Let me paint you a picture – It’s 2012, I’m 16 years old and nervously walking into my first ever job interview at a supermarket, clutching my very impressive ‘portfolio’ filled with report cards, participation awards and of course, my very polished resume. Luckily, I managed to get the job and the rest is history. Fast forward to six years later: I am still your local checkout chick, delivering service with a smile!
In just a few months I will finish my university degree and (hopefully) transition into a new industry. It got me thinking this could be a great time to reflect upon my time in retail. Not only have I learned a lot in my job, but I’ve also enjoyed all the challenges and the team that I have worked alongside. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly days when I would like to tear my hair out, or have the ability to respond freely to that particularly… trying customer.
I could write an entire article on the recent plastic bag ban and how many customer complaints i’ve received, not to mention to backlash towards Coles and Woolworths. Although, I must say that the wider public have cycled through the stages of grief quite rapidly; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately…. acceptance. Regardless, working in this industry has helped me grow both personally and professionally. Let me tell you why.
While creating a CV or Cover-letter, we often consider “skills” to be technical abilities, or activities that you have perfected throughout your career such as experience in using coding languages, understanding of google analytics or excellent writing skills. These can be known as ‘hard skills’, and while these are a great selling point as a professional, it is undeniable that ‘soft skills’ are important when seeking employment. In 2012 a study was released identifying the most important soft skills needed in the modern workplace these included courtesy, social skills, work ethic, a positive attitude and teamwork which are all cultivated in the retail industry.
Similarly, The Foundation for Young Australians released a report earlier this year detailing barriers and opportunities for young people obtaining full time work, noting that those who are able to obtain ‘transferable enterprise skills’ such as problem-solving, communication and team work can accelerate their transition into full time work. A lot of these ‘soft skills’ may seem like simple human decency, which is a fair assumption. However, retail, hospitality and any customer facing careers particularly build upon soft skills and interpersonal skills. I can handle high-stress situations and strike up a conversation with just about anyone. When I started in retail I was shy and the thought of greeting strangers terrified me, after being exposed to people from all walks of life I can feel confident in any social situation.
In 2017, the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) conducted research among 6,000 retail outlets, finding that over 85% of retail employees had experienced abuse at work and launched their ‘No one Deserves a Serve’ campaign. I myself have experienced this, and there are certainly days when I let rude customers get to me. Just to give you an example, I once had a customer who was upset that his total came to $19.98 and he wouldn’t receive his 5 cents change because of well, rounding… or the young looking customer who wanted to buy cigarettes and tried to use their tattoos as a form of identification, I certainly had “No Ragrets” when turning that one down.
All jokes aside, workplace abuse is not acceptable under any circumstances. From these experiences I learned to never let myself be a victim of abuse in the workplace through a positive mindset. At the end of the day, for every rude customer there are about a hundred nice ones, and that’s what I like to focus on.
Resilience is the difference between walking away from a difficult situation, or working with a team to solve the issue. When dealing with customer complaints I have the ability to shrug it off, knowing that I always try to accommodate the customer’s needs in every way I can, and not allow it to impact upon my work performance. Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt to stressful situations or crisis, or to “roll with the punches”. People with emotional resilience also possess qualities of emotional awareness, perseverance, optimism and most importantly… a sense of humour, which you certainly need after a 10 hour Sunday shift.
Harvard Business Review suggests that resilience can be a trait consistently developed throughout your career. It can positively impact upon your personal and professional life, especially with the prominence of the 24/7 work culture and increased expectations of the modern workplace. Through my time in customer service, I have learned to be resilient both emotionally and professionally.
I cannot stress enough the importance of teamwork when working in retail, especially on those days where 3 people have called in sick, the store is extremely busy and it seems like you have 100 jobs to do all at once. Your team is your support network, your lifeline, and the ability to work together to solve problems will make you successful, and ultimately allow you to deliver better customer service.
It goes without saying that teamwork is extremely important within the context of any organisation, school or university. Certainly, university students are taught the value of teamwork throughout their studies by being paired for various projects. A journal article discussing team performance management details the benefits of effective teamwork in the retail industry. It suggests that a well functioning team is very noticeable to the customer. Working with a team in retail is quite unique in the sense that each team member will have different levels of involvement: casual vs part time, team leader vs junior staff. Teamwork is essential in communicating effectively with each staff member. Nicole Leinbach-Reyhle notes in her article titled ‘why everyone should work in retail once in their lives’:
“Having to work with colleagues is a great way to learn from others, learn about yourself and find balance in your working habits. When you work among co-workers within a retail environment, you are put in a position to be a team player”.
While I look forward to exploring a new career path, I will always be grateful for the priceless skills that my time in retail has taught me. I am thankful for the confidence, the inner strength and the ability to communicate and relate to others, personally and professionally. I think it is important to remember that customer facing jobs (retail, hospitality, sales, or anything in between) are not necessarily just a stepping stone, and can be lifelong and fulfilling careers. On a final note, all careers involve some level of customer service, whether you refer to them as customers, clients, shareholders or stakeholders.