Four Years of Part-Time Retail Work

I’d always considered retail and part-time jobs as something of a career way station. Shift-based work for the shiftless. Jobs parents make their idle teenagers do to keep themselves out of trouble; something college students to do in-between classes for some spending money; something clothes horses do on the weekends to get a discount. The usual narrative, where you graduate from college and you get a full-time job never to work retail again, persists. But that narrative is increasingly false—for many, temporary work is no longer temporary.

I should know. I spent four years doing it.

I went to college and I graduated early, excited for for a career. But within a few months I went from feeling proud of graduating to feeling like a total failure because I couldn’t get a “real” job. The economy had crashed. There were no jobs for new graduates. But there were part-time retail jobs, shifts here and there, and that’s where I went. I was ashamed, but I had advantages that others didn’t. I had my parents’ support and no college loans; I had my degree and a hope for a future. I had to recalibrate my expectations. The temporary work was only meant for a short time. It took four years, some of them in grad school, before I landed a full-time job. In the interim, I was a part-time retail worker.

The second worst thing about retail is the hours. The worst is the barely above minimum wage pay. You work random chunk of hours across the week, shifts in the morning, middle of the day or the evening, sometimes early mornings or overnight if a store requires a monthly rearrangement—”roll-outs” or “floor sets.” Some stores might have on-call shifts that required you to clear your calendar on the off-chance the store might need you that day. Maybe. There’s no consistency. Other times, the hours make no sense. Once, I stood at the front of a store at 9 a.m. on New Years’ Day waiting to greet someone. No one came in until noon.

(With that said, I have sympathy for the managers who have to solve something of a hybrid math and logic puzzle every week when scheduling hours for their staff. “Jenny can only work Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays every week and we have [x] amount of hours in the budget, so the goat goes on the raft first.”)

I filled in the rest of my life around these erratic hours. Sleeping, eating, running errands, having a social life and, when I could, applying and interviewing for other jobs. Between the inconsistent hours and the lack of good sleep schedule, I didn’t always make the best decisions. I didn’t bring in a good meal from home to work because I had an hour-long commute and a 30 minute break; instead I ran around down the block or the food court to get something to gulp down. I decided to surf the internet instead of writing a decent cover letter because there wasn’t enough time between then and when the bus came. I slept in later than usual because my body let me. I spent six or eight hours on my feet, so I treated myself. These were my rationalizations when I got next to nothing done on a day I had a midday shift or when I got the bare minimum of errands done—depositing a check, doing laundry—on a day off.

The irregular shifts removed me even further from the adult 9-to-5, weekend-off-having world, the world the people with “adult” jobs live. Nothing illustrates this disconnect better than working in a mall. A store in a city will have customers at all times of the day due to tourists, students, freelancers and rich dilettantes. Who shops at a mall in the morning before lunch? Only retirees, stay-at-home parents and other retail workers do. I would arrive work at the mall early in the morning to a ghost town bathed in sunlight. I could leave the mall just as eerie and empty at night when most people were going to sleep.

The days were listless, and they turned into weeks, months and years for me. As the near nameless waves of people come in and out of a store, very little felt like it was moving forward towards any real goal outside of hitting sales figures. Nothing was made, produced or finished. When I worked in fashion, I could look forward to the next season’s new clothes, and when I worked on commission, I was able to work towards making more money on top of my wages. Otherwise it was a part-time purgatory, just perpetually selling and cleaning and greeting. The repetition bred a level of mediocrity, of doing just enough to get by. Why care? It’s not really your store anyways.

I spent a lot of time thinking of things I would do as the “King of Retail.” Outside of at least one year of mandatory “retail service,” of course. I would wave my scepter and give more retail workers more hours, even full-time hours if they wanted them. The hours worked are important. The hours are tied to how much you make, if you can get health insurance, if you can garner respect. Decent pay, of course. Everyone would be happier: management, customers, employees. Instead of wondering of how to fill positions that turnover quickly, they could focus on keeping the employees they have. It would mean long-term plans over short-term gains. Fantasy, I know.

I managed to “escape,” and I still call it an escape. But I still think about retail work a lot, my own time there, the people working in it still. Retail work is people’s livelihoods; it deserves respect. Retail workers shouldn’t need to escape, especially when not everyone can.


Alex J. Tunney no longer works retail.


8 Comments / Post A Comment

lapgiraffe (#1,336)

Post grad-school, fall of 2008, when it became painfully obvious that job searching was a joke, I began my three years of retail management. I had always worked retail and service jobs through high school and college, but always part-time, no more than 20 hours a week unless school was out and demand was high. Now I was working 45+ hours a week, and managing that puzzle of a schedule. I, too, view my leaving as an escape, and the thought of returning to it is akin to failure.

