My time in retail was the best on-the-job, customer service training I've ever received. And the work itself proved to be a great fit for me. Being in my twenties, retail offered a flexible schedule and steady income punctuated by overtime pay for working above and beyond.
I didn't seek out retail it found me. I had been working nights and weekends at a Mobil station while attending Prince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland. One late Fall Saturday night a buddy from high school pulled in for gas. These were the days of "full service" so with a smile I filled him up, checked his oil, and squeegeed the windshield.
Leaning against his car while I worked away, Mike told me it was too cold and wet to be working outside all winter long. He suggested I talk to his boss at Memco, a membership department store (remember those) just down the road. So I did and got the job as a stock boy just 30-something shopping days 'til Christmas.
My retail career spanned ten years. I worked for three different retailers at nine different stores in four states. There really is nothing like working retail, especially during the holidays. Beginning Black Friday (Thanksgiving Day +1) life as you know it significantly changes. At work, "busy" just doesn't describe it. "Chaotic" is a little better but my favorite descriptors come from friends working restaurants... slammed, 86ed, in the weeds. Often you get so busy on the floor that you forget to eat, take a break, or go to the bathroom. That's when you know that you are "in the zone."
Typical customer encounters from behind the counter go something like this: You step up to a pressing throng of holiday shoppers, eyes beckon, "over here." They beg, "pick me!" and seem to scream, "I'm next" or scream at you, "HEY, I was next!" A single directed phrase from you quiets the crowd, "how may I help YOU?" Now you focus on your customer, addressing his or her needs one-on-one, making the best of the situation as well as making the sale.
A person can grow to really love this kind of work. I did. You can even grow to love the people you meet. I found that "regular" customers can become much more than that. While working in Southern California there was women in her mid- to late-seventies named Barbara who would stop in several times a week. Sometimes we would grab a cup of coffee and just chat. She liked to share stories about growing up in Orange County "in the day." She had worked at Knott's Berry Farm for many years and had lived within walking distance. She didn't talk much about her husband who had died awhile back nor her children who had grown and moved off to somewhere.
She lived in a small but tidy mobile home park with palm trees and narrow little streets. I remember one Mother's Day when my wife Stacy and I took Barbara out for dinner to a nice restaurant near our home. She got all dressed up and we brought her flowers. Later when we dropped her off she insisted on giving us a huge brick of government-issued cheese to take back with us (I guess newly married couples can never get enough cheese and 70ish widows can only eat so much).
When Stacy and I moved from Southern California she gave us about a dozen pieces of pale green and light pink Depression Glass. These small plates and cups, Barbara's heirlooms, have been a part of our home for a quarter century and still grace the corner hutch in our dining room. One customer who became a regular and then a friend also has remained a small part of a family.
If it were in my power, I would create a special form of Selective Service (emphasis on the idea of "service" as in serving others). My program would call up young men and women into a season of working in a store, hotel, restaurant, or the like. I'm pretty sure it would help shape them personally, relationally, and professionally. Hopefully, they will meet a few customers like Barbara.