Efficiency In Retail Or How Not To Kill Your Customers

Greetings all, Steve here. Well, I'm working retail. The worst thing is that I actually wanted to. Kinda. I just moved to Vancouver with my girlfriend Meghan and we both got retail jobs, because we're in that tenuous grey zone where you've just graduated from college and you don't know what you want to do with your life, but you're fairly certain you're not interested in paying off your student loans. So we got retail jobs, just to give us some time to think things over. Oh boy...I dunno, seemed like a good idea at the time. To be fair, retail's actually not that bad a job, except for the customers. The customers are a royal pain in the butt. So, in an effort to make all our lives easier, I present handy hints for surviving retail.

Before I start trashing the general public, a quick disclaimer: I'm not saying that the entirety of the general public are morons. Most of the public are fine, nice people, no problem. But there are some people who walk into stores who are aggressive and annoying and irritating generally stunned as a box of rocks. Think of all the severely irritating people you've worked with at different jobs and then realise that all of these people come into my store. People are often walking into retail locations and threatening clerks with guns. I'm often surprised it's not the other way around. It's not that we think that every member of the public is a raging lunatic, but experience has taught us to assume that every person coming through the door could be such. I once served a lady at a flower shop who spent nearly ten minutes trying to get a hose turned on, tried to pay with her library card and then backed into some else's car in the parking lot at 40 km an hour. Nuf said.

A second quick disclaimer: Doug Johnston's away for a few days, and he sent out an email asking us to keep an eye out for offensive content on the site. I'm just assuing he wasn't referring to my column. Onward.

Now, to make life easier for all of us, here are some things you should know about the clerk serving you, in no particular order:

  • When you have an interview for a retail job, the bosses will find some way or other to ask you, in a round about way, whether you can put up with really annoying customers. If you give the correct answer to this question ("Yes"), then you've got the job. That's all there is to retail, just putting up with the customers. This is harder than it sounds. Read on.
  • The clerk is not your personal servant. If you are not financially successful enough to have a personal servant, please do not treat the clerk like your slave. If you want them to get something off the top shelf or run upstairs three times to look in backstock for an item, just ask them nicely. Shockingly, clerks do not go out of their way to help people who treat them badly.
  • We do not care about you personally. You come in, your buy something, we help, you leave, that's the extent of our relationship. We don't have anything against you, but we really don't want to hear your long rambling stories about why you're purchasing the item in question. We don't care if you're buying this kind of chocolate because your girlfriend likes it better, or that you're buying this art print but you're concerned that your mother might not like it because she's afraid of double bond paper, or that you want to buy an umbrella because it's raining. We assume that you want to buy an umbrella because it's raining. This is not a shock to us. We're o.k. with that.
  • We make fun of you when you leave.
  • "Have a nice day" is retail code. We actually mean, "Go away and never return and good luck with graduating from velcro shoes."
  • We don't get paid that much money. This bugs us. Please do not come in and complain that you're not sure if you should buy item or not, because you don't think you can fit it next to your super gigantic flat-screen plasma t.v. and then look at us for sympathy. It will not be forthcoming.
  • If the clerk is being nice to you, it doesn't necessarily mean that they want your body. We're actually supposed to be nice to people. They tell us to do that. By extension, if you're a tourist and the clerk in the tourist trap shop is nice to you, it doesn't mean they're looking to be the vacation story you only tell your best friend and wildly exagerate about.
  • If the clerk has a name tag, please do not read the name tag and then act like you have established a personal relationship with them. If the clerk's name is 'Jane', under no circumstances are you to say "So, you're Jane. I guess that makes me Tarzan." They've heard that one before. See above.
  • The customer is always right. Ha ha ha, woohoo, he heh, ha ha ha! Sorry, little retail humour. In fact, usually the customer is wrong. If you think this doesn't apply to you, ask yourself if you're often wrong in everyday life, except in the magical retail environment.
  • The following is not a helpful comment, if you notice the clerk is having a specific problem: "Having some trouble there?" "Yeah, a little." "Well, obviously. You work here."

Well, that's all I can do for you this week. I've gotta get on with figuring out what to do with my life. Until next time, keep your pen on the page and be nice to your clerks.

Steve Sharam

Syndicate content

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

It's a Man's Life in the Retail Trade...

Guns? Golly, I had no idea retail was so exciting.. I tried my hand at being a cycle courier once when mother's food parcel got delayed and that was an absolute nightmare. I thought I would have to survive the summer hol's on a diet of lentil dahl... :( To get back on track, so to speak, here are some top tips on handling the belligerent and disaffected, hopefully making one's life in retail a lot more productive:

  • Try to understand the patient... erm customer feelings. They may feel intimidated by one's vast retail knowledge and become aggressive. Ask them how they feel about their prospective purchase....

  • Perhaps they are having difficulty make themselves understood? Try asking pertinent questions. For example a carpet retailer may want to try "and what kind of wine does sir/madam prefer?" for as every school boy knows red wine and a beige berber do not mix well.

