It’s almost like learning a different language, going to work in retail after the age of 30.
I never bagged groceries or stocked shelves, as a kid. My best friend did – he grew up in a retail household. His mom ran a bakery in the local independent grocer. He went to work there at 16: pumping gas, sacking celery, shopping for neckties to meet the dress code. But I didn’t have the first clue what he did while he was on the clock.
Before I started this job, I had a vague, almost condescending respect for the people who worked in the service industries I frequented. It’s shameful to me now, but it’s a common attitude for those who have never done it. “There, but for the grace of God,” for those who have gone from a comfortable upbringing to a comfortable education to a comfortable career. It’s seen as some kind of lesser option, a last resort.
It was that for me. A last resort, to feed my family. Now, it’s what I do every day. Well, kind of. The people I work with would tell you that I still don’t work in retail. As a senior manager, I’m the “them” in the age-old “us versus them” struggle of shelf stockers versus suits. I’m not an h0urly employee, clocking in to serve my time, and then clocking out again to escape. I know how to run a cash register and an inventory scanner, but I don’t have to. It’s not in my job description to spend eight hours a day defusing cranky soccer moms with screaming toddlers who need someone to scream at themselves.
Not a day passes that I’m not deeply grateful for that.
Working here has taught me, though, that I used to see the world through a very sheltered lens. It never occurred to me, when I used to shop at the neighborhood store of a national chain, that the people who were ringing up my cart were whole individuals with their own back story. I never wondered if the guy loading my trunk had another job, had ever lost a child, had done time and turned his life around. The woman who answered my questions about the availability of a product might have gone to college, become a teacher, and then found out that retail paid better. The teenage kid pushing the pallet was saving for a first car, but half of his paycheck was going to his parents to help pay the electric bill because dad had been out of work for a year.
The stories are breathtaking. A cross-section of a world that I barely knew existed until 2011.
Now, I see it from the other side of the lens. I see the friends from high school, and the family members, who look at me differently now that I work for a major big box chain. It doesn’t matter to them what my job actually is – all they see is the corporate logo and that girl who “ended up” in retail, when she had such a promising future. It would be funny if it weren’t so insulting. And it embarrasses me, because I used to look at it that way, too.
I didn’t expect to grow up and go to work in retail. But I’m not sorry I did – it’s given me the opportunity to do a whole different kind of growing up. Maybe more people should try it.