I maintain that everyone, everyone, should have to do a stint in retail during their formative years.
There are many reasons why I say this – from the life skills it teaches you, like how to deal with the irate Karens, through to how to at least pretend to have patience as that one person ducks under the half-closed door at two minutes to closing time, it’s a perfect theatre for all of life’s biggest lessons.
But mostly, everyone should have to work in retail so everyone knows just how bloody hard it is.
Through the end of my high school years and all the way through university, I worked at an East Auckland branch of Glassons and, honestly, I’m pretty sure I learnt more there about life than my $15,000 journalism degree ever gave me.
Along with a unique ability within my otherwise pitiful mathematical understanding to always be able to work out 40 percent of anything (our staff discount) and an appreciation for an industrial-sized clothes steamer, my five years working at the House of G truly made me realise how awful people can be – and a resolution to never, ever treat people the way me and my workmates were treated.
There was the time a woman strode up to me, interrupted the conversation I was having with another customer, snapped her fingers in my face, held up a blouse and screeched, “I want this in a size 14, and I want it NOW!”. (Guess what kind of haircut she had.)
Or the time a mother came in with three feral children and let them run wild in the store, refusing to tell them off even when one knocked over a display of three mannequins while another pulled an entire window banner to the floor.
Or the time when someone took a shit on the floor of the fitting room.
The level of IDGAF always astounded me – the lack of respect, patience and general, common human decency. It’s like as soon as people walked through the security scanner and heard the dulcet tones of Icona Pop and Rihanna, they’d just change personalities. (These were the days before streaming, and we’d get one new CD a month. A MONTH. It was like Guantanamo. They’d morph into self-indulgent, self-important shitbags, and we’d be the poor sods having to remain calm and polite in the face of what I still refer to as retail rage.
Consequently, I’m now overly polite to people in the wild. It’s my first barometer on a Tinder date – is he nice to our waiter? I always hang up my clothes (properly) instead of leaving them in a fitting room. I sometimes even fix displays and clothing racks if I see something has dropped off.
I mean, there were good times too. I worked with a lovely bunch of girls, many of whom I’m still friends with today. I learnt how to shop properly. I learnt how women really, truly view their bodies, in the little bubble of a fitting room where, weirdly, you can talk to a stranger about your body’s flaws.
My wardrobe was great – a consequence of investing all of my money back into the same damn company that was paying me. In the old days when we made our targets, the bonuses were good, and when the GFC happened, I gave up trying to make my targets because lol, and instead just watched for shoplifters. Every time we caught one, we earned $100 bucks, although I reigned it in a bit after getting into a tussle with one particularly bold shoplifter on the top of the Botany Town Centre carpark that ended with me sitting on top of her waiting for security. (She was tackled to the ground by a schoolmate who was coincidentally walking by – coincidentally she was also the school’s cross country champion – thanks, Rachel.)
I also learnt how to use a ladder properly after ending up in hospital with a concussion trying to pull a bunch of muscle-back singlets off a high shelf in the stock room.
But mostly my time there taught me how not to be a dick – and how having a little compassion for people while you’re getting on with your day can make all the difference, and it’s something I carry with me today.
My first jobs were a very strange mish-mash of things. I was a drama nerd (likely in every sense of the word) for my high school years, but somehow managed to turn it into work for a while there – it turned out you could get a few odd jobs that paid more than the supermarket.
It was somewhere around that time that I realised that I didn’t actually love the drama and the inconsistency of it all, so got a proper part-time job at a local VideoEzy store. These were the days in which VHS still existed, so I’d spend my day or evening rewinding videos, normally sitting up on the counter doing my homework – mildly exasperated when someone came in and asked a question or actually wanted to rent a movie.
I wouldn’t class myself as having been a great employee in that time, but I did get a lot of assignments done – and to be fair, leaving a teenage girl alone in charge of a video store (next to a petrol station that got robbed more than once, I might add), was probably not the owner’s best decision. Plus, being aloof and distracted definitely came in handy when guys in trackpants would walk in and head straight for the curtained-off ‘adult section’, or when a group of intimidating dudes would start scratching off the security tags on the new fangled DVDs and walk out with them clearly stuffed under their shirts. “Why didn’t you just manually ring the security alarm as they walked out?” my boss once asked. “Um, because I’m 17 and alone?” didn’t seem to cut it as answer.
But, if we’re going to learn a lesson from an early-on job, it would have to be my first ever proper full-time employment. While I was finishing up uni, I landed a job writing at TVNZ and I loved it – which made it all the more crushing when I was made redundant. It was the very early 2000s and TVNZ was going through enormous changes – plus, we were playing foosball for at least an hour each day, so I should have seen it coming.
I managed to pick up contract work in different parts of the building, but it wasn’t what I loved doing, so I started looking elsewhere. That’s when I saw my dream job advertised – an entry level position on a travel magazine. I spent forever on my application and pitched for the job hard. After two interviews I got off the phone and cried when the lovely editor told me it’d been a hard decision but he was going with the other candidate. Sensing my disappointment, he tried to lift my spirits by saying, “I was very impressed by you. With your permission, I would like to recommend you to others.” I said yes, thinking he was just trying to make us both feel better in the moment, and that’d be the last I heard of him.
