Let’s treat retail and service workers like human beings

This year, I have three kids working in retail. One is at a giant arts and crafts store chain, one is at a deli counter in a supermarket, and one is at a popular coffee shop.

One has had potato salad thrown at her. One has had her teeth insulted. And one just started his new job yesterday, so nothing bad happened yet, but his last job was at an old-fashioned candy shop, and you’d be amazed to see how spectacularly nasty people can be when they’re surrounded by jars of brightly colored sugar.

When my kids get home from work, they often dejected and bitter about the interactions they had with customers. These are decent, competent kids who really make an effort to do what is expected of them; but just because they’re behind a cash register or have an apron on, so many customers allow themselves to vent their spleen and call them names, insult their intelligence, blame them for things they can’t possibly control, or just treat them with disgust, rolling their eyes, sighing noisily, flapping their hands with disdain. I know it’s only going to get worse as it gets closer to Christmas. If Christmas shopping is a beast, they all work right in the heart of that beast. 

Customers are stressed out and overwhelmed by all the shopping and planning that needs to get done (or at least, that they’ve convinced themselves needs to get done). I’ve been there! When lots of people are depending on you to fulfill their expectations, it’s hard to keep perspective.

But really. Everyone. When is it ever more important to keep your perspective? If you’re not going to treat strangers well when you’re preparing for the birth of Christ, then when are you going to treat strangers well? The day after Christmas? The day after that? Maybe on your death bed?

Let’s all make a resolve to get this right, this year. Lots of people working retail and service jobs just got hired, and are just learning the ropes right when it’s busiest and everyone is at their most demanding.

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14 thoughts on “Let’s treat retail and service workers like human beings”

  1. One of my daughters worked at kiddie rides in a zoo last summer. Parents are incredibly difficult to deal with when they are determined their child is going to have a good time and get the most out of the zoo experience. They think exceptions can be made to rules for their child and are nasty to the employees trying to enforce the rules. My son worked in maintenance at the zoo one summer and he came away with the conviction that the vast majority of humans are morons who don’t know how to properly use a restroom.

    I have another daughter who is not working in retail, but she might as well be given what she’s earning and the crap (sometimes literally) she has to put up with. She works in a daycare. Thankfully, she’s leaving at the end of the year. The experience may drive her to celibacy.

  2. I had some surreal experiences as a retail employee—once a customer though it would be really amusing to pretend he was about to throw up on me. Even if the service at a store is less than stellar, I can’t bring myself to take it out on someone who’s working a job that is exhausting, monotonous, and not for much pay!

  3. I am so sorry for the way your kids have been treated. This does work both ways, though. Some retail workers are so incredibly rude that it’s disheartening for someone who’s spending his or her hard-earned money to be treated that way by a member of the establishment where the money is being spent. I’m sure your kids are very friendly and polite to customers, and certainly nothing warrants throwing potato salad at a retail worker, or any other disrespectful behavior. But it’s sad when cashiers don’t even smile, say hello, or thank the customer. 17 years ago I went to London, and couldn’t believe the contrast in the politeness of retail workers there compared with here.

    That being said, I completely agree that customers who are stressed out should never take that out on a retail worker, and should recognize the irony of behaving that way during Christmas, which misses the entire point of the season.

    1. I kind of agreed with you until you started listing examples of retail workers’ alleged misbehavior. Not smiling is not “incredibly rude.” It’s not even regular rude! And in the vast majority of American stores, workers are not members — they’re employees, and not even well-treated by the people who get all the profit.

      1. Semantics aside (members vs employees, incredibly rude vs regular rude), I do think it’s rude to neglect to greet a customer in some shape or form, whether with a smile, a hello, a thank you, or a “have a nice day”. I am currently working in retail myself, as an underpaid lunch lady, and I do all three of those things for every single child who comes through my lunch line. Partly because it’s just the polite thing to do, partly because you never know who might need a smile, and partly because, underpaid or not, I represent the establishment where parents are spending their hard-earned money, and they deserve a thank you for it. Do I expect a stranger on the street to smile at me, wish me a nice day, etc? No, and it’s not rude if they don’t. But it’s different when waiting on a customer. I have an 11 year old who will probably work in retail in the near future, and I will certainly teach him to be polite to customers as well.

        1. I agree Claire. I’m finding that some retail staff pick and choose who they greet. Say they’ll see a mum struggling with a few kids thinking oh she won’t spend in here, never mind her. This makes me not want to spend in the shop. But a well dressed lady will stroll in and get an immediate greeting. Very superficial approach to customer service. I think that being welcoming to anyone who “enters the shop” is part of the job description. And this should be expected by the customer.

          However, I worked in various customer oriented jobs many years ago as a school kid and uni student (pharmacy, hardware store, variety store). The worst job I had was waitressing. Ugh. You always had a table or two where the customer belittled you or treated you like hired help. Never again for me. And because of this I’m reminded to always smile and say thank you. The customer service is always better when you show appreciation.

          1. So true Ezabelle. I’ve also noticed a discrepancy in how different customers are treated differently (for example, a young male cashier will be friendly to an attractive female customer, but ignore other customers). Sorry for your experiences as a waitress. I have never worked that job, but I can tell how stressful it is, and unless the service is really bad (which is rare), I always leave at least a 20% tip after tax. Service workers deserve just as much kindness and respect as the CEO.

  4. YES. Both my brother and I worked at Woolworth’s (now defunct) throughout our high school and college years, whenever we were home from school. Christmas season was pretty bad. At some level I understand that a lot of people are under stress themselves–to make the holidays perfect, to endure family members/drama, whatever–but retail workers often take the brunt of others’ stress.

    Let us not forget grocery store workers–I noticed at Thanksgiving, the clerks were particularly stressed. I often make a point of asking the checker how she or he is holding up, if they get to clock out soon, and to thank them and tell them my whole family appreciates what they’re doing so I can get the groceries. I don’t think they get asked a lot how they’re doing, like sincerely asked, because so many people see checkers and clerks as part of the scenery.

  5. Good reminder!

    Unrelated to your writing, can I complain about Catholic Weekly’s formatting? Putting random sentences in blue highlight makes the piece ten times harder to read. Every other site, I can ignore those bits because they are a repeat of a sentence contained in the article anyway, but not on CW. Ugh.

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