Working in retail

For the last eight months, I have been working two part-time sales jobs. I had graduated with a bachelor’s degree in French and creative writing, but I couldn’t find a job in New York City. So, I packed up my bags, moved back in with my mom, and found part-time jobs to gain experience. I never could have imagined how the experiences would really end up changing my outlook and perspective.

I began working at a French antiques store where my main tasks were cleaning, answering the phone, and greeting customers. I’ve always been neat and tidy, so the cleaning part came easy. However, after a grueling, disappointing, and discouraging job hunt, I was lacking all confidence in myself. The prospect of facing strangers, either those who called or who walked in the front door, had me terrified. Would I stutter? What if I forgot to tell them about our garden in the back? What if they asked me a question and I didn’t know the answer? Turns out, I didn’t know the answer or tell customers about the garden many times, and everything was okay, for the most part.

Enter the difficult customer…

I still remember one customer who made it clear, though subtly, that he thought he was better than me and that his time was more important than mine. We didn’t have a cash register at the store. Instead, we wrote sales slips in a carbon copy sales book, used an adding machine, and had a credit card machine and a cash box.  This man brought several items to the counter and I began writing his ticket while he chatted with is friend. I asked him if he would like anything else and he waved me off with a shake of his head. When I told him his total, he looked up and said, “Oh, I’ll add these two items.” The sales slip was full so I started a second slip. The customer got out his credit card and started to tap it on the counter, so I explained that I was just finishing and told him his new total. He said, “Oh, are you finally ready to take my card? Is this your first day?” I tried to laugh him off with a joke but I really was hurt and embarrassed by his snide tone and suggestion of my inadequate service. I felt stupid and insignificant and I left the store that day with my head hanging and my shoulders down.

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I’ve realized, over the past eight months of working for and with people, that there is an important takeaway from this particular memory:

Patience and understanding are necessary keys to kindness. We are all people who do different things, who are in a hurry, stressed, or having a bad day, and we should not take our own frustrations out on others.

It may be a small realization, but  I’ve noticed that I perceive people differently. Before, I might have gotten frustrated when service was slow. Now, I think to myself, “How would I feel in this person’s shoes?” What if all it takes to make his/her day better is a genuine smile and a quick, “How are you?” Sometimes, recognizing that a person might be having a bad day and making an effort to see that and say something friendly or nice can change the whole situation.

Case in point:

A few weekends ago, I was flying to visit a friend and when I stepped on the plane I smiled at the flight attendant and just said,  “Hi, how are you doing today?” The people in line in front of me had slowed to a halt as passengers crammed luggage into small overhead compartments. I just stood there patiently and chatted with the flight attendant. She beamed at me and said, “Hi! You are the first person in about ten people to say ‘hi’ back to me let alone ask me how I’m doing! So, thank you, I‘m doing well now!” When the line started moving again, I walked down the aisle and found my seat and thought about how many people a day must overlook others and ignore even polite “hellos” as they go about their days deep in thought about their own agendas. Later, the flight attendant and her co-worker came down the aisle offering beverages and when they stopped at my row she told her co-worker, “This is my plane friend! Be nice to her!”

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Though seemingly small and insignificant, my simple “hi, how are you?” affected her whole day in a positive manner. My time working in sales helped me realize how important a simple gesture of human kindness can be, and how important it is to step out of ourselves to see things from a different point of view.