Opinion Column

CEB: Retail employees – only slightly more evolved than "pond scum?"

By Kimberley Laws

Michael Zhang/Fotolia photo
This week's community editorial board columnist Kimberley Laws is asking everyone out there to be kind to retail workers.

Michael Zhang/Fotolia photo This week's community editorial board columnist Kimberley Laws is asking everyone out there to be kind to retail workers.

When one is about to embark on a rant, it is always a good idea to reassure one's audience with a series of platitudes designed to lure them into a false sense of security. So, let me begin by saying that I love my job and retail work is, for the most part, quite an enjoyable way to earn a living. The general public largely consists of friendly people with whom it is a pleasure to do business. If, however, you sense that I am about to follow this up with a big "but," you are right.

Retail can be fun, but every once in a while, we encounter someone who has the ability to not just ruin our day – or, perhaps, our entire week – but make us feel like we are second-rate citizens, only slightly better than the muck they have tracked in on their shoes.

Yes, working retail is not exactly a high-profile job. Small children rarely dream of becoming cashiers and soon-to-be mother-in-laws don't exactly squeal with delight, "My daughter is marrying a stock boy." But in reality, retail employees are the backbone of our nation's economy, without whom the wheels of industry would come to a screeching – and costly – halt.

As a mere lowly retail worker, I have made an interesting observation. The minute I don my work clothes, I become virtually invisible, able to walk amongst you unseen. Customers converse all around me as I quietly stock the shelves. And, trust me, I hear things. Even when I wish I had not.

Here is just one of the many snippets that I wish I had missed out on:

"I feel sorry for those poor girls standing on their feet all day," mutters kindly old lady to her friend.

"Yes, it can't be easy," other concerned senior citizen agrees.

"Well, that's what happens when you're too lazy to get an education," man who has nothing to do with conversation chimes in from his bench in the mall.

Yes. Unfortunately, many people assume that retail employees are uneducated. They fail to take into consideration that several of us do, in fact, hold university degrees, but thanks to today's economic state are unable to find work in our respective fields. And, they also make the mistake of thinking that retail work doesn't require skill. It does. We need to have people skills, to be computer savvy, have sales techniques, and inventory control and product knowledge are just a few of the abilities that many retail workers must possess. Not to mention patience. And self control. (I bet a few of you would have smacked that man silly.)

And the "fun" doesn't stop there. Co-workers have been subjected to tirades and called names that would put Gordon Ramsay to shame. Some have had objects thrown at them. By grown adults.

Ironically, retail is the largest employment sector in the country. Odds are you have a friend or family member who works in a retail environment. How would you feel if an annoyed customer threw a stapler at them? Or called them a shocking name? Or treated them like they were a worthless human being in a dead-end job?

Admittedly, there are times when workers fail to meet their customers' expectations. And, yes, some retail workers lack people skills and are, quite simply, not cut out for the job. But, just as most customers are friendly – most retail employees do their best to provide top-notch customer service. For very little financial reward.

When you disrespect or degrade a retail worker, you are, in fact, making fun of someone for putting in an honest day's work. That hardly seems fair.

So, stop pointing at my University of Ottawa lanyard and asking, "Did you actually go there or did someone give that to you?" You wouldn't ask your banker, your realtor, or the guy selling you your car that question, so show us the same amount of respect. Remember that the items on our counters are not projectiles designed to get our attention. And, no, we are not female dogs.

Have a great day and come again.

Next week: Bryce McBride