Interview: Polar Eclipse
Industrial: Wrong Turn
Unions: Star Support
Workplace: Checked Out
Economics: Sold Out
Politics: Green Banned
History: Potted History
International: Curtain Call
Review: Little Fish
Poetry: Slug A Worker
The Locker Room
Working in retail is very unglamorous. You spend most of the day indoors dressed in some unattractive and uncomfortable uniform, listening to the same music played over and over again (and over and over and over...you get the idea) on the PA system, smiling and chatting to customers and colleagues till your mouth becomes dry. You go through the same routine day in and day out, reciting the same lines, looking cheerful even though you feel worn-out.
Retail is rarely given the respect and recognition I think it is due. Those outside the industry often take it for granted or ignore the fact that the person serving them is also a human being with feelings, with finite levels of patience and energy, who is often working long hours under great stress for minimum wages.
That same person may also be the only staff in the department (or departments) who is required to not only serve customers but also to merchandise stock, relay, replace return stock, and put up and take down advertisements for the week.
Meanwhile customers are quick to raise their voice at staff if they do not receive service immediately. Other customers talk down to staff or throw money at them. My day would be brightened by kind or supportive words from customers, but these remarks were often hard to come by. Such was the difficulty in dealing with customers that I recall more than one staff member saying they preferred to work at the warehouse packing stock, even if it was tedious and boring, rather than work at the store and have contact with customers.
One weekend a 15-year-old schoolgirl was serving at a register. She was shy but rarely made mistakes. On this occasion she served a customer who insisted she had received the wrong change. The customer raised her voice loudly at the girl, causing her to burst into tears. The customer refused to lower her voice or stop her accusatory remarks even after the register supervisor resolved the situation. Even more shocking was that the next customer in the queue made derisive remarks at the girl, crudely suggesting that she was going to make the same mistake with him.
You might ask why a retail outlet would hire young staff if they cannot handle such pressure. Nevertheless it surprises me to see people treat retail staff with such disrespect. Customers often view retail staff as blue-collar workers who should be subservient to them and who do not share their "intellectual" appreciation of the world, although many of the service personnel hold undergraduate or postgraduate degrees in professional areas such as Accounting and Information Technology.
Alternatively, they are treated as objects upon which to vent frustrations about the shortage of staff (though the budget is decided by the head office of the company and not on a store level) or unavailability of stock.
These complaints are not imaginary. Stores are indeed often run in amateurish fashion by managers who have little professional experience and who are thrown into the deep-end by higher management. They are given few resources or time to carry out their responsibilities, and often have to work successive 12-hour days to complete their work. Turnover is therefore high. Employees are treated like misbehaving children who need to be kept in check constantly.
Having said all this, one of the most enjoyable things about working in retail is working with people from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds. I once did a rough estimation that the store I worked in employed people from 37 countries. I was fortunate to be able to develop close friendships with many of my colleagues.
The work ethic of my international colleagues was often extraordinary. One young man would work up to 80 hours a week in various jobs during the university holidays so that he could pay his student fees. My immediate manager, a local from Adelaide was also an inspiration, working seven days a week and up to three jobs to support her family while still maintaining a cheerful disposition.
But eventually the time had come for me to pursue a career in an industry related to my undergraduate degree. While enriched by my experiences and grateful for the chance to encounter a broad spectrum of people, I took away one main lesson - have sympathy for the person behind the counter!
Glenda Kwek is a freelance journalist working in the publishing
industry. She recently completed a Master of International Law at the University of Sydney.
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