I hated how people reacted when I told them what I did, real or perceived judgment feels the same. You start to surround yourself with similar people because 1) the hours and 2) because they “got it,” but it doesn’t allow you to network for potential “real” jobs and you feel like you’re falling down a retail rabbit hole.

Not all of it was bad. I took pride in helping people solve their own problems, large and small. I met some really great people between employees, customers, venders, etc. Once I settled into the job I enjoyed having a mental break compared to grad school. But it doesn’t pay enough, there’s never the budget for enough staff, corporate stores will suck out your soul, and customers will break you.

francesfrances (#1,522)

I worked retail, most notably at The Container Store and Buffalo Exchange, and absolutely loved it. I miss it, and if I could forgo the salary, stability, and benefits that come with my 9-5 administrative assistant job, I would. But I can’t. Who can?

The difference between the part-time retail associate and the full-time manager is so vast – in terms of compensation, but also respect and connection to bigger company goals. I wish I’d stuck around to make it to the full-time big leagues. It’s not a bad place to spend your twenties, and I think I gave up on it too soon.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@amyfrances Exactly this. I LOVED retail except for the missing pay and benefits.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

@andnowlights I know some people who worked retail in high school and then all through college, stayed in their retail job after they graduated, moved into higher management, and then started to be moved around the country to open new stores for the brand (we’re talking like, J. Crew, Madewell, the Gap). Now one of them works in Gap’s corporate offices in NYC doing branding and the other was sent to Japan to help launch Madewell there. Not too shabby.

andnowlights (#2,902)

I worked retail for 3 years, full-time (non-manager), at a bookstore (that still exists against all odds) because I graduated in 2008 with an English degree. I had friends, hobbies, etc, not wasting away in some kind of retail wasteland like the author makes it sound like retail work requires. I got to do my grocery shopping or doctor appointments on my day off in the middle of the week, which was awesome because everyone ELSE was working. I got to go in to work at 7 AM and be done at 3:30 PM or went in at 2 and got done at 10:30 PM, which left me lots of time to get things done.

I made good choices even when in retail, but the author makes it sound like retail is to blame for his bad choices. The reality is that a HUGE percentage of employment is in retail and while the pay sucks, it’s not a requirement your life suck while working it.

I’m not in retail anymore, and sometimes I miss the flexibility it allowed me and the weird perks (like being able to go to a 9 AM exercise class on the days I wasn’t opening). I miss interacting with a HUGE variety of people on a daily basic (extroverts unite) and I miss knowing the latest book to come out.

I do have “survivors guilt” for my friends that can’t seem to break out of retail because they need better benefits and health insurance, though. I got really lucky getting into administrative work when I moved.

ceereelyo (#3,552)

@andnowlights – I agree – the one thing I really miss is the flexibility of working throughout the week and having weekdays off. I loved the middle of the day yoga classes with the rest of the housewives! At my one retail gig, it was pretty sweet too because the latest night we had we would close at 8, so I still had the rest of the night to go hang out, and wasn’t coming home past midnight, like per the bookstore.

My husband is a retail manager and he is looking to make the leap out of it – he is a manager at the same aforementioned bookstore. A big part of his decision isn’t because of the hours (though he wishes he didn’t have to stay so late or go in so early) or pay, but rather he made a move into a store where the store/employee and customer culture is just so wildly different from the one he worked for (and where we met when I was working there) for years. It’s hard to motivate a staff where the majority of them are ‘just there’ and dont treat it as a real job. Hoping he can find something in the new year; it would be great if next year he could come to all the holiday parties, which this year he can’t go to any of them due to his schedule. It would also be nice to have a guaranteed two days off together to hang out and get things done around the house, as opposed to constantly having to plan to when he’ll be around when I’m around or not seeing him/hanging out for a several day stretch because he gets home after I’ve fallen asleep, and I leave before he gets up in the morning. He’s on my health insurance, so I’m hoping it’ll give him more flexibility to look for something, and he’s willing to take a pay cut, because even when you’ve had years of management experience in retail, wrangling both colleagues and customers, and you’re responsible for generating thousands to millions of sales, it’s hard to get an interview at places that are non-retail, and usually you have to start at entry level.

shannowhamo (#845)

@andnowlights I do think if you resent working retail, it can make you feel really listless and lead to bad decisions, wallowing, not saving money, not trying to find the positives, etc. And of course there is some stigma in some circles that don’t view service jobsa s “real.” That last time I had health insurance was working retail full time (I’ve been working two part time jobs for 5 years in my chosen field, libraries, which have all the fun of interacting and helping randos minus the profit aspect, it’s perfect for me as I’m not cut out for real office jobs.)

Pequody (#5,537)

How did you get out?!?

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