My freshman year, I delayed making a trip to UCS until mid-April. When I finally sat down with a career counselor and told him I wanted to apply for summer internships, he laughed in my face. Apparently I had missed the boat by more than three months.
Other attempts at finding summer work (including e-mailing every political science professor within 200 miles of my home) proved equally fruitless. I received only one response — a professor who first lauded me with praise for being a “bright Yalie” and then asked me to volunteer to rewind videotapes for her.
Returning home to Pittsburgh with no job prospects, I literally begged for my summer job at the sporting goods store where I worked the previous summer. Mistake. When my manager, Sue, asked how often I’d like to work, I asked her to put me down for “as many hours as you can.” This was another mistake. By my second day working at the cash register, I yearned to go back to those long nights of chemistry problem sets and writing papers on obscure Russian film theorists.
I was convinced: school could never be as bad as working.
To keep myself from going completely insane over my seven day schedule, I began to make a list of “The Things I Learned in Retail.” If you’ve never worked in a retail store, you might not believe the catalogue of horrors that follow. Let me “show you the backroom” of the retail industry:
1) Stores will ALWAYS accept returned merchandise.
Many stores have signs stating that “purchases are final” and you might feel awkward when your mom tries to return that pair of underwear because it “keeps riding up.” These signs, however, are the only barriers that prevent a customer from returning any item.
Over the course of my summer, I saw customers return everything from a used pair of soccer shoes which had been played in for at least a month (they “give her blisters”), to a used jockstrap, to a basketball hoop that had already been cemented in the customer’s driveway. Our store took all of the items back and then promptly shipped them to the manufacturer as “defective.”
2) People buy the strangest things.
A frequent customer would come in every Tuesday to buy 5 pairs of black Nike windpants. By her third or fourth trip, I seriously questioned what she was doing with so many identical pairs. Was she outfitting a rapidly growing cult? Trading them like Levis and Marlboros in former Soviet countries? (Though I’m not sure how practical windpants are during the biting Ukranian winter.)
On her sixth trip, my curiosity got the best of me. I phrased it as innocuously as I could; “You’re a big fan of these pants, am I right?”
The woman slid her sunglasses down to the end of her nose and leaned in. I knew she was about to reveal her get-rich-quick Soviet-export scheme.
“These pants are amazing,” she whispered. “You can wear them anywhere — from the gym to work to the nicest restaurant.”
Perhaps my concept of appropriate work and dinner dress is different than most, but I wouldn’t be caught eating anywhere more formal than McDonald’s in those things. I nodded and smiled, allowed the woman to fold the pants (she always insisted on doing it herself), and thanked her for shopping.
3) Customers assume you know everything, yet treat you like a complete idiot.
To most customers, the cashier/salesperson isn’t a real human being – he’s just a drone that lives in the store subsisting on the candy next to the check-out line. Shoppers assume that you know everything there is to know about the hundreds of products in the store, as well as every intimate detail of their lives that might pertain to their use of said product. This leads to seemingly simple questions that are impossible to answer.
“Will these shoes give me blisters?”
“Is this fishing rod compatible with my FlyCaster2000?”
“My middle son, David, is going to football camp tomorrow and he needs a new pair of football pants. Will these fit?”
When you respond to their stupid questions with another question (such as “How big is David?”) and receive a mindnumbingly stupid response (such as “He’s 13”) what choice do you have but to get this idiot savant her damn pants and usher her out of the store as fast as possible? The “savant” part is that she managed to feed and clothe another human for 13 years.
Encounters like this one often led to my inventing “less-than-half-truths” to herd the customers out of the store. “I’ve never met anyone who had a problem with these shoes” isn’t really a lie if you’ve never sold a pair before.
Ultimately, the constant stream of customers and their irrational questions began to take their toll. I left my summer job vowing never to return, and (thanks to a September trip to UCS) I won’t have to, at least for this summer. For those of you who aren’t as fortunate, at least you’ll have the opportunity to cash in on some employee discounts and witness the freak show that is retail.
Kevin Osowski is currently collecting black Nike windpants … but not to outfit a cult, or anything.