Four Years of Part-Time Retail Work

by Alex Tunney

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.

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