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Two ways of making retail work
Not many people can go through their life without, at some point, working in retail. After all, it’s a relatively easy job to get that requires no complicated degrees or even much experience. And one that seems to be relatively easily available when you can’t find anything else. It’s also a great job to have if you’re working on a personal project (like making your own art), going to school or holding another job. At the same, retail jobs — and other so-called “joe jobs” — tend to have a bad rep because of low pay, unstable hours and, sometimes, soul-crushing repetitiveness. Still, there’s probably no other job that will teach you better people skills and give you a bunch of other experience that you can beef up your resumé with: organizational skills, sales skills and superb customer service skills that can only help you further your career.
And there’s a whole other side to working in retail — making a career out it. And not by moving from one sad store to another but by moving up, around and, who knows, perhaps even owning your own store one day. Read on as we present you with two different sides to retail and how you can make the best out of both.
In the meantime ...
The first kind of retail job scenario is what I’d like to call the “in-the-meantime" job, as in while you look for the job that you really want. Or, it sometimes becomes the newcomer scenario, with immigrants working the job that they can actually get (as opposed to getting the job that they were trained for but don’t have the right credentials or Canadian experience).
My first retail job was for a lingerie store. It was pink and frilly. It was okay for the first few months but after a while I was starting to go mad listening to the same three CDs over and over (upper management would suggest and send us music that they deemed appropriate to play) and dealing with both rude customers and one supervisor who was humourless and power-hungry. Or maybe these were just my impressions. Who knows. The point is, my retail experience was not the best because I was poorly suited to work this job. And not by any means because I was above it — definitely not. It was because I had no patience or professionalism, which is often required in this seemingly “easy” job. I’m definitely on the side of people who write pieces like 12 Tips For Working In Retail Without Killing Everyone Around You.
But now, in retrospect I know that there were many benefits to that job. I know that my retail job was where I first learned about working as part of a group and about being organized — a few terrible glitches in closing the till at the end of the night taught me some very valuable lessons about keeping track of what I was doing all day. Over my few months at that store, I became more disciplined as a worker and developed an understanding of what it means to work toward the common good. All of these became very useful when I eventually started working for magazines — no longer an island, I became a team player.
The How Working in Retail Can Benefit You in the Future article talks about the many pluses of this in-the-meantime career (amended):
- Developing verbal communication. Talking to customers and assisting them helps you work on how you interact with people.
- Meeting people and networking. The article suggests talking to people about the career you want to really be in. I’d advise against it as you might appear pushy and creepy trying to accost customers with stories of who you really are ... at the same time, meeting people will definitely help you polish your networking skills.
- Flexibility. Most retail places can accommodate your schedule therefore giving you time to either look for other jobs, work on personal projects or go to school.
Other benefits of working an in-the-meantime retail position, are, of course, discounts (and often you’ll be the first person to see which coveted items are about to go on sale). Plus, with retail’s minimum work experience demands, you can work in a place that is close to what your real interests are — for example, working in an art store if what you really are is an artist.
For students, retail is also a great place to learn some basic customer service skills such as operating a cash register, doing inventory and learning sales techniques, such as recommending certain items based on a customer’s needs, answering questions about products and demonstrating their use. In my retail job, I got to do some creative work as well — I was in charge of dressing windows, which was a fun experience. We had some specifications sent to us by the head office, of course, but I was able to let my imagination loose a little bit as I dressed mannequins and arranged displays. Back then I had no idea that there was a profession called visual merchandiser that you can actually get a diploma in (Seneca College offers one, for example) and that is quite an interesting profession, combining retail experience with knowledge of fashion and advertising. Which brings me to my next point about retail jobs.
As the means…
... to an end. Retail doesn’t have to be an in-the-meantime job at all. It can actually be your career and you can do quite well in it — well enough to end up in a management job or in a high-end store that will pay much more than the minimum wage (and often a commission). The Career Path to Becoming a Retail Rock Star CEO article mentions that although “employees today are left to use their own navigational skills to make their way to the penthouse office suite,” it happens sometimes. “It may be a mysterious journey, but it’s not an impossible one. By reconstructing the professional route that some well-known CEOs took to get to the top, certain similarities and patterns emerge.” Also, have a look at our In Conversation With ... Vaughn Stafford-Gray to see how he got to the top.
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