“Why Isn’t This Wrapped in Plastic?”: Life Lessons From Working Retail

by Amy Shaw on September 3

11920449_10155998678850068_2059198782_n“You still at the music store?”

Yeah, I am. Still.

I’m 28, I have a Master’s degree, and I’ve always been an overachiever. I have a decorated CV and everything going for me…except for, you know, a “real” job that reflects that. The deflated American economy I’ve been thrust into and constantly plummeting funds for higher education, my chosen profession, have made it next to impossible to make a decent living.

The temptation to compare myself to my peers is strong. Some of my friends are married, have children, own houses, have high-paying jobs, even retirement funds (lol—what is a retirement fund?)—they’ve “made it.” And I’m working retail.

Sometimes, when I wake up, the shame comes on strongly—as a knot in the pit of my stomach, a nauseous dread. This isn’t what I had pictured for myself at 28. On the other hand, I never wanted the white picket fence, 2.3 kids, and a dog. I was always a loner and I dreamt of being onstage, not getting married and being a high-powered career woman. So it’s not like it’s a huge personal disappointment that I don’t have this picturesque American life.

I guess what I feel when I am ashamed is a really nasty class judgment that I don’t even want to admit to. I’m better than this. Fuck. I sound like one of our snooty customers!

I still deal with this self-judgment on a daily basis, as I cruise over Facebook announcements of newly acquired jobs, #hustlin friends, and various other digitally enhanced phenomena that make me feel like a failure.

Sometimes though, I feel something else. It’s a sense of dignity, or maybe humility, that comes from working in retail. Oh, how incredibly humbling it is to come swinging out of the ivory tower and then have to deal with “is this brand new? Why isn’t it wrapped in plastic?”

That’s one way to put things into perspective. Your own problems start to seem, well, legitimate in comparison to what you hear from customers. At least I don’t get bent out of shape about a $5 set of strings and why you won’t take my coupon.

That’s not all of it, though. Trust me, my coworkers and I snark on customers daily—it brings us together and helps us get through our shifts—but constantly having to take people’s shit has taught me a lot, lessons I don’t think I ever could have learned at a hip office in the city.

You don’t have let people’s negativity affect you.

In the beginning, I would totally clam up around difficult customers. I would get flustered and lose my cool. Then, somewhere around the year mark, that flustered feeling changed into anger. I was appalled that people thought they could treat me like crap, just because I work here. Yes, I have lost it on a customer—but only once. Everyone who works retail does at some point. These days, I can moderate my tone of voice and be perfectly polite. I can smile through a customer’s bullshit and hear their concern, even if it’s ridiculous. Why should I let anything anyone says affect me? It’s not personal. It never is.

The way that I think about it—and this doesn’t just apply to customer service—is that it’s all just energy out there. It’s not objectively positive or negative, but we make it so. Being in situations in which my job depends on holding my cool has taught me how to, well, hold my cool in various types of shitstorms. Everything feels a lot more neutral now. I’m much less reactive in general.

Fuck what everyone else is doing.

No, seriously. I am doing me, and you are doing you. I don’t have this one down 100% yet, but I really think it’s worth aspiring to. I have my reasons for keeping my job. My dream job is a tenure-track professor position at a college. In the meantime, I adjunct classes and work retail, since adjuncting is pretty unreliable—especially in the summer. I like the people I work with, I do my job well, and as my sales skills improve, I can make more money from commission. No, my financial situation isn’t great, but is that really anyone’s business but mine? Why do we place so much value on “income”; why is that a measure of someone’s worth?

I’ve learned to stand up for myself more.

As with any corporate retail job, I’ve had to deal with a lot of issues that aren’t as prevalent in cushier jobs. The hours are long, coverage can be poor, turnover is high, and support from upper management can be non-existent. It’s often thankless work. But from the help of a particularly assertive coworker, I’ve learned to speak up for myself and tell someone something is bullshit, in polite and professional terms.

Drama dissipates, and you can still get along with people.

As with any job, there can be drama. I’ve seen people cry, rage, ignore one another, and talk massive shit about each other. I’ve been involved in some of it, too. But at the end of the day, working retail is like a big dysfunctional family. I was always so afraid of conflict, but more and more often I tell myself now, “eh, they’ll get over it.” It’s such a healthier way of seeing life instead of expecting things to be perfect all the time.

I have to remind myself of these takeaways when I start feeling the shadow of self-doubt creep in. I am working towards a goal—lots of goals, with writing and music and teaching—and I’m trying to make it on my own. I don’t have the luxury of a wealthy spouse, or parents who pay my way until I get that dream job. I am supporting myself entirely, and that feels good. I’m doing what I have to do until I can move on to what I really want to do. And you know what? It’s pretty okay in the meantime.

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Amy Shaw

Amy is a part-time teacher, part-time freelance writer and editor, and full-time building a life out of her passions. Always seeking new, fresh ways to improve herself, Amy's approach to personal development has shifted over time: she has been influenced by everything from Tibetan Buddhism, to New Age spirituality, to Mark Manson's "slap you in the face" style of self-help. She claims no status of guru-ship, but she hopes that you can find yourself in her down-to-earth, reflective writing. Amy is Spiraling Up's editor, and she can also be found at Fiction Edit. She loves cooking meals from scratch, drinks espresso multiple times a day, and plays in a rock band called Dr. Martino.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jack Shaw September 3, 2015 at 9:53 pm

You are amazing. I am so proud to know you


Tim September 3, 2015 at 10:45 pm

Thanks for bringing her into existence, Jack. She’s pretty rad to blog with, too 😀


Jack Shaw September 3, 2015 at 11:42 pm

even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in awhile


Amy Shaw September 4, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Love you, Dad!


Robert September 3, 2015 at 10:21 pm

I think doing it on your own is what counts. The most miserable year of my life was right after UCF, when I moved back home with my parents. Not that I don’t have all the love and appreciation in the world for my parents for giving me a place to stay and for supporting me in general during that year, but needed to get the fuck out and be on my own or I was going to go insane. I was so much happier in grad school, living on rice and chili I made in the crock pot for the week, rooming with 4 other college students in a run-down house. I worked at Michaels Arts and Crafts for about 5 years following that year after UCF graduation–I understand EVERYTHING you’re talking about, haha. Realizing that it’s never personal is an insight I certainly could’ve used early on…


Tim September 3, 2015 at 10:44 pm

“Realizing that it’s never personal is an insight I certainly could’ve used early on…”

That’s a really good insight that I didn’t catch in Amy’s article. Thanks!


Amy Shaw September 4, 2015 at 1:53 pm

Hey Rob, thanks for reading! I didn’t know you were at Michael’s for 5 years… wow, has it really been 5 years since UCF? Well, I guess it’s been 6 now, yikes. We’re old!

I’m glad someone else knows how it is. It can be really tough and exhausting, huh? But I do think at the end of the day, it builds character, and I’m glad for the experience. I refuse to be like one of my customers and look down on myself. There is a lot of dignity in this kind of work, if you look in the right places.


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