Christopher Thomas Schmidt

© Copyright 2004 by Christopher Thomas Schmidt


Having had the immense pleasure—pause for sarcastic clearing of throat—of working for Barnes & Noble for a number of years, the included observations are drawn from my personal experiences at the bookstore. However, the people who ruined my day at the bookstore are the same people ruining the days of countless others as they infest restaurants, grocery and video stores, hotels, banks, boutiques, drug stores, clothing establishments, bars, pet shops and Photomats across the country. The point: difficult customers are difficult customers no matter where they shop, and the examples contained herein translate throughout the retail world. In fact, difficult customers are difficult people, so exposure to people in any manner at all will enable you to identify with my pain. You needn’t have worked in a bookstore to appreciate the levity—or bitterness, if you prefer—of which this article is comprised. You needn’t have worked in retail either, nor in any customer driven industry. All that is required is a modestly developed sense of humor and a reasonable appreciation of the failings of your fellow human being. Oh, a well developed penchant for sarcasm wouldn’t hurt either.

Retail: the hours are long, the pay is tragic, the work is harder than people realize and the customers are categorically unbearable. If you somehow manage to overcome all that on what would be one in a very few good days, your coworkers are sure to bring you down with constant grumbling about long hours, bad pay, and insufferable customers. Throw onto those flames the owner of your particular business, who spends all of no-time-at-all in the store and thus has no concept of the long hours, bad pay, terrible customers and prevailing bad mood. All the owner seems to understand is how to apply pressure upon you to sell more, work harder and make the completely unsatisfiable customers happy.

The above being true—you may take it as such as I am an objectively reliable source—there are those who might ask, “Then why do so many people work retail? Why did you?” My response to them: “Go stick your head in an ostrich, you no concept havin’, cushy job workin’ piece of no-comprehension, come back and talk to me when your put in an honest day’s work on the front lines.” Then there are those that might say, “Perhaps the problem lies with your attitude.” They would be right, though such observations usually do little more for the observer than invite further stipulations to stick parts of themselves into an ostrich.

 Despite a personally incurable aversion for facing the truth, I do have a working theory for why so many people get stuck in the fly trap that is the retail industry. It is so absolutely easy find work. One glaring by-product of any job where the hours are so long, the pay is so bad, the work is that hard, and you are stuck dealing with the public, is that morale is in the toilet. This then sends the attrition rate through the roof and there are always openings.

MEMO to anyone who had ever berated, pestered, harangued, annoyed, yelled at, spat at, spoken to harshly, looked at crossly, bitched at or about, reprimanded, hassled, harassed, argued with, criticized, chastised, chided, cajoled, creeped out, put down, degraded, disrespected, ridiculed, maligned, complained to or at, screamed at, whined at, or otherwise ruined the day of anyone who wears a nametag at work

 These people do not make a lot of money. More accurately, they don’t make diddley. They certainly don’t make enough to justify having to listen to and tolerate a bunch of grief from the likes of you all day.

 The presence of a nametag on a person’s uniform does not make them any less human. Just because the person on the other end of your tirade is stuck in a miserable job doesn’t mean he/she deserves to be treated with disrespect. You are not better than them, you are not more important and despite what you think you probably aren’t any smarter than they are. You may be professionally better off at the current time, but the average retail employee has just as many useless/unmarketable degrees as you do, and has yet to find his/her niche.

 Go stick your head in an ostrich.


5:00am Awaken to the bedside alarm that wrenches you out of a fitful half-sleep, which was again plagued by the familiar nightmare—the one where you are falling and at the bottom of the cliff stands a small army of soccer-moms, all trying to return items that were not purchased in your store, nor indeed in this century, and for which they have no receipt, they are all in a hurry, and they all look pissed.

