Retailizing

After quitting her corporate office job to work at an outlet shoe store, Whitney Carpenter learns to be friendly.

retailizing
Against all odds, I’m currently inclined to praise working in retail. I’m infected by that particular brand of nostalgia, selective memory, and chattiness that comes from knowing you’ve already given your two-weeks notice. Sure, it’s not all fun. Retail clerks work long, irregular hours for little pay. And after a few months on the job you develop odd, retail-y habits, like never touching anything that you don’t intend to buy and calling a prolonged “hello!” at anyone entering a room. But all of the fake smiles and brand-appropriate shoes are worth it because if you stick it out, retail will give you an invaluable skill: a compulsive habit and method for being nice to people that you don’t even like.

That reflexive niceness was the hardest thing for me to swallow when I took my first retail job six months ago. At 23 years old, I was a pansy recently cowered by a year of corporate bludgeoning. I had quit a salaried position for reasons that I felt were heroic and artistic but that most of my friends agreed were sentimental and suicidal. With a degree and five years of office experience under my belt, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was November, so like anyone looking for an immediate job during the holidays, I cruised the outlet mall.

When I was hired later that month at a shoe store, I doubted whether I could do the job. First, I’m not exactly a natural salesgirl — I’m an epic failure at schmoozing, and smiling for eight hours a day is hard work for someone who is used to squinting at computer screens. Second and most important, I was used to offices. I was used to the snarky politics and alliances forged in the copy room, to the late nights and corporate-funded coffee machines. And I was definitely used to coworkers who were as likely to throw you under the bus as to invite you to eat at their table in the caf.

I’ve worked in good offices, of course, the sort with real humans in the cubicles and cupcakes in the break room, but when I took the sales job I was straight from a year of technical writing at a small, competitive firm. It was the kind of place where deadlines always loomed, conference calls always ended in shouting, and my coworkers were always casually asking me to define the exact “purpose” of a liberal arts degree. I left the firm because I am, at heart, a sissy — a shy, awkward sort who wasn’t suited for the cutthroat nature of the job. But that didn’t mean that I was ready for large-scale friendliness.

In retail, like most jobs, the trick is submerging yourself in a work-time persona. Before leaving for work you change your clothes, slap on that perma-grin and hitch up your customer-service voice. (A customer-service voice is a bastardized face-to-face version of a “phone-voice,” a sickly-sweet tone unlike your regular one.) My customer-service voice was everything I wasn’t: calm, cheerful, and vaguely reminiscent of the Disney version of Snow White. At work I used it all of the time, even with my coworkers. When I was promoted at the shoe shore, I thanked the manager in a lilting tone even my closest friends wouldn’t have recognized.

For me, the voice was the most important factor in my (modest) success at the outlet mall. It doesn’t matter if the phrases are dictated by some corporate handout or if you are trying, by way of eyebrow tilting and the rakish angle of your name tag, to project ironic detachment — using a customer-service voice makes everyone else feel a little guilty and bend to your will.

“Would you like to join our rewards card program today?” I asked each customer in my simpering voice, holding their credit card between two fingers like a hostage.

Most people declined but rarely without some kind of excuse. Usually they pled too many membership cards in their wallets, and I would nod knowingly as they pulled out a stack and spread them before me like a magician asking me to pick a card. I listened gravely to their stories about inboxes full of ads from Amazon and claims of infrequent shopping. I wasn’t trying to make them feel bad — as someone who can’t turn down even the creepiest door-to-door salesman, I admired their reluctance — the guilt was in the voice.

A customer-service voice allows you to wield guilt and summon goodwill in other ways too. I watched in amazement as empty-handed shoppers were chased from the store by the sincerity of my “Have a nice day!”, convinced that they owed me something, if only the discounted price on a pair of novelty socks. It pacified old ladies with bunions when I told them that we didn’t carry wide shoes; it calmed mothers with screaming babies as I apologized for our lack of booties. With a slight change in pitch, my customer-service voice intimidated children crawling under the dressing-room doors and kept caffeine-deprived hooligans from completely losing it when I explained that I couldn’t open the register to give them change for the Red Bull machine outside.

A few weeks before I gave my notice at the shoe store, an ex-coworker from my cutthroat cubicle days came in, searching, I suspect, for a juicy tale of pride coming before the fall for the weekly staff meeting. My customer-service voice firmly in place, I smiled insipidly as she told me about the raise that she’d received in my absence. She revealed the rumors about my suspected whereabouts and how someone had sighted me eating lunch in parking lot of the outlet mall, thus blowing my unintentional “cover.” I made sympathetic noises and interrupted her periodically to bleat a cheerful “hello!” at a customer coming through the door.

Standing there, I wondered if she felt triumphant, assured that I was making minimum wage and only got a 30-minute lunch break. Strangely, behind my cheerful mask I felt only relief. I’m not trying to say that there is no competition in working retail (though because of the largely female demographic these political schemes are usually dismissed as “drama”) or even that these shenanigans are inherently bad. I do doubt, however, that these feelings are ever so entrenched that people search for former rivals once they’ve parted ways and canceled their Facebook friendships. Dry-eyed and grinning, I told my ex-coworker and ex-rival that I should probably get back to work.

She left and I can say with the slight vindictiveness of a recent retail retiree that she didn’t make any pretense of shopping in the store. As I watched her walk towards the exit, I congratulated myself on my newfound ability to navigate uncomfortable situations — the strange passive-aggressive sort that would have had me tripping over my tongue and shaking in my brand-appropriate boots a year ago. Oddly, working retail gave me a confidence and battle-plan that would have served me well in my office career and that I hope serves me well when I return to the cubicle realm next month. Despite everything that retail has given me, the fact remains that an eight-hour day in a shoe store is equivalent in pay to a four-hour shift in an office; until that ratio changes, my path to financial security will be strewn with automatic staplers and the occasional office rivalry.

As my ex-coworker got close to the door, I inhaled deeply and hollered the standard “Have a nice day!” at her. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but she looked a little guilty as she ducked empty-handed through the exit. It was probably just the customer-service voice, though. That’s what it’s good for.


Photo by Holtsman.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.