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Crossing Over To The Other Side of Retail


I never understood how a customer could ask for samples of eight different flavors and still order vanilla.

This is one of the many questions still unanswered from my first job. I was 15, and worked at Baskin-Robbins. Their ‘free sample’ policy lives on today. I recently found myself back in retail, as I took a seasonal job at Lands End in Castleton Square Mall and stayed on a few shifts a week.

© Flickr User conradvolle

It’s been a while since I’ve been on the other side of the retail counter. Here are some observations:

Lands End is owned by Sears.. The storied Sears and Roebuck Corporation, now Sears Holdings, has by far one of the most extensive jobseeker assessment procedures I’ve seen. Two personality tests, one 90-minute long virtual-customer interaction activity, a drug test, background and credit check, as well as the regular application made me think I wandered onto the Secret Service job portal by accident.

Training consisted of mostly things that didn’t really matter to the job at hand: A half-hour video on the history of Sears, and a second video where the dominant themes were workplace safety and loss prevention.

Training did NOT consist of things that do matter to a new employee: How to use the register, where to clock in, how to look up my direct deposit, where the heck the break room is. Training is lacking because the department is consistently understaffed. Although led by a talented management team, “hit the ground running” is the standard operating procedure.

I was impressed by the backgrounds of my fellow part-timers: A Marion County deputy coroner, a financial analyst at Eli Lilly, a teacher at a charter school, a loan officer. Like me, none of these folks were there because they were desperate for money. Rather, most were there to keep busy, and maybe to generate a little extra income. I am honestly not sure if the assessment process would be favorable to anyone that was truly destitute.

I was also impressed at the responsibility each employee has. There is an incredible variety of tasks to be done – some involve money, some involve processing customer complaints, many just the hundreds of nuances each customer interaction can have. Things like:

“I want to make a payment but don’t have my card nor bill.”

“I bought this 3 years ago can I still return it?”

“My daughter needs a school uniform but is big for her age. Do you carry these in women’s sizes?”

“I applied for a Sears credit card and was denied and when I called back they hung up on me.”

Price matching is a new phenomenon since I last worked retail. Customers come at you with an item on their phone with an interesting mix of trepidation and entitlement as they ask for a price match.

That entitlement attitude—as if we are there as servants—is common. A very irate customer screamed at me as she demanded the sun and the moon and the stars because I forgot to take off her security ink tag. I understand her frustration at having to drive back to get it removed. I did not understand where her anger came from. I was simply not in the habit of checking for them yet. Our normal 10% adjustment on a purchase for her inconvenience was not enough. She wanted blood.

Another new phenomenon is the ‘rewards program.’ Every store has one now. As a marketing professional, I understand why: They create loyalty and enrolled customers simply spend more. Most honestly many do save consumers money. As a retail cashier however, it’s annoying to always be in pitch mode.

I was surprised at how many customers return items. This has to be at least half of the transactions. I understand the catalog returns, but not so much the in-store purchases, especially when the predominant reason for returning an item is, “It just didn’t fit.” Isn’t that what fitting rooms are supposed to eliminate? I learned I’m in the small minority of customers who actually ensure an item fits before purchasing it.

My advice if you’re unemployed? Know that retail jobs abound. Find one. You get all of the above for $8 an hour. On the positive side, you also get yourself into a schedule, and you get to be around some incredibly hard working people who inspire.

Bonus: As a customer yourself the next time you walk into Target, Starbucks or the local movie theater, you will forever appreciate in greater measure the person on the other side of the counter.

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About the Blogger: Laura Neidig works for the Riley Children's Foundation as Senior Communications Officer. She also serves as Marketing Liaison with the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon and is a 4-time Emmy award winner.


Tue, March 11 2014 » Corporate Culture

4 Responses

  1. Mike March 19 2014 @ 10:36 pm

    The price match from the phone is going to take over! Margins are already thin. Gone are the days of a store making a profit by selling merchandise, now they have to find other ways to pad their pockets. Cutting costs, in pay and benefits is usually the first to go!

  2. lneidig46 March 27 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    I would agree with you there Mike. Retail employees are paid a ridiculously low amount considering the work is hard, there is quite a bit of responsibility, and they are often the face of that company.

  3. kpfled April 14 2014 @ 9:40 pm

    Love your post – I worked part time at Macy's at Castleton from 2009-2012 and so much of this resonated with me. I definitely agree with you about being surprised to learn about the background of my former colleagues – some were engineers, teachers, others immigrated to the States to provide a better life for their children.

    I had to swallow my pride and bite my tongue frequently when people were rude, but it helped me polish my customer service skills and accept the reality that sometimes there are just some people you can't please.

    I am proud of my experience and time at both places. I truly believe my Macy's gig and my job at McDonald's back in high school/college taught me the soft skills that I might not have learned otherwise. Cheers!

  4. lneidig46 April 18 2014 @ 7:15 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. There is quite a bit of tongue biting. In my own experience at Lands End, my normal patient personality is often tested.

    And like you, I always learn something from any job I've had. "Kill them with kindness" is my #1 take-a-way so far with this one!

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