11 Lessons I Learned Working in Retail

I worked in the retail industry for about two and a half years. Here are some things I learned:

#1: Always be kind to retail workers. If you can afford not to go to the wall about something, then don’t go to the wall.

So, story time.

My company (probably – hopefully – like all retail companies) had a policy that if a perishable item had been in a customer’s cart – and if the customer later decided they didn’t want the perishable item – that it should be considered defective, removed from the inventory, and discarded, for safety reasons.

So one day, a man comes through my checkout lane with tons of merchandise – including several perishables.

He notices a bit of liquid (likely water from a previous customer’s produce) on the scanner, and asks me what it is. Although I’m 99.99% sure it’s water, I can’t honestly say I know for sure. I haven’t been studying fluids on the scanner, I’ve been busy scanning, bagging, handling payments, and interacting with customers (though if a leaky bottle of cleaner were to come through my lane, I would probably notice it, as I always watch for that kind of thing.)

When I can’t say, with absolute certainty, what the liquid is, this dude becomes furious. He angrily cancels the entire transaction (yes, all of it, even the items that are technically protected, sealed, or non-edible). So my poor supervisor has to defect all of the perishable items out of our system.

Honestly, these situations are more amusing than anything – especially looking back. 🙂

#2: Never abuse or intentionally embarrass your kids (I don’t have kids, but I feel like this should be a no-brainer???).

If you’re working with the public, you are exposed to a large cross-section of humanity.

I can’t begin to count the number of families who walked through, with sweet kids whose parents seemed borderline-abusive (definitely emotionally abusive), selfish, lazy, or addicted to causing public humiliation for others:

A strong, fit parent who expected his/her tiny, thin child to lift a heavy object into the cart (I’m pretty sure it was a dad and his little daughter, but it’s been a while).

Parents who corrected or put down their children in front of me.

And those situations were incredibly tough for me, because, had these not been paying customers to whom I had to smile and act friendly (at least, if I wanted to keep my job), boy would I have had some things to say to them! Or at least, I’d like to think I’d have been that bold.

#3: Cards make you spend more.

Because, let’s be honest. Most of us are not attracted to store credit/debit cards so that we can spend less. We’re attracted to them because they permit us to get more stuff for the same amount of money.

Of course, we never spend exactly the same amount of money, do we? There’s always a bit extra in the total sum.

When we feel like we’re getting “great deals”, we feel justified adding on more of them.

On average, people with cards spend the most money. That’s why my team and I were always being pushed to convince customers to sign up.

It is a rare person who has the self-control to actually spend less with a “savings” card. Most of us will still spend as much as we were going to — and more — because our consciences feel clear when we’re “saving”.

#4: Your clerk isn’t asking questions to be nosy, they’re doing it because it’s their job.

Honestly, I’d rather just scan your stuff and not talk to you at all. No offense – I really do care about you! It’s just that a fast-paced, repetitive retail job gets pretty tiring, and thinking of stuff to say also requires energy. And I can tell that you don’t even want to talk with me anyway. Some peace and quiet, please, many of you are thinking. But I don’t want to get in trouble with my bosses for not engaging with you. If they don’t see us talking, they’ll worry that I’m not marketing the card, and I can be sure they’ll be pulling me aside later.

#5: The clothes on those racks are dirtier than you think.

Because they’ve been tried on by who-knows-how-many people, dropped on the floor, maybe caught in the wheels of a cart when they’re going back out to the sales floor, and thrown on the floors of fitting rooms-turned-bathrooms (yes, our fitting room became a bathroom on more than one occasion 🤢).

Additionally, in the carts containing merchandise to go back out to the floor, tried-on shoes are often thrown in on top of other clothing. And before the clothing is sorted into its own cart to go back to the clothing department, it’s mingled with merchandise from all over the store, which has been touched by countless hands. That shirt could have rubbed against an open bag of wheat bread, some panties that were unhygienically tested, and a leaky bottle of all-purpose cleaner.

Hopefully, more precautions than this are generally taken to keep items separate, but it just depends on the person handling the merchandise, and on how well-staffed you are. If the company is cutting its crew, things are going to happen more sloppily, as the remaining employees strive to achieve the same metrics and goals with fewer human resources.

#6: When an item goes on sale, wait. It’s probable that the price will go down even more in a few weeks.

And I’m not just talking about the final markdowns of clearance.

Retailers exploit the consumer’s desire for the thrill of novelty and immediate amusement. They know that if something’s even slightly on sale, many people will jump on it. So they milk that reality for a while, before (sometimes) dropping the price significantly a few weeks later.

