared our 20’s in a store full of furniture that shaped much of who I am. I have watched them get married, get new jobs, go through heartbreak, and have parts in television shows (you all know who you are… I love you always!).
*I have had people believe in me when I didn’t necessarily believe in myself. People who offered me opportunities before I asked for them, and people who offered me a second chance. For both, I am extremely thankful.
*I have worked for three companies that gave me different opportunities and chances to be a leader. I have most recently worked for a place with a commitment to ethics that are stronger than most. I appreciate that what I do is not only fun, but ethical and good for the environment.
And I think that is why when my staff leaves it is harder for me than they assume. When it comes to selling, I give a piece of my sales self to you. I can teach you how to connect with people, or how to make people laugh. But everyday I spend with a teammate, I give a piece of my REAL SELF to you, and take a piece of you with me.
I have recently had a rush of people leave in the pursuit of more money. And I know that I cannot provide everything to these people. But I have entered so many situations where the first thing I see is the broken remnants of people and a team. I watch their anger and figure out how to cultivate them into leaders using their own motivations and communication. I have given structure to people who have never had a schedule. I have given tough love to the people who don’t want to hear it. And eventually they all move on. They tell me that they learned a lot from me, that I was a great boss, but their time is done. I am a sensei of life, in a black apron, that sells soap.
I am not writing this to pump up my sense of self worth on a shitty night. I am writing this because we all do this in some sense… in everyday of our lives at work. Especially if you are in a leadership role. It may look different, and you may not see the same result, but we touch people with every word we put out into the universe. Every word can make or break someone. I feel that we as leaders have a responsibility to be careful with the words we choose daily, because those words shape the people who receive them.
It is the holiday season, and people are running around avidly trying to get gifts for everyone on their list. And undoubtedly, I will get yelled at because the lines are too long, because we run out of something, or because someone didn’t get the experience they wanted from our store. But the good outweighs the bad… I will meet amazing customers who will smile and say thank you… and really mean it. And I will still get to spend 40 hours (perhaps 45 hours), with my team as they grow, learn, fail, and succeed. The reason I show up to work everyday is because I genuinely love people.
To those who are working in retail this holiday season, I salute you. And for those of you shopping, you may just see a person behind a desk ringing you up for gift for your Aunt Maud. But I may also be the person who has just counseled a teammate after she had an abortion, or created a team out of something that was broken. I will do my best to see you as a person, if you will do the same for me… and I am training my team to do the same. Thank you and Happy Holidays.