Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why I don't work retail, and why retail clerks should be canonized

From Shelf Awareness this morning:

When Cynthia Christensen, owner of Book Stop, Hood River, Ore., had pneumonia and laryngitis, her original solution for working at the store was to put up a sign that said, "I have laryngitis and can't talk at all. However, I know several useful hand gestures. Not all of them are rude." But this didn't work because people asked so many open-ended questions. Her doctor then forbade her to go to work until her voice returned.

So for two weeks, her husband, Charlie, who usually works in an ER, stepped in and replaced her in the store. He kept notes in a journal of interactions with customers (and non-customers!), which came to form what he calls "a simultaneous rant and ode to the trade." Cynthia noted that Charlie now has "a much greater appreciation for what I do, and belligerent drunks in his ER don't annoy him as much as they did before."

Here's the link to the story


Laurel said...

If this had been during the holiday season he would also have heard, "I'll just wait 'til after Christmas when it's half off."

Leona said...

WOW. But, I have to say, I'm not surprised. I helped my friend run her used bookstore in Small Town, USA and it was like that. Badly. *sigh Working Mervyn's during Christmas was bad too.

Retail sucks and you are right. Those who work it should be cannonized!

Sarah W said...

I worked in a bookstore for 18 months before fleeing to grad school for my MLS (guess I prefer the fire to the frying pan).

I had two favorite customers:
The man who liked to open the new paperbacks flat to skim the middle chapters, but wouldn't buy that copy, "because it's damaged and you people don't offer discounts."

The woman who wanted Where the Wild Things Are, "th children's book by Don Coldsmith," and who absolutely refused to admit that she had either the title or the author wrong--even when I showed her Sendak's book and looked up Coldsmith's entire bibliography for her. She decide to go to a bookstore where the clerks knew what they were doing.

RosieC said...

It's hard to pick which one is the most offensive/funny, but this one made me laugh out loud:

"If I bring in some books, can you tell me what they're worth so I can sell them on eBay?"

Where do these self-proclaimed illiterate people come from?

Jan Markley said...

That article was funny, sad, and OMG the nerve of some people!

ryan field said...

I owned an art gallery for ten years. They used to ask me if they could buy the watch on my wrist, and then they'd try to take photos of the art that was for sale and tell me they were going to frame the photos when they got home. When I told them no photos allowed, they were downright rude.

And when I wouldn't let them use my private bathroom (there were public rest rooms not far away), they scoped it out themselves. I finally had to padlock it. And I could still hear them tugging at the locked door in the back.

People are interesting.

jdh said...

It is the foolish bookstore owner who refuses entrance to my Chihuahua, Quentin. The wise bookstore owner welcomes my Chihuahua and thanks us as we leave with books by the pound. :)

Joseph L. Selby said...

It just dawned on me, I hate books too! What have I been doing all these years. Reading? Writing? Feh! A waste, I say! A waste!

...do you have quarters for the meter?

steeleweed said...

Every business should have an undercover man who pretends to be a customer and can ridicule and insult stupid customers. These would get what they deserve and the clerk would get vicarious satisfaction to brighten their day and reduce their stress.

: )

Susan Adrian said...

In my years of working at/managing bookstores, I have heard all of these AND MORE.

Also had people do things I can't even describe, they're so nasty.

Many, many people yell at clerks for not buying their used books, not having books they want, not allowing them to use the employee restroom, charging them too much, or not being the store they thought. Craziness.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I offer my applause. I'm sure the workers at my local used bookstore must get this, but I have yet to witness it. It's an awesome store. Unfortunately I have witnessed some of this at the local B&N...including people who don't seem to realize it's a bookstore.

Suzan Harden said...

Bless you for posting this, Janet! I wonder if Charlie found a dirty diaper on a shelf. And yes, I have at my retail job.

steeleweed said...

Every business should have an undercover man pretending to be a customer/outsider. He could ridicule & insult stupid customers, giving them what they deserve while giving the clerk vicarious enjoyment and less stress.


Lydia Sharp said...

This one is my favorite:
"Was Abraham Lincoln really a vampire hunter?"

I've been working in retail for nine years now, and I can honestly say that my fiction wouldn't be the same if I didn't hear comments like that on a regular basis. They're like an open window into character portrayal.

Part of my job requires working in the Juniors department, just outside the fitting room. If you write YA, this is the next best thing to actually enrolling yourself in a public high school. Seriously.

Stephanie McGee said...

Retail is one of the hardest jobs. So often I wish there was something I could do for a customer, but I can't because I don't have that authority or it's just not possible to please someone no matter how much you do for them.

