Derek Tillotson

Lessons Learned From Retail

I've been in retail for over seven years. It may be closer to eight by now, actually. It's not something I ever expected to do after college, and I never expected to be doing it this long, but it's been a journey that has taught me a lot of things. Some of them are more obvious--customer experience, verbal communication, listening, time management. Others are less so. These are some of the big things I've learned from big box retail.

The customer is sometimes wrong

A man walks into the store and plugs his phone into an open outlet along the wall. "Excuse me," I say. "You're not allowed to plug your phone there." The man delivers an angry glare that can only be interpreted as "Who the hell are you?".

He says, "Where's it written that I can't do that?"

What he's really saying is: "You have to show me where this rule is written, or I can keep charging my phone here." Of course, reasonable people understand that's not how rules work. I've never visited any retail establishment with a sign that reads "no spitting on the floor." However, most people aren't going to walk in, spit in front of an employee and proclaim "there's no sign saying I can't spit here!"

Anyone who has worked retail can tell you why "The customer is always right" is a bad concept. It's not just untrue, it gives the bad apples carte blanche to do whatever they want. The more reasonable (but less catchy) approach is: "The customer deserves respect until they display a reason otherwise."

"You gotta start schmoozing"

This piece of advice came to me from a manager I really clicked with. He was leaving and one of the last things he told me was that I needed to "schmooze" if I wanted to get a promotion at some point. If there's one thing I struggle with, it's dishonesty. "Schmoozing" is the epitome of dishonest relationship building.

I don't keep a ton of close relationships. There are folks I work with that I click with--especially those I work alongside daily. And I'm someone who attempts to be as friendly as possible with anyone I interact with. But I've never been one who has felt comfortable trying to force a relationship just to get something out of it.

Still, I can recognize that the advice wasn't wrong. Those who get chummy with upper management and decision makers are more likely to move up the career ladder. That applies for retail and non-retail work alike.

A hierarchy only works if the people respect it

"A chain is only as strong as its weakest link" is applicable here. It's a popular saying because it's true. The flaw with rigid, layered hierarchies is that they rely heavily on everyone within that structure (especially those higher up) to operate at a high level.

The key observation I've made--especially working at a place with plenty of college students, people with second jobs, and high turnover--is that individuals will usually match the effort and passion (or lack thereof) of the person or people above them on the ladder. To illustrate (hypothetically): If the manager overseeing cashiers asks the cashiers to focus heavily on customer experience in place of checkout speed, but doesn't prioritize a strong customer experience himself, then the cashiers have little motivation to do the same. It's essentially a matter of "do as I say, not as I do," which is typically hypocritical in nature.

Willing peers are the best teachers

I love teaching new people. It's a different responsibility than anything else I've ever done, professionally. It gives me a chance to show someone the ropes and teach them the things that are legitimately important for the job. Those aren't always the same things that the company would normally prioritize (or even acknowledge).

In most professional hierarchies, managers are ultimately responsible for the training of their team (which makes a ton of sense). However, in my experience, managers are rarely the ones doing the training themselves. Good managers will either have that innate desire to train or--more likely--will delegate that responsibility to someone jumping at the opportunity. Managers who don't like training (or those who are delegated the task against their will), will typically be lacking in their training ability. Especially when compared to a willing teacher.

This falls back to the "only as strong as the weakest link" point. Poor (or otherwise uninspired) training will lead to poor (or uninspired) employees, and that is to the detriment of all involved.

The carrot is attached to the stick

A lesson that took me far too long to learn: Be careful accepting extra work for no extra compensation.

In some businesses, positions, and industries, this extra work isn't a terrible idea. In early stage startups, it's assumed you'll be ready to pick up something new at a moment's notice. But in big box retail, taking on extra responsibility in an unofficial capacity is neither necessary nor encouraged.

I willingly train new people because I enjoy it--it provides me value outside of financial compensation--but some of the biggest mistakes I've made have been picking up responsibilities--many of which provide no positive benefit to me--under the assumption that those duties would better allow me to rise in the company.

From my experience, and from talking to peers in similar situations, promotion rarely stems from voluntarily adding extra responsibility. I'm not saying it doesn't happen--if someone tells you a certain task will (not "may") get you upward momentum, go for it! Anything short of that is typically too much of a gamble to be worth taking.

Honesty throws people off

People don't expect honesty. Customers, coworkers, superiors, and everyone else are all constantly waiting for political answers or non-answers. Some people want their beliefs validated with agreement. Others want to hear opinions go a specific way as a way of asking permission.

Few people, however, are completely honest. Many will stick to "little white lies." And some will lie by omission. I've been guilty of both, but I go out of my way to avoid doing either.

There's something liberating about being honest in the workplace. If someone asks how your day is going, they'll expect to hear "good" or "great". But when you say "it sucks," it's going to cause a double take. Similarly, speaking up about why you dislike a process can get people thinking about how the process is done and encourage others to speak, as well.

The important thing is to not be rude. Avoid ad hominem attacks and don't always speak your opinion--wait for the situation to be appropriate. But be honest. Honesty is the best policy, after all.

"That's just how it's done" isn't a valid justification

This is actually a point I partially learned from retail work and partially from veganism. A lot of people, when debating against veganism, will use this line (or something in the same vein) when trying to justify animal consumption/abuse. It struck me as odd, because it was something I heard a lot when I asked "why" throughout my years at work.

The first time I heard it in retail, I was asking why a procedure was done in a certain way. "It's just how it's done" is what I was told, despite a different method appearing to be more efficient.

A couple years later, I moved to a different department and the store underwent various restructuring. The department I had been in went from eight people per shift to four, drastically cutting down on their productivity. When friends from that team inquired why the change happened, they were also told "that's just how it is."

"That's just how it's done" means nothing. In practice, it amounts to little more than "because I say so." Under scrutiny, this argument holds no weight, but those in a position to apply such scrutiny would usually be those who are the decision makers in the first place.

Not everyone shares the same motivation

An often-missed thing when it comes to managing diverse teams is motivating people. The mistake I see most often is using a single method of motivation and recognition for everyone. With smaller teams, where management is more likely to be down in the trenches, a blanket gesture can work. But in most cases, a single action won't appeal to everyone.

I have worked with plenty of people who are motivated and satisfied by the occasional gift--especially in the form of food. I can't knock them for that because pizza in San Francisco is expensive.

I’ve known many who are motivated by easy work. They do their jobs well, and all they want in return is to collect their paycheck and not be bothered. I envy them. They don't get emotionally attached to their work but they still care enough to do it well

I've had coworkers who are happy with a simple "thank you" or other verbal recognition. These folks are similar to the previous group, but they also want to know that what they're doing matters.

There are other motivations for people, but the last one I'll touch on is where I fall: Those who are motivated by opportunity. We're the people who take pride in our work and want to be constantly doing more in a more meaningful capacity. (The carrot and the stick can make this emotionally draining)

Professional development may not happen

Not everyone is chosen.

Maybe it's due to a lock of schmoozing. Perhaps there is a lack of visibility in someone's role. It could just be that nobody wants to teach. When it comes to retail, you're guaranteed no development outside the basics of your role. Someone needs to select you.

What I've found is if you want to better yourself, you need to do it yourself. This could be by reaching out to someone who's job you'd like to have and asking advice. You could take an online course or do your own independent study on a target topic.

In my case, I spend time working on a specific craft I adore, even if it's not directly connected to any career goals--I focus on writing.

Written April 11, 2020

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