Retail worker blues

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I don’t get mad very often. Sure I get frustrated, discouraged and annoyed . . . but mad is one of those special emotions that I reserve for a very select group of people. At the top of that list are people who are rude to retail employees.

Let me just get this out of the way: Working retail fucking sucks, and people who treat the poor bastards behind the counter — many of whom probably make less than minimum wage thanks to the tricks employers like to play — like shit are the scum of the Earth.

I know the pain of working for a huge company first hand, as I used to work for one of Canada’s largest electronics retailers, and despite the fact that it has been nearly seven years since I quit, I still feel the anger well up inside me when I think about the way I was treated by management and the public.

An average weekday started at about 7:30 a.m. Since I was on the bottom rung of the ladder — the top was reserved for the “lifers,” as we called them — I didn’t start until 8 a.m., but I was told by management that starting at eight meant I had to be on the floor selling by eight. This is just one example of how retail employees make less than minimum wage for the hours they actually work.

In case you’re wondering about who buys electronics at eight in the morning, the answer is bloody no one. The occasional person would come in to browse, but they were mainly the elderly or unemployed, and lacked the disposable income to do much more than look and ask questions.

The complete absence of customers didn’t deter the bosses from inquiring about poor sales numbers though. “Larsen, it’s noon and you haven’t sold anything. What’s the matter?” they would ask in the nicest tone, generally reserved for those so far below you that their significance is unquestionably minute. Any answer other than “I’ll try harder” would be met with questions about my loyalty to the company and a speech about how I had been given the tools to succeed — according to corporate doctrine failure was a choice.

Swallowing my pride and accepting responsibility resulted in the least amount of nodding and pretending to care on my part.

The “tools” my manager was talking about consisted of the endless training, designed to teach us to counter any argument a customer might have against the new computer or the extended warranty I was selling him.

“But Mr. Smith, you told me that you don’t like how slow your old computer is. This Compaq is much faster.” The underlying message being “I thought we were friends, you wouldn’t lie to me, would you Mr. Smith?”

I felt like a douche bag going through this ruse every time, but if I failed to do it, and manager found out, I would be cleaning up the peripheral aisle for the rest of the shift, unable to sell — not like that is an excuse for poor sales either.

At the end of the day, my manager would come up to me and ask the loaded question: “How did you do today?” He knew I didn’t sell much, I knew I didn’t sell much, but the game must be played.

“Not great,” I would reply sheepishly.

“Why do you think that is?” he would ask. Like before, any answer that didn’t implicate myself as the culprit, rather than the fact that no one buys computers between eight and four on a weekday, would result in a lecture.

“I guess I didn’t try hard enough?”

If lady luck were with me, I would get to leave after my admission of guilt. If she had buggered off I would be given “homework,” which consisted of logging on to the corporate website and doing quizzes for an hour or two, on my time (another example of getting paid less than minimum wage for the hours worked).

In the end, I didn’t last long. One day I came in after forgetting to shave. I was handed a Bic razor by the boss and pointed in the direction of the staff-room for a dry shave. Lucky for me I had options, and after a quick call to my friend who owned a pizza place and a new job as a driver, I told my manager to “shove it.”

Was my situation special? I don’t think so. From the other victims of retail that I have talked to, this is how hundreds if not thousands of sales people in our province are treated, and it’s damned deplorable.

So next time you are having a bad day and decide to vent on a sales person, think about what they go through first. They are likely working for less than minimum wage, forced to manipulate the public by managers who demand the impossible and are probably just making ends meet.

It’s a shitty existence. Try your best to not make it worse.

Leif Larsen is the Editor-in-Chief of the Manitoban.