The downside to working retail is that you come to expect and falsely hope for the same level of customer service you try to offer when you go to another store.

Suzi McGowen said...

Ah the joys of retail, I remember it well. My favorite question (I still remember it 30 years later) was on the phone:

"Have you seen my friend?"
"What does she look like?"
"She's a little taller than I am, and has darker hair than I do."

I waited for her to realize that since she was on the phone I couldn't tell how tall she was or dark her hair was, but the penny never dropped :)

christwriter said...

Can I give you cookies? Or cupcakes, or muffins, or some other form of sugary death-by-food?

Anybody willing to be nice to retail folk right now deserves at least a plate of cookies.

The last retail job I had involving a cash register (currently employed as a baker now. It smells a lot better) was at a hobby store. I hired on when they were moving and their requirements were "Pulse*" (*optional). We understood that moving a still-live store makes customers go haywire, so we made three signs out of blue-and-neon-orange poster board, taped one to the display windows, one on the main entry, and one right in the middle of the main thoroughfare, directly below the "this is on sale" ad (Naturally, where customers congregate first)

These signs contained,
-the fact that we were moving
-date of move
-location of new store
-basic directions to said location

EVERYONE, without fail, walked past sign 1, opened the door with sign 2, stood DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF sign 3, looked at the empty shelves, the disassembled display tables and the general lack of craft yarn and Pier One knockoffs, turned to me and said, "What's happening?!"

"We're moving."


I read the date off the sign.


I read the location to the sign.

"I have no idea how to get there."

This sign came up to my waist and again, letters were BRIGHT! orange on navy blue. Customer digested this information for a couple of beats, and realized that his item was probably not on the shelf. He said, "Ya'll should really post a few signs."

Head, meet desk. The good news was, after I pointed out the sign, the customer turned very red and wouldn't talk to me the rest of his visit. He would indicate his payment method using semaphore code. The bad news was, immediately after the move we had Christmas.

Becca said...

Geeze I hate retail. I work in a grocery store, which really isn't any better. Probably the worst question I get asked too often: "Are you open?" This question, while I'm standing there at the register, doing nothing, and my light is on.

kitty said...

I worked in a Dexter Factory Outlet Shoe Store and got some strange calls.

1) Can you give me the number for Bass Shoes?

2) What's playing at the movie theater tonight?

3) Do you sell Nikes?
No, we only sell Dexter brand.
Okay, do you sell Skeechers?
No, we sell only Dexter brand.
Okay then, do sell New Balance?

4)Female caller: Can you tell me if there's a guy waiting out front of the restaurant across the street?
Me: Yes, in fact there is.
Female: What does he look like? I mean, is he good looking?
Me: Hmmmm. Well, he's short, bald, maybe early 50s, rather stocky.
Female: Darn. Then would you tell him that his date can't make it?

I'm saving this for a story some day.


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

"Do you have a chicken section? Goats?"

Well ... I have been in that store a time or two, but honest! That was not me!

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Once upon a time, I used to own an antiquarian bookstore. This is mild stuff. ...


Man: Can I see this? [Sorta points at something in case.]

Me: Which one did you want to see?

He: The ratty old Bible. I like old Bibles.

Me: [Not making the slightest move to open the case, but walking around front] This one? That's "The Great She Bible." It's a first edtion of the King James Bible. It's very expensive. [lable and price are plainly visible. I point. Smile]

He: Oh. ... But it's ratty.

Me: If you were born in 1611 you'd be a bitt ratty to. [I make no comment on his need for a new shirt and a shave.]

He: So, how much is it?

Me: Pointing to lable.

He: Is that dollars? U.S. Dollars?

Me: [Nodding] Yes.

He: But it's really, really ratty.

Me: It's worn, and it's priced accordingly.

Jaleh D said...

Anyone who has an appreciation for what retail associates go through gets five stars from me.

I had one guy try to intimidate me a few years ago by using his greater height and proclamation that the seasonal kiosk's return policy was illegal according to the Consumer Protection Act, just so he could return his two unopened calenders. Sorry buddy, our policy of "No returns, exchanges only" is clearly marked on the receipt and register counter. If the calenders had been defective and there were no others of the ones he wanted, then I would have called to get permission to do the refund. But I don't bend over for a bully, especially one who has the wrong idea of what the Act was intended for. (I looked it up when I got home and found nothing in it to back up his claims.) He got no leeway from me.

Jennifer Ambrose said...

I work in a used book store and I've heard several of these gems myself. I write down the bad ones for future novels. I will get my revenge...

Stella said...

