Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Perspectives on a summer job in retail

After 19 years of mooching off of my parents, this summer I finally sucked it up and decided to be “self-sufficient.” I got a summer job.

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting – probably something easy and boring, a job I could cruise through without exerting any effort or forming any kind of commitment. I think that years of watching workplace comedies such as “The Office” on television probably created an idealized expectation for me.

In case you’re unfamiliar with these shows, the main characters are employed at an extremely boring, dead-end job. Their boss is terrible and their colleagues are a mash up of “normal people” and “wackos.” These characters are typically too smart, funny or level-headed to allow this senseless job to have any effect on them. They do their work sufficiently but half-heartedly, and are so steeped in apathy and so incredulous of their eccentric co-workers that their job almost seems alluring to those of us in the audience. This was probably what I was expecting when I stepped into my first job.

Chelsey Powell/Daily Collegian

What I soon realized is boring jobs are just that – boring. The customers are abrasive, your co-workers are nice (but unremarkably amusing) and apathetically cruising through your shift is never as painless as you would think. I learned some valuable things this summer while I was slaving away folding jeans, removing censors and clearing out dressing rooms. These things I learned have also convinced me that every person should have to work in retail at least once in their lives, for the sake of learning such admirable skills and attributes as humility, cooperation and basic human understanding.

First, the customer is not always right. In fact, the customer is often pushy, rude, ungrateful and closed-minded. Sure, you have to let them think they’re right, or else you’ll lose their business (and possibly your job). But this age-old adage soon becomes a slippery slope. The American retail culture, based on sales teams schmoozing to the customers, has created a super-consumer who is, to put it frankly, a self-entitled brat. I lost count of the amount of times this summer that a customer angrily told me how to do my own job or tried to persuade me to break my store’s rules.

Second, as a retail worker, you will be the butt of all angry protests of your store’s policies. Customers need to realize that whatever policy they think is unjust has not been written by the employee, but it is the employee’s job to uphold it. The store where I worked over the summer had a pretty objectionable return policy that I had to say to every customer who purchased an item. Roughly three times a day, I experienced a customer who was so irate about this policy that they berated me for its strictness as though I had created it. Bad news shoppers: you can’t yell at an hourly employee for a policy that an international company instated and expect your issues to be rectified.

Stefan Sahagian, a junior at the University of Massachusetts says, “PSA to all consumers: Threatening minimum wage employees with taking your business elsewhere is like threatening a squirrel that you’re going to go to a different forest.”

I too am guilty of this. I often find myself irritated when time after time I walk into certain stores and am instantly barraged by a sales associate aggressively pitching me more and more items when I only came in for one. What I, and every other retail consumer, needs to realize is hourly employees are not responsible for the way the company handles business. If one such employee changes the method or breaks a policy, they can be fired without a second thought. The company is simply doing their job.

Third, when you work with cheap products, customers will assume that they’re smarter than you. A worker in JC Penny is treated with a lot less respect than a worker in Limited simply because of the products they sell, and the stigma attached. Selling inexpensive or lower quality products seems to imply to ignorant shoppers that you (as the employee) are responsible for the quality, or that you yourself shop at the store where you work (and furthermore, that your inferred preference for cheap clothes is an indication of your worth as a person). An hourly job is an hourly job – your place of employment depends almost exclusively on what stores are hiring and when.

Fourth, the fact that retail employees are paid to put away peoples’ clothes seems to mean to many customers that it’s okay to go out of their way to make a mess. Seriously, how hard is it to put a sweater back on the hanger right-side out? A tip for anyone trying to be more conscientious of the way you shop: it makes a huge difference to be neat and courteous in the store.

Fifth, nobody takes retail workers seriously until they are one.

Working in retail over the summer truly opened my eyes to the consumer attitude in our country. I realized the way I’d been shopping for my entire life has been lacking the perspective of the hourly employees whose day-to-day working experience is affected by the way I behave in their place of work. Hourly workers made up roughly 23.94 percent (nearly one quarter) of the U.S. workforce in 2012. This is a massive chunk of our population, and they all deal with the issues I experienced over the summer on a much more frequent basis than I do. It’s time that we recognize the daily sacrifices that hourly wage earners face in the process of providing services for the rest of the consumer population. I encourage you to pick up a summer job doing just that – it will truly provide you with a new perspective on the way that our country interacts.

Elise Martorano is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]


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    LawlSep 26, 2013 at 8:33 am

    When you get your second job, you might find that the human interactions (both customer and coworker) are no different in almost any job. Retail, service, labor, and office environments, same thing. I wouldn’t go so far to say that a 20 year old made a “sacrifice” by working for a summer. A lot of us were doing working happily well before that.