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How Working in Retail Destroyed My Self Esteem

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Guest post written anonymously

Once upon a time I was freshly 21 and applied for a job that, at that time, was my dream job. I didn’t have any formal experience in that field, but my freelance background seemed to make up for it. On my third and final interview with the regional manager she asked me where I saw myself in the future. Immediately, and with some pep in my step, I told her: I wanted to write copy for the company. Her response was that they hire internally all.the.time and listed two people that had just recently been switched from retail to corporate.

I went to bed that night thinking of my future that was now just on the horizon. Work a job that I enjoy doing and, in a year or two, I’d transfer to where my education and background would entwine. The future looked bright, and I couldn’t wait to start. Little did I know that I had just entered into my most emotionally abusive, five year long relationship.

It took about six months for me to realize that this was not where I wanted to be. Artistry was the last thing on this company’s mind but perhaps that was tied with the complete disregard of their employees happiness. Profit was all that they cared about. Sell sell sell. Money money money. Forget about ten minute breaks and working less than forty hours a week. If someone called out sick, the whole store suffered, which led me to never call out, ever. When I was finally let into a managerial role — after 4 years — they expected me to come in and work the person who called out’s shift, and if I didn’t the backlash of the store not making its goals was palpable. There were times I worked thirteen days in a row with zero recognition. My energy was completely depleted and I stopped going out with my friends. When I finally put in my two weeks notice, I had acquired two weeks of sick time. Two weeks. I joke now about how I could have gotten a nose job with that time.

For my first three or so years I was one of the top sellers and they didn’t care. They told me I took too much time with the clients who had appointments. My feedback was often negative, despite my performance being on top. Then they hired on someone who became one of my favorite people. She was a brilliant seller in addition to her natural and studied talent and I could not compete, so she took my place at the top. I wish this story ended differently for her, but she ended up just as exhausted as I.

When I was no longer the top seller, the company really didn’t care about me. I became just another brick in the wall, an average money making robot for them. In my last two years I applied to be a copywriter or a junior copywriter for them numerous times. They never gave me an interview. They never even provided me with any feedback. At the five year mark, my regional manager pushed me into applying for the receptionist position in the corporate offices. It would mean a paycut, but I would get more face-time with the people who actually mattered to them. Rub a few elbows. By this point the store I was working for was around the corner from the corporate offices and I already had a great rapport with many of the workers there. But I thought that taking a paycut was worth it to be appreciated more. To be able to take sick days and not be harassed.

image from MentalFloss

They told me I was in the top two. After being with this company for five years, they didn’t think I was qualified enough to work as their receptionist. Again, I received zero feedback. This was when a lightbulb went off: they would never let me leave the retail setting. I took two or three days to be very hurt by this. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was when I met with my manager (the third one that I had worked with at that particular store alone) and she told me that I wasn’t motivated or happy and it showed. She didn’t offer to help or encourage or even manageme in any way. She just told me that this needed to change. She also told me that one of the other store managers had called me “Eeyore.” The next day I woke up early to use their computer and their printer and their ink to write my two weeks notice. I printed it out and handed it in, wishing that I had done it three years ago, when I still had some self respect.

Perhaps the most tragic part of this tale is that this isn’t an isolated incident. In retail, when all that matters is the bottom line, the customer is always right and you are left open for abuse. I would liken it with a cult, you continue on with the promise of a brighter future, and all the while your energy is slowly sucked out. So slowly that you don’t even notice. So slowly that you are too exhausted to figure out how to leave. And by the time you do muster up the strength to leave, you are stuck with a past without “real” professional experience, acclimation into the world becomes near to impossible, often driving you back into the arms of an endless loop of abuse.

The moral of this story is to never forget your worth. If I can make it out then so can you. I promise.

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