Life&Style Writer Izzy Frost discusses the challenging experience of working in retail, especially during the festive season

Written by Izzy Frost
Food&Drink Editor
Images by wndj

During my year out before coming to university, I got a job in a luxury outlet-shopping village, where I continue to work during holidays. As I work through a temping agency, I have been placed in lots of different stores and have sold all kinds of brands – from the world’s most expensive perfume to lavish baby wear. I’ve sold my fair share of mind-bogglingly expensive items, and encountered more than my fair share of condescending customers. As in every job, I’ve had both good and bad experiences, but one thing that stands out to me from my continuing work in retail is that customers’ perceptions of retail workers – for me in terms of age and gender – can have vast effects on the way they treat them.

It’s getting to the time of year when the rushes for Christmas shopping will soon begin, and this hustle and bustle can be a really fun environment to work in – it certainly makes a shift pass a little quicker (until the shop’s Christmas playlist gets round to its mind-numbing tenth repetition, that is). However, last minute Christmas shoppers can create some of the most brutal encounters of the festive season. It is interesting that, as the queues get longer, the stores get busier, and more items go out of stock, the people around my own age are generally understanding – and it tends to be middle aged or older customers who take out their impatience on the people serving them. Perhaps this is because people my own age are more likely to have experience working a similar job, or because they can identify with me more due to a likeness in age, but what others seem to forget is that the person behind the tills is just as much of a human being as they are, and does not embody the entire brand and all of its products.

At what point is it no longer a requirement of my job to be polite and civil, and when is it acceptable to simply behave and respond like a human being?

The most disheartening moments of working in retail, however, have been when people have openly disregarded me based on my gender. Of course, this applies only to the smallest minority of customers, but in my experience this has only occurred with customers who are generally men and almost exclusively at least 20 years my senior. My most memorable experience of this was when, having served someone for almost an hour to help them choose their luxury perfume gifts for their family, I told him that the deal we had on was buy-two-get-one-free. Having perfectly politely refused him a buy-one-get-one-free deal, he began to get aggravated and accuse me of lying to try to get more money from him. When my male colleague came back from his lunch break, the customer exclaimed his relief at there finally being a level-headed, intelligent man on the shop floor. The rest of this sale continued with this customer making similar statements that don’t require detailing, but the big question that remained in my mind after he had left was this: at what point is it no longer a requirement of my job to be polite and civil, and when is it acceptable to simply behave and respond like a human being?

In a generation where many of us will have experienced these kinds of situations at work and much worse besides, and still have been expected to provide the same faultless quality of customer service, this is a conversation that needs to take place.