This Holiday Season, Please Be Kind To Retail Employees

Last night, I was in a candy shop in my neighborhood waiting for the owner of the store to cut some marshmallows for me when a woman walked in, dropped a bag on the counter (literally dropped, as in held it high in the air over the counter and then let go, letting it fall to the surface), and told the associate at the counter, “I have to return these. They’re disgusting. I tried them, and I almost vomited.”

She carried on with this exaggeration for quite some time, despite the fact that no one had contradicted her or caused her any problems. “I don’t even care if I get store credit. I just can’t eat these. Seriously, my husband and I almost vomited. They were for my daughter’s birthday party, and they were disgusting.”

“These” were Tabasco-flavored jelly beans, sold in cute little promotional bottles. The store owner came to the front to rescue the associate from the customer, who didn’t stop repeating herself about how disgusting the candy was for the 10 minutes she was in the store. The owner said as little as she could, and there was a moment there that I’ve been in before where everyone was thinking the same thing but the rules of retail transactional decorum meant no one could say it. The customer knew she was being rude, the owner and associate knew she was being rude, I knew she was being rude, and she could’ve cut the shit and said something like, “Sorry, I’m just having a frustrating day, and we just really didn’t expect this candy to taste this way,” but she doubled down on her bad attitude and stuck with it until she left, only slightly cowed by the fact that despite her preparedness to get into a fight over returning these jelly beans (pause for a second and repeat that to yourself: her preparedness to get into a fight over returning these jelly beans), no one wanted to fight with her.

When she left, I turned to the owner and associate, who were in turn prepared not to say anything until I left lest they leave a bad impression on me, and said, “Some people’s approach to things is just fucking bonkers.” All the tension in the room dissipated, and we got into a conversation about awful customers — I’ve had plenty of my own over the course of working in retail.

The torture of retail, or service, for that matter, is that inevitably, someone is going to cross a line with you in your capacity as a retail employee, and you cannot defend your personhood or dignity by telling them they’re out of line. If you do, the customer has the upper hand: They can complain to your boss and get you in trouble or fired, and if you are the boss, they can tell people not to buy things from you. They hold your economic future, and some customers take that to mean that they can be abusive to retail employees without any kind of consequence.

Well, “take that to mean” is a little bit of a misstatement. They can be abusive to retail employees without any consequences, and they do. As a retail employee, you come to understand that there are some customers who will come into your store, shit on you, maybe buy a product anyway or maybe not, and then leave — several times a week. Using you as a punching bag is their way of venting stress.

All of this operates on the idea that the customer is always right. There’s virtue in that idea, because it means that businesses can’t run amok with an individual’s money and time. In a capitalist society, that’s very important, because in a capitalist society money is power, and businesses generally have more money than their customers. The fact that we’ve built our system on the idea that businesses are built on their customers’ backs and therefore owe their customers respect is valuable.

It’s when that idea turns on the individual retail employee as a representative of the business that it goes awry. That individual retail employee probably doesn’t have the economic power that the customer does, because retail pays shit — sometimes even when you’re the business owner. They are not truly a microcosm of the company they work for; working for that company does not afford them the financial influence of the whole business.

My feeling is that, on a person-to-person level, regardless of their employment, retail employees don’t owe customers shit. But if a retail employee talks back, their employer won’t back them up, because the employer’s interest is in assuring that they continue to take money from the customer, not in assuring that their employee is treated with the respect and dignity that existing as a human being is supposed to afford.

We’re coming up on the most expensive and stressful retail season of the year. There are three things we can do to make the holidays not horrible for retail employees:

  1. Recognize the difference between the company with whose product you are displeased, and the individual employee who is helping you, and act accordingly. You can be pissed off about your purchase or the product, but unless that employee is personally responsible for whatever went wrong, don’t hold them accountable for your anger.

  2. If you catch yourself getting unreasonably angry with a retail employee who wasn’t at fault for your complaint and is following the policies their employer requires them to follow, apologize and ask them how their day is going. They’re probably as frustrated as you, and it’s a chance to commiserate.

  3. If you see someone else getting unreasonably angry, wait until they leave, and then do whatever you can to make the retail employee feel like you view them as a human being. Without extending the length of your transaction, you can easily ask them about their plans for the evening, what they think of a product, or tell them you’re sorry some customers treat them poorly and hope their day gets better.

Retail employees, like everyone else, would really like to enjoy the holidays. But on top of trying to plan and enjoy holidays, they also have to work on holidays; they have to pretend that their employer is doing them a favor by requiring them to work longer hours because it means that they can scrape a little more money together; and, on top of that, because so many retail employees are part-time, they don’t get paid more for the extra work (although their bosses do). A little bit of kindness can go a long way.

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