Working in Retail Made Me Nicer to Food Service Employees

Over the past two summers, I've worked the same customer-service intensive retail job. My shifts ranged from working an empty store at 8:00 pm to managing a room crowded with customers and an ever-ringing phone by myself. With this job, I learned far more than just how to ring up a transaction or place a rental order. Having any service job immediately makes you more aware of how you treat others by simply understanding what bothers you.

It's the golden rule you learned in Kindergarten— "treat others the way you want to be treated." Plain as that. I learned these lessons within the first couple weeks of my retail experience, and they have only been further ingrained since then. If you've been in a retail job or in the food service industry, I guarantee some of these will hit close to home. So here it goes—some nuggets of wisdom for the next time you're a customer.

The Power of Thank You

When a customer walks into a store, it is the employee's duty to put on a smile and offer any assistance they can. As the customer, even if you didn't have a great experience at a store or if you didn't even buy anything, the least you can do is thank the employee for their time. Tell them if you found them particularly helpful or simply thank them for their advice. And there's no need to sheepishly walk out of the store if you don't want anything, just turn around and say "thank you." 

The Customer Is Not Always Right

Wait, what? Contrary to the popular phrase, the employee is there to provide you with customer service that is reasonably within the rules and regulations directed by the store. As an employee, I was told to make sure the customer was happy. However, if a customer would complain about desiring a different array of product options or complaining that the store should be set up differently, there was no way to please them.

In a parallel setting, in the food service industry, stores and restaurants have policies—some of which you just can’t fight. If you start a problem and get all worked up, the employee is less inclined to have a rational conversation with you. Don't shoot the messenger.

Patience Is a Virtue

It is stressful being new on a job and trying to balance being trained on the P.O.S. system, learning the products, and maintaining positive customer service. I’ve had my fair share of difficulties with my store’s iPad, so I completely understand any technical difficulty.

This summer, when getting lunch at Sprout, a made-to-order salad restaurant, it was clear that I was one of the cashier’s first (if not the actual first) customers. It took about four minutes to get my order in. He was flustered by inputting my customized salad, by pronouncing the ingredients (quinoa, arugula, and tarragon are not the most simple words), making change for cash, and the growing line.

I was not thrilled by the speed of the service, but I told him “it’s fine, I’ve been there,” and I honestly meant it. Using my experience of retail stress allowed me to accept the cashier’s struggles.

Engage in Conversation

Even if you don’t really care, at least fake it 'till you make it for a little bit. I’ve had multiple instances where I say “hi” to someone only to receive the response “good thanks, how are you?” Um, not quite. Strike up a conversation about the employee’s favorite menu choice, ask for their input on your order, ask how their week is going, etc. Even if it’s a simple question and the conversation doesn’t last more than 30 seconds, it’s refreshing when a customer takes the time to engage with you.

It’s All Relative

Maybe you’ve had a long day running seven different errands, but remember there’s a good chance the employee helping you has been in the same store for five hours, and is quite exhausted themselves. Remember to treat employees with respect, and if you see their energy begin to wilt, consider the context.

Don’t Leave a Mess

Or if you do make a mess that you can’t clean up, don’t try to keep it a secret. I had a customer this summer who spilled candle wax all over the display table and ground and then just walked out. I was more upset that she didn’t acknowledge this than the fact that I had to scrape it all up. Similarly, at a restaurant, if you spill all your drink and don’t quite have the resources to deal with the clean-up yourself, just tell someone. Trust me, it makes the mess less horrible to deal with if you’re warned about it.

#SpoonTip: At some point in your life— but the earlier, the better— get a job at a retail store as a waitress, as a cashier, etc. You’ll learn about yourself, the industry, human nature, and how you can be a better customer. Try to avoid being the problem customer that employees will talk about the second you leave the store. I am forever grateful for having my retail experience because it has heightened my awareness of what it means to be respectful and understanding as a consumer.