5:21am The alarm screams you awake for the fourth time with the sensation of having old razorblades dragged clumsily across your brain. You glower at the digital spawn of Satan, and wonder for the seven-thousandth time in as many dismally early mornings, why you have not yet replaced the unholy box of noise for something with a less-disorienting alarm, or at least a clock that doesn’t have this utterly incomprehensible seven-minute snooze setting.

5:22am Dragging your sorry I-don’t-want- to-go-to-work ass out of bed you curse your way, freezing, to the bathroom, lamenting your rat-hole of an apartment in which you can’t afford to run the heat because you work retail.

5:40am Standing dripping in the tub, having completed your shower, you are unable to move from its relative lime-stained comfort as you know your apartment hasn’t gotten any less-freezing in the past twenty minutes.

5:43am Clamber out of the bathroom and into your uncomfortable, functionless and doubtfully clean or unwrinkled uniform, calculating that if you left your house five minutes ago, you would have stood a fair chance of making it to work on time.

5:49am Cold, hungry, tired, and angry you stand prepared to face the brand new day; if only you could find your damn car keys.

6:06am Committing no less than a dozen moving violations, you arrive at work, reasonably close to your ungodly 6am starting time.

6:07am You clock in under the withering glare of your boss who apparently doesn’t share your definition of “reasonably close.”

6-9:00am Enjoy the three most pleasant hours of your day, those which don’t involve dealing with customers. The pre-dawn hours are spent stocking the shelves, with no one in the store but your fellow grumbling coworkers. This is as close as you come to not hating your job. Truly the relative workplace euphoria only lasts until about 7:45, when the mob clinging to the grate that separates you from the Starbucks next door begins to get restless and the phone starts ringing in earnest.

9 o’clock ZERO HOUR Open the doors and welcome the inmates. You watch with renewed fascination as once again the horde breaks into two groups; one heads straight for the Newsstand to engage in a daily dose of free-reading, the other makes a beeline for the information counter, careful not to waste any time, thought, or energy looking for anything on their own.

9:01am Bitch about drawing the early lunch again. While thankful to be spared the initial onslaught of early-rising codependents, you lament the five hours or uninterrupted on-floor agony you must endure when your break is through.

9-10:00am Sequestered within the padded-cell known as the break room, you suffer through more-of-the-same vending-machine delicacies. Clasping the last two dollars you have to your name—all quarters—you replay the debate in your head, food or laundry, food or laundry? Precious minutes slip by as you desperately, hopelessly, search the machine for something different, something edible, or at least something with a recent expiration date. Nothing stimulates the brain and prepares one for a rousing day of working too hard for too little pay quite like year-old pop tarts and diet Coke. You contemplate taking all future lunches off-site as the incessant ringing of the phone, constant pages for your assistance—though everyone knows you are on your one and only break—and bitter hurricane of irate coworkers ceaselessly sweeping through the break room make it impossible to relax.

10:00am The back-to-work whistle comes way too soon. Literally you drag yourself back past the time clock and onto…THE FLOOR.

10:00:01 You haven’t even gotten your entire body through the break-room door before a particularly alert stroller pushing patron spies your nametag and comes charging toward you, guns blazing, “Where are the Oprah books, where are the Oprah books?!?”

10-3:00pm The day is a blur of babysitting, book-peddling mayhem. The progression of unrelenting customer-dispensed hassle continues for the remainder of your shift, and beyond. The same people, same questions, same complaints, same needs, same garbage everyday. Though everyday has its notable, exemplary standouts:

10:15 A customer whom you’ve noticed in the store no less than a thousand times—though you have never seen him buy anything—within plain view of the sixty-foot neon “NEWSSTAND” sign, asks you whether your store carries newspapers and wonders if you will just let him “borrow” the classified section.

10:16 Yes the ridiculous requests come this frequently. A high-school aged apparent student wants to know where you keep the Clip Notes (sic), and if you happen to carry the audio versions of any of the books listed on the wrinkled syllabus he pulls out of his pocket.

