9 things working retail has taught me about humans

An unexpected lesson in anthropology.

When I scored my first job working retail, I believed I was on my way to becoming the next stylist-extraordinaire. For three days a week, I would be helping fellow humans select their finest weekend get-up. I’d be matching cashmere with corduroy, pairing bags with belts and marrying footwear to feet. After years of finishing my café job smelling like a rotten cappuccino, I had found a more fashionable calling.    

But what wasn’t outlined in my Casual Sales Assistant contract were the lessons I was about to receive on the inner workings of mankind. Ask any shop girl and they will tell you the store floor is a stage on which the best and worst of human behaviour takes place. 

Yes, during my time in retail I’ve learnt how to distinguish neoprene from nylon and wiggle bunions into boots (not an easy task). But I also came to realise my retail gig was providing a lesson in anthropology. One more valuable than any classroom teaching I’d encountered during my university degree. 

Lesson 1: Commenting on the sunshine will make you friends

One of the first things I discovered was that talking about the weather is a great way to make friends. It may be an over-abused ice-breaker, but what’s happening in the stratosphere is one of the very few interests the entire human race shares. If it’s 25 degrees and sunny, the couple scouring the sales rack will gladly discuss how gosh-darn sublime it is outside. Rainy with a subzero temp? You can bet the soaking lady seeking refuge in the store will want to vent. 

Lesson 2: Everyone is insecure about their upper arm

It’s not something a rookie sales assistant learns the easy way. But after a couple of uncomfortable encounters involving sleeveless styles, I learnt everyone has upper arm insecurities. Male, female, young and old. If it’s not saggy, it looks like an underfed chicken wing. If it’s not robust and veiny, it’s freckly and Vitamin D deprived. Even I, a fairly average upper-armed being, have developed an aversion to the bicep/tricep region since dedicating the last few years of my life to selecting the perfect, upper arm-disguising sleeve. It’s not a mid life crisis thing. Just not that many people embrace what lies north of the elbow. 

Lesson 3: Modern society fears commitment

Another interesting behavioural observation I’ve made since selling my first frock is that modern society fears commitment. Place your average shopper at the check-out desk, tell them you don’t offer refunds on sale items and watch them drop the dress like a handful of hot coals. Nobody likes to enter something they can’t exit. Just like no one likes to buy without the promise of a return. 

Lesson 4: Most of us are very, very suspicious beings

On a similar thread, most homo sapiens are very suspicious beings. Mention the words ‘mailing list’ or ask for an email address and you’ll see the little red flag rise. No sir, these details won’t be forwarded to ASIO. I’m simply asking so that when your layby’s due, we can call to let you know. 

Lesson 5: The changeroom is a window of insight into a person’s hygiene habits

Finding a fitting room resembling the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina isn’t exactly a rare occurrence in the fashion retail world. And after rearranging my fair share of ‘fits’, I’ve concluded the way a customer leaves the change room is a great indication of the state of their bedroom. Clenched fists and armfuls of inside-out garments aside, every time I pluck an apple core from a tried-on pile of knits I envision the state of this carefree individual’s house. Smiling, I find solace thinking thank god I don’t have to hoover that, too. 

Lesson 6: We seek to hide our flaws, rather than celebrate our features

Another epiphany I’ve deduced from my days in the fitting room is that people dress to hide their flaws, rather than celebrate their features. It’s a sad but accurate example of man’s tendency to fear the worst. We’d rather sport silhouettes that swaddle and distract, rather than those which cajole and flatter. But what manning the fits has also taught me is that people come in all shapes and sizes, and dressing should be a celebration of this. Diversity is intrinsic to mankind; if we were more ready to embrace this we might be less inclined to hide. 

Lesson 7: People will always point fingers

And despite the fact that most everyone uses cosmetics of some kind, no one – I repeat NO ONE – likes to admit to a makeup/deodorant stain. Sure, finding a medium-beige smudge on the collar of a crisp white shirt or chalky residue on the underarm of a navy tee is rather soul-destroying. But please, ladies and gents, we’d prefer you come forward than discreetly returning it to the rack. Only later do we learn about said stain, after watching another shopper pick it up and disgustedly put it back. 

Lesson 8: Sometimes we need to just walk away

And if working retail has taught me anything about social interactions, it’s that there are instances in life when one must walk away. Despite best intentions and the infinite pile of bridesmaid dress suggestions, when tears begin to flow and the customer has just tried their 27th “no,” the humble shop girl must admit defeat and retreat. I’d like to think of it as character-building. Since enduring my first mid-try meltdown, I’ve established a heightened sense of situations in which my input just isn’t required.  

Lesson 9: There’s a reason why it’s called retail therapy

After spending the last three years of my life helping guys and gals choose clothes, I can finally say: 

I understand why they call it retail therapy. 

I’ve been the giver of tissues, the listener of gossip and the empowering voice of reinforcement (“yes, your Mum will approve of the length of that skirt!”) Many human beings seek solace within the confines of a clothing store. Releasing funds and emotional baggage is what the shop floor is for. 

Illustration by Twylamae who also makes these v cool Seinfeld T-shirts

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