We All Know Retail Is Toxic, So Why Don’t We Quit?

“Be Reasonable neon signage” by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

I am a licensed retail therapist. Also known as an emotional punching bag. The receptacle for your day-to-day baggage. A stand in for the niece who doesn’t talk to you for God-only-knows-why. Enabler of the shopping addict. Friendly, smiling face with unwavering patience, a can-do attitude, a knack for conversation, and sparkling eyes that burn out as soon as she’s off the clock. Doler of irresistible deep discounts. Sales associate. Cashier, eventually replaced by any other warm body/robot/monkey that will work for cheaper than my hourly wage.

However you want to spin it, as a sales associate, my job is to sell. What this ultimately means is being as cheery, helpful, affirming, jovial, and passive aggressively, subtly pressuring as I need to be to get someone to spend their last twenty dollars in my store. We sales associates don’t like to think of ourselves as manipulative, but would we really be laughing out loud at stranger’s corny jokes and affirming the fact that it’s totally justifiable to blow $300 on a bunch of decor that will just end up collecting dust in an attic if we had any intention other than to help close the sale? I devote anywhere from 10–39 hours of my week to a company that pushes me to get every customer to spend at least $25 (even if they just walked in to snag a $1.99 chocolate fix on their lunch break) for…the sweet, silent satisfaction of corporate not barking at me to do their dirty work better?

If you’ve never worked retail, you probably have your own ideas about sales associates. Maybe you think that they are all just such conversationalists. Maybe you think they are genuinely excited to chat up new products that they firmly believe in for a living. Maybe you think they find it fun to work in a store and that’s why you see the same faces every day with no days off. Maybe you think that sales people are inherently slimey and get their power trip triggered every time they ask someone three times to sign up for the credit card/rewards program/email promotions/newsletter.

If you have worked retail you know that sales people often times struggle with anxiety and never really get used to babbling to strangers all day. You know that corporate pushes certain products above others and demands that associates let every customer know about said products, tracking how many each associate sells. You know that retail has a tendency to make people feel sick and burnt out, and with frequent call-offs comes the same people covering every day because if we don’t, the manager will just have to work open to close until someone else comes in. You know that sales associates wish we didn’t have to push cards, believe that the cards are just as stupid and pointless as you do as a customer, and are more often than not forced to ask at least three times if you are sure you don’t want another credit card.

Retail is a problematic industry at best, a toxic one at worst. But beyond mistreatment and pressure from the higher-ups, there’s a dark side to working as a sales associate. By working in retail in a relatively poor area, I see people buy things I know they can’t afford on a daily basis. Whether due to poor money management, low income, or not being able to pass up a good deal, people don’t always have a lot of extra cash lying around. But it’s human nature to want nice things, to want pretty things, to give good things to your children, and so people will hear the total of their purchase and with a strained “God how did I spend so much and can I really afford this” smile, they slip their chip into the slot and eat the loss. As a sales associate, I’m so reassuring that customers should “treat themselves,” that “it’s always nice to give someone a gift” and “never hurts to spend a little more on the people that matter most,” but as my real self, my non-customer service self, I can sense that the person on the other side of the cash register is trying to not only buy the goods, but buy the lies I’m selling, too.

In retail, shoppers are not just choosing a store for its selections, but for its experience. Often times I sense that the loneliest people are our most loyal shoppers. We make them feel listened to, validated, even liked, chuckling at their corny puns and asking about the daughter they bought some toys for last week. I can’t help but feel like by encouraging these lonely people to drop hundreds of dollars as they spend an hour in our store talking to us, laughing with us, feeling a bond, we’re not unlike prostitutes paid for the company that we provide without having to give any glimpse at the real, vulnerable selves that lie beneath this smiley facade. These customers don’t really know us, we don’t really know them, but in exchange for cash we can certainly feign closeness.

Shoppers sometimes come in for their fix, their “retail therapy” as we half-kid. These are the ones who are depressed, anxious, unfulfilled, bored, unexcited, stagnant, drowning in failing marriages, the wreckage of a life that once existed, who will spill all the details of their personal life once they make their way with arms full of shiny new distractions to the register. Retail is soothing self-medication in two ways: first, the sales associate who doesn’t know you from Adam listens to you spill all of your dirty laundry and then forgets about it as soon as the next customer pulls up to the counter, and second, the act of buying things is a buzz in and of itself, providing a bit of fun and distraction. You can see the light spike in the shoppers eyes as you let them know how much they saved ($25 dollars despite spending $200 to get there). Like the substance addict, there’s nothing to give them purpose, nothing they feel they are “good at” except their addiction. Saving money is a sure ego boost. I can’t help but feel like a bartender some days, helping the person on the other side of the counter stumble out of the store with bags balanced just-so to avoid toppling to the ground, watching empty people desperately try to fill their life with something.

Obviously, I don’t have the highest view of my line of work. I think that it is unethical and I believe that industry-wide workers are treated unfairly and paid inadequately for what we put up with. I would love nothing more than to quit and devote my life to writing things that matter, making art that says something, and donating everything I make at the end of the month that I don’t spend on necessities to people in need. Unfortunately, creativity is not the most stable income. And while it is the best time for creatives to get their work out there, what with the whole world at our disposal through the internet, writers and artists don’t automatically get paid just for showing up to their computer or studio and making something. Sales associates on the other hand get paid the same regardless of whether people come to the store or not (at least in the short run). Every hour we show up, we make a guaranteed amount just for being a warm body in a building. That kind of security is tempting. It’s also entrapping. In a world where stability is rare, it’s hard to let go of it once you find it. I know I’m severely underpaid for putting most of my emotional energy, time, and sanity into a place. I also know that when I worked for myself, some months I would make $600 and some months I would make $0 and there’s no guarantee that hours of work would amount to any sort of financial return. At least working retail if I’m scheduled for hours and show up for hours I am being compensated for that time.

I used to be in an abusive relationship. While with that person, I was treated horrifically. They would disrespect me, degrade me, gaslight me, tell me all sorts of lies about myself and the world around me. The details are a story for another day. For now, I will just say that it wore me down and once I recognized how problematic the person and our relationship were, I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. Because they provided security and leaving meant disrupting that sense of security. I finally left when someone told me that all of my reasons for thinking the person was toxic were valid, and that I was right to believe that the relationship was not healthy, and that I could do something about it. My job is toxic. Maybe all I need is someone to tell me to quit. And maybe this time, I should tell myself.