11:30 You field what will surely be high on today’s list of the more unbelievable phone calls. A man with a horrendously forced and fake accent wants to know if you can locate any books about “sexually-translated diseases,” and upon doing so wants you to lookup clymidia, and read to him from the available list of symptoms and remedies.

11:35 A woman who hears you on the phone—talking on the phone is like pouring blood in the water, as is being near any of the in-store computer terminals or walking through a high-traffic area with your nametag exposed**—comes over to ask you if you can direct her to the non-fiction section.

1:30 A woman whose three little darlings have spent the last two hours bulldozing the Children’s Department, tracks you down to berate you for having such a disorderly store in which she can’t find anything.

1:31 You duck and run for cover after suggesting to the above woman that perhaps she might find some of the books in the Self-Help or Parenting sections useful.

2:13 You receive your third inquiry this hour about Feng Shui literature, though this woman pronounces it “Fing Shoe” and talks down her nose at you, certain that you, a lowly shop steward haven’t the faintest inkling of what she, an obviously sophisticated interior designer, is talking about.

2:40 While conducting a computer search for a woman demanding the existence of leather-bound Daniel Steel(Nora Roberts) books, you begrudgingly reach for the phone, just catching it before the fifth ring—in the part of your brain still capable of rational, sympathetic contemplation you hope that no one gets fired over this—in time to field another inquiry from someone who wants to know the title of “that last book that Oprah wrote.”

2:59 Still hopelessly locked within the full-nelson being applied by the Daniel Steel customer, you lament how you haven’t got a chance of getting out of here by the time your shift ends in the next thirty seconds. Through tear clouded eyes you can make out how there are some fifteen now-irritated customers crowded around the information counter all of whom have listened angrily as your last three pages for assistance have gone unanswered.

3:01 Now officially on your own time you attempt to go for broke by telling your new best friend that despite the assurances of her fellow illiterates in the Trashy Book of the Month Club there is no such thing as a limited edition leather-bound copy of Danielle Steel’s Sunset in St. Tropez and that if she isn’t willing to trust common sense, or your word, she can at least believe your computer, complete with the Books-In-Print search software, which you have long since exhausted.

3:02 Begin making your apology for making an apparently insensitive remark to an obviously overly sensitive Danielle Steel fan.

3:25 You wrestle your leg free of the bear-trap that was your last customer—incidentally, he marked the ninth person you helped after three o’clock, after your shift officially ended—and duck into the relative safety of the backroom. Grabbing your keys from your locker you ditch your nametag—woe to the poor bastard who forgets to remove his nametag, especially those who have already clocked out*—and make a headlong sprint for the exit.

3:26 Three feet from freedom, a woman spots your tie—which you foolishly forgot to remove—and the look on your face—which you just as foolishly forgot to alter—which does not seem to indicate that you are hopelessly lost or disoriented—awareness is a decidedly telling trait that separates most store employees from most store urchins, uh, customers—and throws her stroller, complete with new-born child, between you and the exit, appealing to you to help her “real quick.”

What truly slumps the shoulders and brings tears to the eye of the average retail worker is that the above is neither a rarity nor an exaggeration. Day upon day of unfiltered hassle, incessant running about, unimaginable, unfulfillable requests, continually suffering blame for incidents over which we have no control, and for what? So that we can come back tomorrow and do it all over again. And what awaits you at the end of the week? A paycheck that even if it were tripled would still be insulting. To anyone interested in working retail I recommend you give your two week notice sometime during the interview. And if you are really heads-up, you will have given it two weeks before that.

*Veteran nametag wearers will tell you that the only way to get anything done in the store, or get to lunch on time, or get yourself through or out of the store is to bury your nametag in your pocket or beneath several layers of clothing and to camouflage yourself by trying to look like you don’t know where you are or what you might be doing there. Anything resembling a look of confidence is a dead giveaway and will surely attract attention, not to mention ridiculous questions.

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