I've worked in public libraries for decades. Here are a few of my personal favs:
1)Patron (an adult): I need the autobiography of Bugs Bunny. I explained what an autobiography was. Response: Yeah. That's what I need.
2) Patron (an adult): I need a photograph--not a drawing or oil painting or poster, an actual P-H-O-T-O-G-R-A-P-H of Jesus Christ. Response: gave her a book on the Shroud of Turin.
3) Never found a used diaper on the shelf (other librarians have) but I did have a patron (an ADULT...noting a pattern here?) who drug his (used) urine collection bag (don't know technical name) along the floor behind him, like a dog dragging his leash.
OK, I think I'll stop with that one.

Tawna Fenske said...

I do believe I've been in that bookstore (and there WAS a hair on the sofa!)

Love this!


Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

My record of typos stands!

"bitt ratty to" = "bit ratty too."

Anonymous said...

""Where is your Red Tail Hawk section? You know, the bird."

Ha ha ha!

My mom works in a library, and I have worked in a library and a bookstore and this all rings very true.

Maybe they already do this, but I do think the shop would be smart to always have change for the meters.

Lisa_Gibson said...

Back in my days of working a retail scene, I had things thrown at me and even once had to call security for a man yanking one of my employees across the counter by the collar of her shirt. Working with the public is definitely NOT always pretty. ;)

Megan said...

Oh gosh I just pissed myself laughing. That is a classic!

As a former bookstore clerk, I agree with - and have heard - everything!

lexcade said...

i've worked in some sort of retail/customer service situation for several years. currently, i'm at a hotel. it takes all kinds, but i wish those kinds would be a little kinder... people are ridiculous.

oh, the stories i can tell...

Cacy said...

i work in a bookstore and there's always someone who comes up to the registers in a rush, trying to rush and stress me because they've opted to park in the red zone in front of the store. but here's the thing: the parking structure that's right next door to us offers free parking for the first half hour. but even if they didn't offer that, i personally, would pay the one or two dollars to park rather than risk an $80 ticket.

then there was this guy: i'm at the registers with the drawer open because i'm ringing up a customer. I see a movement to my left. another customer has stepped behind the counter.

"excuse me," i say, "can i help you?"

"i just wanted to see the price of that book."

"oh, well, next time please ask me and i can hand it to you."

"next time," he snarks, "i'll shop at amazon."

pardon me for having a problem with a strange man who doesn't work here stepping behind the registers when i have a just opened a drawer.

that's not the worst customers, just one of the strangest, but all and all, there are way more cool and interesting customers than the irksome ones and i still enjoy working at a bookstore.

Jen C said...

God, that brings back some shocking memories of my 6 years in retail. I actually lost all hope for humanity while working in various stores. It's unbelievable the things people say and do!

I could post so many stories about it but I don't really want to think about it. I may need a few more years in therapy before it stops making me want to curl up in a little ball in the corner crying and tapping at an imaginary register while muttering "we don't give refunds without a receipt".

Fanfreakingtastic Flower said...

Not to be a Dissenter, or anything, but the vast majority of those people just needed to be helped. Some were ridiculous and funny, but the majority were just the basic humdrum of life.

I've worked a lot of retail, and I've done a lot of work in the service industry in general. Yes, you come across obnoxious people here and again, but everybody, even the obnoxious people, are just that - people. Flawed and broken and deserving of respect and dignity.

I got the feeling this man felt he was too good to be asked if his business had a restroom. NOBODY is too important to help somebody else find a bathroom. That's just basic human courtesy.

Monkey With Fanta said...

"What do you sell here?"

I can't believe someone would honestly be that stupid as to walk into a book store and ask said question. Personally I might not be able to resist replying "I've no idea."

This is seriously too funny. I've never worked retail before but I seriously want to now!

Lily Cate said...

When I was behind the counter, it never bothered me to help someone who was just simply clueless.
Retail is like teaching elementary students, sometimes. Every store is a little different, and you can't blame people for not having all the info.

Fanfreakingtastic Flower has a wonderful point.
I'm sure that ER doc has had to find a public bathroom on more than one occasion. And you NEVER get huffy about letting a little kid use your restroom - unless you want a pile of @#$! on your floor.
You never know when those things are going to blow.

Augustina Peach said...

I don't see the problem with browsing or killing time in a bookstore. Honestly, those are some of the times I've walked out with something I didn't know I wanted to read.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

There isn't a problem with just browsing. The years we had our store, I loved browers. We had chairs, a chess board, a plate of danish butter cookies and lots of conversation. The best part of having the store was the constant stream of friendly gossip.

There's nothing wrong with being clueless either. That's part of life. Rude is something else. ... Rudeness is icky.