Lessons from working four years in retail

You’re 18 or maybe 50. You just finished high school or left a toxic career path. Either way, you need money and have no relevant experience. You have three options: study some more (at uni or trade school) and have your parents or the government look after you, try and start a business (/pyramid scheme), or… get an entry-level job like retail.

I’m now 22 and have been in the retail industry for 4 years. In those 4 years, I’ve been employed in a wide variety of fields; from petrol stations to furniture stores, to fast food, to my current job at a computer store.

4 years is a drop in the bucket compared to most people’s work lives but there are unquestionably some lessons I’ve learned from my experience.

1. “The customer is always right”

Our world today is driven by production and consumption. Companies value anything that affects their production output and therefore their bottom lines. This could mean being humanitarian, or giving employees flexible hours, or creating a positive work culture.

In a retail environment, none of this applies; you are simply the middle-man between the producers and the consumers. You aren’t a producer or a consumer; you are just there to ensure those two meet amicably.

Enter the ethos of “the customer is always right”. Originally intended as a way to say that your product will not sell in a competitive market if the customer doesn’t like it, it has become weaponized by the entitled as a free pass to get away with absolutely anything.

All customers have to do is say the magic words:

“I want to speak to your manager, please”.

People will want a refund after their 3-year-old laptop gets a virus even though the warranty was for a year. They will insist that their newly purchased TV came broken in the box instead of being dropped while carrying it upstairs. They will demand discounts on items that are already below cost price because they “shop here all the time”.

Oh and don’t bother doing anything stupid like asserting yourself; do that and you’ll be replaced by another enthusiastic 18 year old looking for their first job.

2. Chronic boredom is stressful

Workdays in retail are spent doing one of three things; doing your job, doing nothing, or distracting yourself from your job. The real catch of it is that the last two options are actually worse than the first one. Nothing makes you question your identity more than an 8 hour day where you’ve spent maybe half the day doing actual work.

Boredom exists to motivate us to find a worthwhile activity; it just so happens that in a retail environment, this biological signal drives you to do things you despise because it’s better than doing nothing.

This is actually a recorded phenomenon; people would rather be electrically shocked than do nothing. We choose pain over boredom.

What results is a slow descent into madness.

Would you rather stare into space or engage in your 67th conversation about how the price of memory has increased. Or do stocktake? Or try to calm down an angry customer. It’s a question that you must keep asking yourself and one that you will never get right.

And by the end of the day, you’ve done so many things that you didn’t want to do, that you have no idea what you truly do want to do. The only thing that appeals to you is universal sources of instant pleasure; fast food, video games, drinking, smoking, etc.

Forget about any kind of fulfillment; all you’re after is feeling good now. Don’t get too carried away though; you have work early tomorrow.

Yeah, I actually yawned 45 times in one day and recorded it on a piece of paper

3. Your relationships determine your wellbeing

Humans are social animals.

A huge chunk (if not all) of our brains are geared towards acceptance and belonging in a social environment. Healthy social interaction is a non-negotiable emotional need. It just so happens that this ‘need’ of yours can get in the way of doing your job.

Hundreds of customers walk into your store, all with different stories, different needs, and different demeanours. Your job is to hear them all out, solve their problems and be their friend.

As soon as you finish putting through a sale for a quieter, older gentleman who really needs a therapist as well as a salesman, an energetic teenager walks in. And then maybe an agitated, stressed-out single mum, or a ten-person extended family.

Anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety can all occur in the space of half an hour.

There’s no real way to talk to a large number of people without shutting down a part of yourself internally. It’s called compassion fatigue and a lot of workers interacting with the general public have it; you simply cannot be empathetic when you repeatedly hear sensational stories from people over and over again.

You have to stop caring. You have to become a machine; expending energy not on emotion, but on converting people to cash. You’re not stoic; you’re just dead inside and this carries over to your personal life, potentially damaging the healthy relationships you have outside of work.

Your coworkers and a good work culture are the best antidote to compassion fatigue: support from management and your common experiences with coworkers will bring you closer together.

But on some occasions, coworkers can be no better than the customers you serve; then, it’s only a matter of time before you find some unhealthy coping mechanisms.

4. A fulfilling job is essential to a good life

If you couldn’t tell already, retail has definitely changed my life. It has also made me aware of the sheer power a job wields over you.

It’s not something you simply leave at the door when you leave at 5 pm; it’s a complete lifestyle investment that changes you at your very core. You must either integrate yourself into your work or get out of it.

Take a look at the long-serving employees of any workplace you’re about to join; if they are miserable, chances are that you will be too in time. Obviously, there are ways for you to counteract the changes your job forces you to undergo; but that’s like swimming against the tide.

You’re better off finding a job that uniquely suits you and swimming with the tide.

5. The silver lining: the valuable skills you learn in retail

My venting was largely captured in the four main points above. There are a heap of positives to retail too that I don’t want to overlook. These largely boil down to three categories: gaining clarity, learning how to deal with people, and learning humility.


Retail is potentially one of the most valuable experiences a person can go through. To a person entering the workforce, it is a simulation of rock bottom; high pressure, toxic work culture, and very high turnover. It is a meat-grinder.

How is this positive? It is probably the best way to determine what you truly want. The negative experiences allow for a healthy appreciation of the better (or a
ny other) jobs out there.

Dealing with people

Your main objective in retail is customer service. You develop a considerable array of skills in dealing with people of all kinds.

People’s behaviours, body language, intuitions all become second nature to you. When someone walks into your store, you can probably tell whether they’re actually going to buy something, steal something or are just browsing.

There are also going to be a lot of arguments with customers; this is almost unavoidable. These conflicts teach you a lot about yourself and give you much greater confidence asserting yourself outside of work.


You will most definitely mature as a result of retail. The terrible hours, the lack of respect, and the grind of the work will all be things you will have to learn to live with on a permanent basis. They will make you stronger and more resilient to life’s challenges.

The 18-year-old you that walks into his first job will not be the same as the 22-year-old you that walks out of it.

In some cases for the better, and in other cases for worse.

Cover photo courtesy of CallisonRTKL