My retail “war stories”

When a friend recently shared her retail work experiences on social media in an effort to encourage some respect for workers in that sector of the economy, she invited others to share their stories about difficult customers. It's been a little while since I've been in that position myself now; fortunately for me I managed to get out before the COVID-19 pandemic that hit “essential” retail workers (grocery store cashiers, etc.) especially hard. But I do have a few stories from those “before times” and it seems to me that people who haven't had to work these jobs, or haven't had to rely on them to pay the bills, might do well to hear what it's actually like.

I'll be vague about precise store locations, but all of these stories occurred in Massachusetts or New Hampshire between 2012 and 2018.

A freezer containing what a sign designates as "ethnic" foods at BJ's Wholesale Club

Tough customers

I didn't personally experience physical or sexual harassment from customers, though of course it does happen, and often enough that anti-harassment law compliance training materials have to address it specifically. I did experience a some verbal interactions that were demeaning or vaguely threatening in some way, but the one such interaction that sticks with me is something that happened to a coworker. Once when I was cleaning/relabeling the wine aisle at BJ's Wholesale Club (giant warehouse-type store like Costco or Sam's Club) someone came around to the meat department to ask about some five-layer dip that was usually in a little display cooler full of prepared side dishes nearby. It was out of stock. I wasn't close enough to hear the beginning of the conversation but I do know it led to this customer screaming a tirade that began with “I want… THE DIP!!!” in a voice so loud that three managers immediately came running from the other side of the store, fully ready to call the cops. In fact it was only when they threatened to involve the cops and eject him from the store that he backed down.

More often customer interactions weren't directly threatening like this but betrayed an sense of entitlement and objectification that suggested that on some level the customer didn't think of me as a full person. Once at Target some guy came up to me and said “I need a female to talk to.” Turned out he was looking for advice on hair products. I didn't connect him with a “female,” but he did get to talk to Scott, who was in charge of the cosmetics area and had luxurious shoulder-length hair.

After I helped one customer shopping at Target with her children in December find some things, she unexpectedly told the kids that I was one of Santa's elves, and then I had to play along or make for an awkward situation with these children.

At BJ's, after corporate had us rearrange a few aisles, a customer walked up to me and shouted, “Young man, where did you put the oatmeal?!” I chuckled but it turned out she was legit upset at me personally for moving it, even after I immediately showed her the new location of the oatmeal.

Someone at Target who got upset with the “Guest Service” desk staff told them that “Some people don't deserve their Christmas bonuses.” Clearly someone who had never worked an hourly-wage job at Target where no one has even heard of a “Christmas bonus.”

The behavior of customers toward each other could have a negative impact on me too. It was a little depressing to watch one customer who felt she had been cheated of her place in line snarl “Merry Christmas!” in the most nakedly venomous tone you could imagine at the offending party.

The aisles at BJ's were enormous, but one customer I recall managed to park one of the also-enormous shopping carts across the entrance to the isle and near an advertising display such that it effectively blocked that end of the aisle. Another shopper who was using a motorized cart and needed to leave the aisle came to a gentle stop in front of this barricade and deftly rolled it out of the way without exiting the motorized cart, just enough to pass by. When the shopper who had barricaded the aisle turned back to her cart and saw it in a slightly different position than where she'd left it she was instantly furious and began to berate the visibility disabled customer who had dared to move it aside

The naughtiest thing I ever did in retail was when I was working a really busy cashier shift at Target and I was due for a state-mandated 15-minute break. I had turned off the light at my register. Usually people take that as a hint not to line up at that register and sometimes they even offer to move to another register when they're already in line (no need for that, but thanks). But this time it just didn't happen and people kept lining up at my register. When about the twentieth customer to line up at my register with its light pointedly turned off arrived, and had already loaded half their stuff onto the belt while I was finishing with the previous customer, I pretended not to notice them and walked off.

A display of greeting cards at Target, featuring one card that jokes about excessive Target shopping

The worst kind of customer

The worst kind of customer is the kind of tough customer that always sticks around: a bad boss.

I was made to watch an anti-union training video when I started work at Target. I certainly would have appreciated some help from a union when store management at one of the Target locations I worked broke its promises about working hours, refused to give us our weekly schedules in a timely fashion so we could make any kind of plans, fudged bad performance reports for budgetary reasons, or told us all on-the-job injuries were university caused by the injured worker's own carelessness, and not ever by the state of the equipment or the unsafe pace demanded of us while using said equipment. But a number of the people I worked with at the time had conservative and anti-union views I felt I would probably not manage to change, and all the stories I read about near-successful unionizing efforts at Target seemed to end in corporate finding some excuse to shut down the store that was about to go union.

BJ's expected me to sign a “union-free philosophy” pledge. (I remember that phrase because in my head it goes to the tune of that one line from “Hakuna Matata.”) I signed it because I knew I was an “at will” employee, so they could legally fire me without showing cause. A sign went up near the time clock warning us that the BJ's “anti-solicitation” policy forbade discussion of unions and the distribution of union literature at the store—or even amongst employees off the store premises. I overheard some of the store managers' training material that told them to report any employee talking about the benefits of unions to corporate.

At Target, I moved because rent was too high for me in the city, and I got transferred to a store closer to where I was moving. They were kind of evasive about whether I was going to continue to be working 40 hours per week. Turns out the new location had a different scheduling system and I'd be working 40 hrs per week for a few weeks at a time in the peak season around December, then maybe 12 hrs per week or at completely random times throughout the week during other parts of the year. This made it pretty much impossible to commit to a second job because people who did block out a few hours per week with Target to make room for a second job got their hours cut to 6hrs per week or so. Of course I fell way behind on rent and had to move in with relatives 60km away, so I asked for a transfer to a location closer to home. They strung me along for months, then told me I didn't qualify because of my performance reviews (which they had told me were poor because they couldn't afford to give me a raise from the near-minimum hourly wage I was making). Then I got the job at BJ's and they told me if I had just held on another month they were going to get me that transfer. One of my favorite lower-level managers at that time (a “front end team leader”) was homeless, which told me that job was never going to pay the bills no matter how well I performed.

I was very fortunate that store management at BJ's let me alter my schedule to work 40hrs per week while moving my shifts to accommodate morning or afternoon classes so I could work on a computer science degree part-time (shortly after our oldest kid was born). But there was one short-tempered manager at the store who for some reason never remembered this arrangement no matter how many times we communicated it to him and was outraged every time I left the store earlier than the paper schedule said I should do, so I could attend a class (after I had started my shift earlier to compensate).

I got out

In the end I got lucky, and got out. But I want people to know that the retail industry is still generally like this, that it's mostly not just high school students doing easy busy-work in their spare time for a little spending money, but people trying to pay the bills in punishing, exploitative working conditions. I've watched some recent unionizing successes at Amazon distribution centers and Starbucks cafés, and I hope to see that kind of effective labor organizing happen at BJ's, at Target, and all over retail.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.