  • Try not to take the 'attack' personally... Instead ask if they would like to see the manager. :D

  • Try to avoid prolonged eye contact and keep ones distance. Smiling may help but avoid sudden, jerky movements. Speak in firm yet dulcet tones....

  • Unless the shopper is a gibbering wreck, paraphrasing can be useful. Mimicking isn't. (Note: a suprising number of proles can lip read.. I blame discos and a 'permissive society' for this frightening development).

  • Always remember "violence is the last refuge of the incompetent". If one kills the client, sorry customer, one is in the wrong profession... or perhaps a politician.. :S

BTW "Have a nice day!" :)


Try to avoid prolonged eye contact and keep ones distance. Smiling may help but avoid sudden, jerky movements. Speak in firm yet dulcet tones....

Isn't this the same procedure when one is backpacking and comes across a large predator?

The comparison is apt

Well observed. The comparison goes farther than this. If you're accosted by a hostile and aggressive customer, the best thing is usually to play dead. They won't hurt you unless it's mating season or if you smell like lattes.

Steve Sharam

hello I want to ask you a question

How do you know when a service provider has not established a plan to deal with a specific customer situation?

can you please tell me the answer and send it to my email jcrr_214@yahoo.com

Finally, some love for the

Finally, some love for the retail droogies out there!

Glad to do it:)

Happy to be of help. This is theraputic, actually. Probably kept me from going postal:) Customers of the world beware: We are just one nasty comment away from a full-scale revolution and then you'd have to get your own stupid donuts:P

Steve Sharam

Nice to Clerks

I'm always nice to the clerks and servers. Basically I don't want them to give me nasty stuff and I fear their power. So I always smile and when told auto things like "How are you?" and "Have a nice day.", I reply to the clerk with something similar. The lovely people at my local Subway smile back and they always give me the slightly larger half of a roll, extra meat or veggies. They rock! So be nice the clerks and maybe you'll get better service and free stuff!

It works both ways

Good point Rae and it works both ways. Guess who gets the short end of the roll, so to speak, the eggs with the broken shell, the sandwich that fell onto the floor, the hamburger that was accidentally spit in for 5 minutes by 3 people? Caution is advised always.

Steve Sharam

Interesting, Steve...I teach

Interesting, Steve...I teach Continuing Ed classes; including Customer Service Skills; at a local college and I've often wondered how I could get regular (?) people to come to a "How to be a Customer that gets Good Service" class. Why do people think that being rude or ugly will get you what you want? Don't they realize that the person standing between them and their goal - lunch, a pair of shoes, an insurance form - is the MOST IMPORTANT person in the transaction? DUH!!! I could go on and on...

The Customers are Revolt (in D minor)...

Rude customers are more of a cultural phenomenon than a human absolute. However I do find my bank more obliging when I don a David Cassidy mask, so you may have something with your 'ugly customer' views. Perhaps the answer lies in free plastic surgery for all? ;)


I would imagine that you'd tend to get the other person's undiivided attention if you're wearing a mask in any situation, but that's just a guess.

Steve Sharam

I've always assumed

Hmm, interesting question. I've always just assumed that it happens when people who lack authority or power in their lives decide to abuse the clerk, knowing that they still have to do what they ask, no matter how badly they treat them. Having said that, you're pretty much asking for the defective merchandise, the broken egg shell or the outright lie if you treat the clerk badly. Working retail often doesn't give you much hope for the future of humanity.

"It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err."
Mahatma Gandhi

Steve Sharam

It can't be that bad. I know

It can't be that bad. I know there is some exaggeration for comedic effect, but I've always found there are more good people out there than bad. Sometimes I think it's all in the attitude when you visit a new place or city. Experience has taught me that if you tend to be a defensive person people will be more defensive with you in turn, and the opposite may well be true. But then again I've never worked retail, so what do I know? I'm sure I've driven people crazy by how long it takes me to pick out a pair of shoes. People that work hard for the money and only have so much to spend want to make the most of it, but there is no excuse for being rude to clerks. I promise to remember your article when I visit a store in the future, and hopefully I won't feel "too" paranoid. (It goes both ways though. I once had a male clerk trying to spy on me while I was changing, and then ask me out for a drink afterwards. It was in Paris, and at the time I was naive enough at the time to actually wonder if it was normal behaviour in France.)

Great quote though. Ghandhi is always a good role model to remember in life. We should never let abusive people have the power make us feel small.


"If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

It does work both ways. What

It does work both ways. What about clerks that judge customers by their cover? The most successful and popular artist in my area was once kicked out of the entrance of a gallery for loitering when he was younger. He had been nervously hesitating in the doorway with his portfolio that he had been hoping to show the owner. The gallery lost out big time.

One of the most renowed artists (a very sweet, and well mannered lady whose many awards include the Order of Canada) was recently told by a clerk in an art supply store "I'm don't know why anybody would buy art! It's only expensive wall paper." Talk about respect for someone's profession, and the sacrifices people make. Some artist's probably spend most of their hard earned income in these places...