This is especially true for Black Friday. Companies know that some people will think the Black Friday “deal” is their best or only chance. And for a small grouping of items, that may be true. But generally, prices will drop even further in the weeks to come.

Companies leverage their customers’ sense of urgency and eagerness to capture a good deal for their own financial profit, by saving the real deals for later.

#7: You can get food almost for free, if you cut enough coupons.

But, you’ll annoy the crap out of the people behind you (and you’ll probably irritate your cashier, but they won’t say anything).

I’d advise you to “annoy away” and save some money, except that there’s a price to pay: the “free” food generally isn’t that healthySo you’re probably saving that money for medical bills down the road.

But I’m not kidding. I saw people walk away with considerable amounts of food or other stuff for…a dollar? Give or take.

#8: Black Friday is an Illusion

An illusion of improved business to the company, and an illusion of financial responsibility to the consumer.

The truth is, Black Friday is obsolescent (not obsolete, but getting there). Its popularity has significantly decreased in recent years. The insane thing is, retail stores think they can compensate for the decrease in traffic – or generate more traffic – by increasing the hours they’re open.

In point of fact, this decision typically results in a loss for company, as they’re just dishing out more payroll to stretch out the same customer base over more hours. Additionally, the early and late hours take a physical and emotional toll on the team, decreasing productivity for the next several days. Not a win for anyone.

Black Fridays were surprisingly quiet during my years in retail. I mean, still busy enough, just nothing like what Black Friday used to be. There were hours that we should have been closed, it was so dead. Complete waste of payroll.

#9: The customer is not always right. In fact, sometimes the customer lies.

Another story.

I’m manning the service desk. It’s a quiet night, and this dude (who appears to be, you know, on something) walks up with empty gallon-sized milk cartons. He says the milk went bad, and asks to return them. No receipt. No card. No ID (these are the methods we would use to look up or refund a transaction).

Obviously, this all seems fishy to me. I inform him that without a receipt, card, or ID, I cannot issue a refund. The man is insistent and belligerent. So I call over my supervisors for assistance. They arrive, and one of them gives this guy “the look” that says “I know exactly what you’re up to” (one of my favorite leaders ever. ❤ So badass.).

They handle the situation by letting him trade his empty cartons for new milk cartons (but not issuing a monetary refund). Honestly, I think this is about the best thing they could have done (and probably safer than just telling him to go away). That dude was CREEPY.

#10: Retail Workers are Apparently Genies in Disguise

Genies who tragically haven’t been able to make money off of their magical abilities, and therefore are required to have day jobs.


Customers don’t believe you when you say you’re out of an item. They expect the item to magically materialize. They expect you to make it happen, and if you inform them that you’re sorry, but your store is out of stock, many will ask for the manager. Maybe the manager’s a genie, they think. This happens a lot around Christmas.

Some people are unwilling to accept the reality of delayed or nonexistent gratification. There’s no better place or time to witness this sad truth than in retail during the holidays.

Which leads me to my last takeaway.

#11: Retail is where Christmas and Thanksgiving go to die.

When you see your Thanksgiving become non-existent (due to Black Friday or “Gray Thursday”), and you watch everyone’s Christmas mutate into a consumerist competition, it’s hard not to become jaded.

Retail ruined the holidays for me for years. I helplessly witnessed a season of gratitude and mindfulness transform into a spell of griping and madness.

Actually, this is the first year in a long time in which I’ve felt really excited for Thanksgiving and Christmas.


After all that…I’m still going to say that I believe many (but not all) people would benefit from working in retail – at least (and preferably only) for a short period of time. Those who do will never see retail the same way.

Some of my kindest customers were also the ones who told me that they had worked retail in the past and knew what it was like to be in my spot.

But don’t get stuck there, if you can help it. ❤ You might begin to believe you’re a robot.

One caveat, if applying for retail jobs is in your plans: Some stores are physically toxic (rather than “just” socially/emotionally/mentally/corporately toxic, hahahaha). I can’t mention names, so do your research before applying. 😉 Retail is not for everyone (check out my article It’s All In Your Head, where I share, among other things, how my job destroyed my health).


Thanks for reading! 🙂 ❤


2 thoughts on “11 Lessons I Learned Working in Retail

  1. Pingback: Four Illusions that Waste Our Time and Destroy Our Lives – Reflection Cube

  2. Pingback: Blog posts that rule :) – Who Loves Kitty

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