Well, the next day I was in the middle of ordering an expensive make-me-feel-happier salad when I remembered that I’d found a hair in it the last time I’d been there and had vowed never to go back. Needing to create
a situation to swiftly back out of my order – thank you first job as an actor! – I fished out my phone to pretend there was an emergency unfolding. Turned out my phone really was ringing. It was the publisher of a teen magazine that needed an editor asap and I’d been recommended for the job. When was the earliest I would be available to come in to talk?
If the job had been advertised – which it never was – there’s NO chance in hell I’d have ever applied, because it was well out of my league. But somehow, I landed it and it turned out being editor of Creme was actually the dream job.
Since then, when anyone has been unsure about whether to go for a job, I’ve always encouraged them to give it a go. You’re not just applying for the job that’s being advertised – you’re getting an opportunity to get in front of someone and show them who you are and what you’re capable of. And you just never know where that introduction could lead you.
My first job during my school years was in a sweet shop. Literally a kid in a candy store, I was earning $5.25 an hour to help the good people of Christchurch to become hyperglycaemic. This was long before the white stuff became public enemy number one and shoving great handfuls in your face was some harmless fun for the whole family. I would stand among my fluorescent-coloured wares in my bright red standard issue polo tee and gaze longingly at the edgy goth guy who worked in the record shop on the other side of the mall. In the hierarchy of cool, a lolly shop attendant had no chance with someone who sold CDs for a living, but it helped to pass the time.
Most days went by without incident and an hour felt more like a year, but slowly I was able to build up the funds to buy my first car – a cute but dilapidated Mini Clubman. I can still remember driving my new wheels to my shift for the first time and parking it proudly outside. I returned to find a parking ticket that cost more than I’d earned for the entire shift and all my pride evaporated. I’d like to say it made me appreciate the value of money but I’m honestly not sure that’s true. It made me realise that you have to either work hard to get some or, for a lesser amount, at least be willing to smile at people intermittently during hours upon hours of painful boredom.
During my university years I moved to Melbourne and up the retail ladder with a job at a vintage/second-hand clothing store. This was back in the day when people wanted to wear pants that belonged to someone’s grandfather, teamed with an Adidas zip-up and a t-shirt bearing a cynical slogan. A look that has pretty much come full circle.
The boutique drew in an eclectic crowd from clean-cut office workers who thought attending a 70s dress up party was the height of crazy to drug dealers who wanted to pay for their outfits with Class As. The lolly shop, it was not.
A day would pass much faster there and when it was busy, I loved talking to all the colourful characters that popped in for some wide-legged flares or a faux fur coat. It was a social scene and sometimes it felt more like a party than a job. Not every day was a picnic though and sometimes I was still not cool enough for the challenges that arose. One bustling Saturday afternoon, a couple on holiday from Sydney came in, tried on a few items and then asked if they could have sex in the changing room. I was a sensible young woman with a strong work ethic and was ill prepared for these kinds of propositions. To be clear, my role was purely to stand outside and prevent anyone from entering during the assignation. I told them in no uncertain terms that this was not ok, without even enquiring into the kind of cash they were offering. See? A shrewd capitalist, I will never make.
This is going to sound like a sexy job and I want to absolutely assure you it wasn’t. I ended up volunteering to help backstage at a fashion show while I was at high school. I can’t remember how it happened or why I put myself forward for this, but I can remember the distinct and unique experience of having to talcum powder the skinny legs of an almost-naked model, so that her pair of leather pants would go on faster.
I can also vividly remember getting the pants up to her knees before realising that I had put them on (or, more accurately, was putting them on her) backwards. There was a cold pit of dread in my stomach as I knew I was losing us precious backstage seconds. Never mind the fact that the fashion show was for something as absolutely basic as Girls’ Day Out or whatever, and it was happening at a convention centre in Ellerslie and not, I don’t know, PARIS.
I nervously said to the model, ‘I’m sorry, these are on backwards.’ The model, understandably not impressed at having a nervous 15-year-old talcum powdering her calves, snapped at me. “I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS.” That was the beginning and end of my fashion/powdering career but you’ll be glad to know the show did, in fact, go on.
While I was at university I had two jobs: one was a retail job in the weekends and then one was working part time at a primary school, where sometimes I would be in charge of the sick bay. Luckily, I wasn’t at the school the day a kid got explosive diarrhoea throughout the office building and the entire staff fled the scene, but I was there for many a toilet disaster.
But the real pearler was the 10-year-old who came in with the most spectacular blood nose I have ever seen. His entire shirt was drenched in blood but he was very cheerful as I asked him whatever basic first aid questions an 18-year-old could think of.
As adult women, you don’t really get the luxury of being afraid of blood but even I blanched a bit when he tipped his head back and pulled out a string of congealed blood from his gushing nose. It looked like a piece of red vine liquorice and it was so disgusting it broke something in my brain, and now I don’t get grossed out by things any more. I’m not quite sure what the symbolism of either of these situations means in a career context, but I’m sure it’s something. You’ve got to take the blood with the wee. If you can’t get the leather pants on your model fast enough, try, try again, etc.