I know a gentleman (in the true sense of the word) who was told to move away from the shop window he had been looking in, because he looked a little road weary from traveling and might scare away richer customers.

I got a big kick out of Doug's post: o where have the mom-and-pops gone? It's worth a quick read. Customers may not always know best, but they probably have as many stories they can tell. Respect should go both ways.

It's only that bad most of the time:P

Look, I don't want to give the impression that all customers are awful, it's a very small monority. I guess the problem is that it's often hard to tell the awful ones from the normal ones when they want in the door. If the awful customers would have some sort of a badge, sort of a Scarlet Letter kind of a thing, then we could be nice to everyone else, certain that we had all of our ducks in a row. I suggest a large government panel be formed to hand out these badges. Taxpayer money being used well again:)

And to be fair, I've been treated badly in stores, especially when i was a teenager. Some people especially in snooty stores, art galleries, etc. Can be hard to deal with. To be fair though, it's hard when the boss tells you to keep an eye on people who are suspicious, 'suspicious' being defined as people standing around lookign at things. Yeah, that never happens in a store.

Steve Sharam

The other side

Do I even dare mention the other side of the story here on this thread?

-- The surly clerk or salesperson
-- The person whose highest priority is speaking with their colleages or to their friends on the phone
-- The person who seems to know nothing about what they sell or where they work
-- The person who follows some company policy or script without engaging their brain or common sense
-- The person who answers the phone interrupting your current conversation or transaction
-- The inability to do simple arithmetic

I'm going to sneak away now...

Preach it! I will always

<<-- The inability to do simple arithmetic>>

Preach it! I will always remember the time I tried to buy ONE something that was on sale at 2 for $19.99. The cashier waiting on me was a high school aged girl. After staring at the sticker for a minute, she called over another similiarly aged girl from the far end of the counter for a consultation. After another minute the second girl went back to her end of the counter and then returned bearing a CALCULATOR. After at least two minutes worth of button pressing the first cashier triumphantly rang up my purchase at $9.95.

Oh, yeah, a cashiering trifecta: 1) doesn't know how to ring on her register (which, yes, perfectly well does X items at Y for $Z type transactions -- I shop there regularly) 2) doesn't have enough arithmetic skills to divide $19.99 in half in her head and 3) cannot even solve this math puzzle with the aide of an assistant AND a hand calculator.

I was kind to her. I figure she has a long hard slog ahead of her in life.

(not) using the register for the math - why?

I'm an apartment dweller in constant need of coins for laundry, so when I use cash to purchase something I'm always trying to back get as many quarters in change as I can. For example, if I make a $4.38 purchase, I'll give the cashier $5.13 so that I can get back three quarters. I try always to be kind and not rush the cashier, but I'm amazed at how often giving an odd amount like this will throw him or her into severe mental turmoil, and how often I'll get back incorrect change (like in this case $0.65). I always want to ask the cashier, "Can't you just punch in '5-point-1-3' and let the machine tell you how much change to give back?". I usually bite my tongue and hope for the best, but I still can't understand why folks don't just let the machine do the math for them.

Customer (Getting) Service 101

I've worked in IT support for several years and I've toyed with the idea of developing a class in how to get the best support from one's employer's IT providers. Among the points I'd include:

- If something's failed, it's failed, and the sooner you come to terms with this, the sooner you'll be on your way back to a productive state. Proclaiming how important you are or how important your work is won't make that failure go away or make it easier to resolve.

- If your IT person can't address your need RIGHT THIS SECOND, it's not because he/she doesn't care - in most cases (in my experience) IT support reps care a lot, but you need to realize that you may be one of 100 of your fellow employees that also need help.

...and so on. This is the kind of thing that most service providers can't say to their customers, but I'd love to come in as an outsider and be able to present concepts such as these (alongside tips on how to prevent IT-related problems and how to be effective in provide information support staff need to clarify the nature of problems and solutions.) I see service receivers' understanding the realities of technology and occasional failures and their getting a grip on how they're interacting with their service providers as being an important part of their performance as employees.

Because I am under the legal

Because I am under the legal age, I cannot sell alcohol or cigarettes etc. to customers without ringing for my supervisor, who has to stop what he/she is doing the other side of the shop to help me. Unfortunately, as those who have worked in a shop selling alcohol will realise, customers buy alcohol VERY regularly (usually about 1 in every 3 customers for me).

As if it isn't embarrassing enough to have to explain to a third of my customers that I can't sell it to them, the supervisor has a habit of taking about 10 minutes to get to the tills, by which time I have a queue a mile long of irate customers. When the customer tells me to ring for them again, I don't have a choice but to obey them, but this annoys the supervisor who has come as quickly as they can.

What really annoys me, other than the above, is when I get a customer (usually an elderly lady) who decides that it's a good idea to pay me £15 in 1 and 2 pence coins...