Photo from Empire Records (obviously)
This article first appeared on VICE UK
Most people have had a job in retail at some point because at some point most people have needed money and a minimum-commitment way to procure it. Maybe you worked in your mum's friend's boutique (posh), a Foot Locker? (sporty) or, if you were cool and hot, an American Apparel (me). Maybe you sold a lot of posters in the 90s (Athena) or you know what a "Hammer of Caliban" is (Games Workshop). Wherever it was, it was almost definitely when you were at your most beautiful, carefree and joyous – outside of the hours spent hungover on the shop floor, at least.
Retail is not an aspirational profession. No one goes into retail because they really want to help a 14-year-old buy her first perfect, illegally-tight party dress. No one goes into retail because they dream of being the manager in M&M's World. Why do you go into retail? Because you can quit at any time and need virtually no skills. Either that or you got trapped in a shop job in your teens – one minute, you're eagerly dropping off your dreadful CV to the beady-eyed manager at Waterstones, the next, it's eight years later and you're the only person over 25 on your "team".
But the truth is retail's OK. Stock checking in Urban Outfitters may not have the glitz and glamour of working in a bar but in the same breath it won't turn you into a functioning alcoholic and then spit you out at 38 with nothing but an ex–fiancé and their acoustic guitar to show for the last two decades. Besides, until you've repeatedly thrown up from acid reflux in the Covent Garden American Apparel changing rooms as you pathetically spritz the mirrors with window cleaner, you can't really say you know what real life is.
Here are some other bits of experience you might glean from a shop job.
FOR A BIT, IT WILL FEEL LIKE YOU'RE IN NARNIA
Oh my God, there's a door behind that mirror! Oh my God, I can learn to fold a shirt in a way that makes people afraid to try them on! Oh my God, this floor has to be mopped twice a fucking day and for some reason always by me… Fuck you, Jacqueline!
Well, I did only say it would be exciting for a bit. Like, 3.5 hours max. After that, when you realise the implications of the right piece of clothing having to be on the right size hanger in the right order on the rail, or have to tell the 20th person that day that no, the new Military Wives album isn't out for another three weeks, you will never enjoy shopping in the same way again. Or you'll never enjoy shopping in the same way again because the in-store radio has given you PTSD and going within 20 feet of Westfield gives you a panic attack.
YOU WILL LEARN HOW TO STEAL STUFF
An important milestone in any retail job is working up the confidence to steal so-much-fucking-stuff. It might seem scary at first but after a few months you'll be sweeping around top-to-toe in sweatshop-fresh bounty, getting your friends to come in and return your uniform allowance for cash.
Stealing from clothing stockrooms is easy; just drop what you want behind a big pile and leave it there for a week, then put it on under whatever you're wearing and smuggle it out. Everyone else's birthdays are sorted forever (shiny leggings for all!) though you will inevitably end up with a ratking-esque tangle of absolute shit on your bedroom floor which you may have to be cut out of when you're arrested for taking home an entire shop's worth of stuff over the course of two weeks.
YOU WILL FIND OUT IF YOU'RE A SHIT PERSON
Even if you're on your second or third job in retail, you probably still have dreams – even if your dreams are awful. But some people you work with will not seem to dream at all. You are late every day, always have sweat patches and are on your final warning after a week, they will be puzzlingly clean, on time, polite and laugh really hard at everything you say.
These people are boring and at least once a week you'll feel envious of them. They might try to assure you that this job is only temporary because they're doing a really important Art Therapy masters, or complain to you once (ONCE) that they've had an argument with their long-term significant other (who wears black varsity jackets and is acceptably hot, in a melted-face kind of way) but the rest of the time they pootle on, smiling the straight-toothed, bright-eyed smile of somebody who will never truly understand love or pain.
Retail presents everyone with a tricky proposition: either be late every day, always have sweat patches and get fired within a year, or do well, always be put on the till and be forced to interact with more customers, touch their sweaty money and deal with their whiney returns.
YOU WILL WORK THE CHANGING ROOMS AND IT WON'T BE AS FUN AS YOU IMAGINED
"Hey, here's a big plastic numbered rectangle. Next!" x1000000000xdeath. Also, people will leave everything from shit to tampons in those cubicles, and you will be the one to clean them up.
YOU WILL FANCY AND POTENTIALLY HOOK UP WITH SOME REALLY ODD PEOPLE
Close proximity to people with only slightly more personality than the dust that's collected inside a hoover bag means you will start to reach out blindly for human interaction on a level slightly deeper than, "No, you can't return that and wtf is that stain?" And this could mean agreeing to go for a drink at a Wetherspoons with the only customer to ask you out that month.
A friend of mine once went on a remarkably bad date with a guy who worked in the same HMV as her. He suggested Pizza Hut which TBH was actually quite a good call because it was one with an ice-cream factory in it but upon arriving he put his headphones in, played a song on his phone and then only ordered warm water to mix into a home-made protein shake. What he was listening to we'll never know but I assume it was late Usher. Actual dating aside, you will drunkenly make out with at least one stock room troglodyte who will continue to text you happy birthday for the next 11 years.
YOU WILL START TO HATE MIDDLE-AGED WOMEN
Because they hate you, because they hate shopping and because they hate trying on horrible clothes but feel pressured to go after work twice a week because if they don't they'll be hideous and unstylish and single forever and ever and ever.
IF I SAY 'WE DON'T HAVE YOUR SIZE' I'M DOING YOU A FAVOUR
Re: the above, it's actually pretty uncommon to notice any customers at all because people are so incredibly predictable that eventually they become one long slur of "mmpphnhnhhsize10turquoisespandex" or "hmmmmphidunnoiPadmini". This means that when you walk into the Disney Store and imagine all the staff are looking at you like a shoplifter you are just pranging out – they don't give one ounce of a fuck. The only time I ever actually looked at a person and saw anything other than a blurry potential commission was if they were famous, INCREDIBLY unbelievably nice to me or really fit.
Anyway, what I mean when I say, "Sorry, we're out of that one in a 12" is that I really can't be arsed to go and check the stockroom for your size in that absolutely hideous shirt.
YOU'LL BECOME QUITE WEIRD ABOUT MONEY
After spending tens or hundreds of hours loitering in the "visible area" by the door to greet or ignore customers (ouch, your back) and learning all the lyrics to La Roux on the store radio, there is really nothing else to do other than count down the seconds till you're done.
You will quickly learn to divide your shift into arbitrary brackets to make it go faster and then, soon after, you'll come to understand each section in terms of how much money you made during it. 'Okay, I just hid in the toilet for £1.75, which is nearly enough for a Frappuccino.' Or, 'Okay, I just snuck out to buy a Frappuccino so I better actually make some effort to sell something so I can make up the loss in commission.'
Eventually you will become unable to stop weighing up money in terms of hours of work, which actually seems like a pretty fascinating economic theory but in reality just manifests itself as 'another bottle of wine in this restaurant with all my friends who I love = 2 hours' vs. 'a bottle of wine from the off-licence to drink on my own = 45 minutes'. And so begins drinking alone.
YOU WILL GET FIRED FOR ONE OR ALL OF THE REASONS ABOVE
And your parents will be really relieved because it means you finally start thinking about getting a grown-up job. Eventually you'll go and work as a temp at a production company where you spend all your money on cocaine, get sexually harassed by your boss and start dating the (now sober) 38-year-old musician who's definitely about to relapse but also get signed by a major record label. You have now graduated from one emporium of bullshit to the next – congratulations! Your family is so proud of you.
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