Last September marked my one-year anniversary of working at Barnes & Noble, my first time working retail. I had applied looking for a nice place to work with flexible hours, and an atmosphere that I genuinely looked forward to entering each work day. Thankfully, I received all that and more, including coworkers who I can also call my friends. But having never worked retail before, I was in for a little bit of a culture shock, especially when it came to the holidays or dealing with a never-ending wave of customers all asking, “Do you have this book…?”
Never having worked a cash register before, I quickly had to get used to interacting with many different people on a daily basis. Everyone from the angry old lady trying to return a book that was purchased nearly two years prior, the confused customers who are shocked that we don’t sell Amazon Kindle devices, and the select individuals who have asked, “Can you borrow books here?”
And yes, all three of these scenarios have actually happened.
Now maybe it’s my impending graduation and growing realization that life is about to sneak up on me and the ‘real world’ is just a few months away, but in a moment of retrospect I have come to reflect on a few of the lessons that I have learned from behind the cash register.
- Don’t Assume Anyone Else Knows What’s Going On.
As Einstein (may have) once said, “If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t know it well enough…” Now the only reason I mention this is because, more often than not, I find myself having to simplify and explain very basic premises to customers. Whether it’s a store return policy, searching for a book title on the shelves, or just trying to explain to someone that a certain gift card design is – in fact – not “Jewish” (The winter trees drawn on the card somehow looked like a dreidel and this customer was apparently not in the holiday spirit. In the words of my Grandma Netta, “Oh, vey!”) But one thing I have learned is that most people don’t know what’s going on. Just speak slowly and explain yourself as simply and thoroughly as possible, smile a lot, and nod your head a few times. Usually does the trick.
- Don’t Be Afraid To Ask. But Pay Attention When You Do.
There’s many people who will come into the store and reject our offer to help them find a book, only to spend a solid hour and a half hunting the store for a certain book like they are stalking Big Foot throughout the Himalayas. They want to believe it’s there, but until they see it with their own two eyes they will never stop searching.
Here’s a solution: Just ask for help! No one knows everything. I pride myself in figuring things out on my own, but everyone comes to a point when they simply need to ask for help, for a little direction. So speak up, or risk wandering around life aimlessly. But when you do, don’t forget to actually pay attention to what someone has to say.
- People Are (For the Most Part) Inherently Pretty Nice.
Near the front of the store, amongst the many planners and notebooks, there are a couple of journals that are paradoxically titled “The World Is Basically Good” and “The World is Basically Evil” – notepads to jot down the best and worst that life has to offer. In my experience, when you are nice to people, most times they are nice to you in return. Now I have had a few unforgiving customers reject my best attempts to charm them, and deliver to me their fiercest death stare. But for the most part I have found that people respond to kindness with kindness. This may sound juvenile or cliché, but in a world filled with so much anger and hate, what is so terrible about putting a little more peace into the world?
- Confidence Kills.
One aspect of my job is presenting the company and membership program in a way that will encourage customers to return to the store. Not everyone is interested, and there are many factors that go into a successful sales pitch. But regardless if someone signs up or even says they’ll be back to visit the store, how you present yourself is critical. If I’m not confident in what the store has to offer, why should anyone be confident to come back in? It’s not easy, especially with total strangers. And maybe being a speech coach offers me a unique advantage. But in every aspect of life – whether behind the register, on a first date, delivering a presentation to your least favorite class – if you’re not confident in yourself and your abilities, who else will be?
- You Can Learn A Lot By Watching.
There is a certain ebb and flow to working retail. The employees stand by watching as countless customers flow in and out of the store, all in their own lives with their own destinations. No two people are the same, and no two people have the same path to follow. From my standpoint, at least, you can learn a lot about people just by observing them and engaging in a conversation or two. It’s all about perspective. And interacting with mass amounts of people on a day-to-day basis offers retail workers a unique vantage point on the people that you may pass by without a second thought.
The single parent who is just as excited to get their child a new book as the kid is to read it. The family of six struggling to keep all of the kids in control as they each swipe their own gift card; One for a few books, one for a stuffed animal, and another for a couple packs of Pokémon cards. The person looking for a fresh start by making an active effort to expand their skill set or business knowledge. Life moves on differently for different people. Ebb & flow.
So here’s to The Noble, taking the good with the bad, and learning through the controlled chaos that is retail. And here’s to the ebb & flow that my life has to offer, and wherever that current may take me in the coming months. Ebb & flow.
Originally published 1/30/17