Thursday, November 10, 2011

Retailin’ It Like It Is

While pissing away the final moments of an employee lunch break (literally, I’m afraid), a dark epiphany crossed my mind: When my birthday occurs next month, I’ll have spent over half of my life working retail, on and off. It’s less a career choice than it is an old high school flame that I find myself hooking up with every time I come home for Thanksgiving -- so easy, so accessible, yet ultimately, so wrong. But as life throws you curveballs, it’s the one thing you can always come back to.

I came up through the music stores such that my resume now looks like a tombstone: Tower Records, followed by Virgin Superstore, followed by Borders Books, Music, & Cafe. The music industry has now left me stranded among the last gang in town: Barnes & Noble, a solid company though surely not a stupid one; I can almost watch as the inventory ominously disappears like the limbs of Marty McFly’s siblings in that photo during the original Back to the Future. We live our days on borrowed time.

Despite all of these changing companies, positions, and policies, there are some retail truisms that have remained constant such that I feel they are worth relating here. Hopefully they will provide pearls of wisdom upon which future generations can meditate, ponder, and absorb. At any rate, I call this lesson: My Top 3 Really, Really Annoying Things Customers Do That Piss Me Off When I’m Working Retail.

1. The Magical Backroom

Somewhere, in a magical time of castles and kings there was a place where every single stock item that anyone ever wanted was kept. Despite all of the things that we’ve been able to shed from the dark ages -- the black plague, barbers as doctors, a geocentric theory of the universe -- this one has stubbornly remained. Whenever something can’t be found on the floor, the customer’s eyes well up with enough hope to fuel twenty Obama campaigns and ask, “Could you check in the backroom?” In their minds, they are prepared for the retail clerk to smack their forehead and say something along the lines of, “Yes! The backroom! How could have I been so foolish?!” and then proceed to skip off towards that room and arrive back with the item in hand seven to twelve seconds later.

Well, after working at all of the above places, plus a local used CD store, I can safely say that this room does not exist. If there is a backroom at all, it likely has items like employee jackets and backpacks that are not for sale (and too cheap to be worth selling in the first place). The few times there is product, it’s overstock (i.e., the 600 extra copies of every Norah Jones album since Come Away With Me), defects (i.e., the item you want already bought, broken, and returned by someone else), or random freak things (i.e., my old music manager’s stash of “Amy Winehouse Death Watch” CDs -- alas, he was about three years ahead of his time).

That’s about it. The fact is that most retail stores keep everything they have on the sales floor. Otherwise it would be like going to an Eric Clapton show and having him play only songs off his new record. (Which, I’ve actually seen and it ain’t pretty -- I’m lookin’ at you, Pilgrim tour.)

2. Your Child/Grandchild’s Brilliance

Most people shutter when they have to work in the kids department because (a) they hate kids, (b) they hate kids’ products, (c) they hate picking up other peoples’ messes, or (d) they hate picking up other peoples’ messes of hated products that were designed for an age group they hate. As you probably guessed, for most people it’s because of choice (d).

Well, I’d like to offer my own reason for why I shutter when I have to work in a kids’ department: The inability of the child’s parent or grandparent to base their minds in a reality that lines up with the one that everyone else lives in.

It usually happens like this: They say, “I’m looking for a book for my son/grandson.” You say, “Great, how old are they?” And then, almost without fail, they answer with pride: “Well, he’s six, but he reads like a 37-year-old. The teacher says he’s very advanced for his age.” Whenever I hear this, my mind instantly rockets to a fantasy in which I am standing at a huge podium where seated before me is every parent and grandparent in the world. I ask the crowd, “How bright is your children and grandchildren?” And then I fold my arms and watch with sly satisfaction as they all answer without fail and at the same time, “The teacher says he’s very advanced for his age…” before their words trail off in the surprise echo surrounding them that triggers the unimaginable realization that every teacher says this about every kid.

Meanwhile, I do my best to help the customer in front of me as best I can. “Well, if your child is five but reads like an eighth grader, you should just go to the regular adult fiction section, because that’s what most eighth graders read.” Or, I just take them to the Shakespeare section and ask if their kindergartener is more of an Othello or an As You Like It man. They should probably wait and tackle the violent stuff like Titus Andronicus or the brainy stuff like King Lear until they’ve at the very least learned about fractions.

3. Just Because You’re into It, Doesn’t Mean the Rest of the World Is.

Here’s something that happens every day: A customer bounds in and says: “Do you have that book [insert partially correct title here]? It was on [insert generic daytime talk show here]. You must have it. Eeeeeverybody is buying it!”

If this is their pitch, chances are good that at least one of these three (if not all) are wrong. People have the crazy notion that just because they read about something on a random page in a newspaper, everyone must’ve heard about it and are clamoring it up. This is almost never true. In fact, sometimes I’m least happy when I can find the book for the customer and they see one of two sad copies that have been sitting in section untouched since they came in on their release day. In that situation, the customer has a wakeup call that causes them to question the world in which they live: “Well, why don’t you have more? And why aren’t they out in front? Isn’t everyone asking for this?”

It’s hard not to tell the customer the truth, especially when the book is something like I Saw Nothing: The Kato Kaelin Story or Lean on Me: A Detailed History of the Household Wall. Actually, I take that back. It’s very, very easy to tell the customer the truth, even though it’ll cost you about twenty more minutes in Purgatory.

* * *

So, if you can just keep these concepts in place, chances are you will be doing better than 95% of the people who walk through the front door of my store. However, that’s not to say that even when these peeves are cured, there won’t be other ones forming down the line like new strains of diseases once the antidote has been found.

But I’d risk it to say that if these peeves are corrected, it will at least bring the conventional wisdom level out of the Middle Ages and into that of the Early Renaissance. There may not be three-point perspective yet, but at least they’re beginning to tilt the halos.


  1. working retail with The Wolf was a real adventure and a pleasure. Few people were able to make me laugh as much as you. Enjoyed this article - would like a future one about the many incredible places people pooped in the store.

  2. An addition: 'have you read it?' inevitably used when directing a customer to a bestseller, especially a right-wing polemic, and you, lowely bookseller, swallow your pride, and feel the awful sensation of once more your affect being cleaved from your soul, as you tell them 'not yet,' instead of saying 'in no possible world will I read this. There does not exist a set of circumstances that would lead to my reading this crap.'
    And if you have the balls to just say 'it's's not really my thing,' then at best you get a sales pitch, and at worst you get written up.