When I first arrived at FIT as a freshman in 2019, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was barely able to afford the room and board, meaning I knew I would have to work. The most obvious choice was retail. It was in the fashion industry and didn’t require previous experience. My professional upbringing is in the restaurant industry, so I have a great deal of customer service experience but hate the stressful fast paced environment. Or at least I thought I hated it. So, I was excited to work in retail. It would give me an opportunity to connect with customers without the anxiety.
Within a few weeks at my retail job at a certain store I won’t name,
I became emotionally exhausted.
Management was disorganized. There were far too many employees. I was never fully trained; only given impossible standards and then tossed onto the sales floor. Along with it, there was never anything for any of the employees to really do. If there were no customers, it was folding clothes for hours. Sometimes I would find myself actually unfolding clothes myself just to have something to keep me busy. Managers are pitted against subordinates, and subordinates against each other. It was impossible to form a cohesive team. Without that, you have a retail store that everyone hates to work in.
The pandemic only made things worse. Our store was closed, with little to no communication on when it would reopen. Many of us (including myself) returned home and never came back to the store. But for the employees who did return to retail in the midst of the pandemic, it was a fight like no other. Putting themselves at risk by interacting directly with customers. Wage cuts, employee shortages, and improper protection were just the tip of the iceberg.
So far this may seem like a personal revenge letter towards my previous employer…
But I am not the only person in the workplace who feels this way. Retail workers across the country have begun to unionize. Following the immense stress put on retail employees without benefit or pay raise, they have finally had enough. Employees at Amazon, REI Co-Op and Apple have created unions to protect workers. In response, many companies have tried to convince their employees not to join unions. Since 2000, the percentage of workers in a union went from 6% to 4.4% according to Business Insider. Amazon was accused of threatening and interrogating employees in a Staten Island warehouse that attempted to unionize.
It’s clear that many of the large retailers in the fashion industry do not have their employees’ interests at heart. The mantra of ‘the customer is always right’ has made consumers the highest priority and given retailers an excuse to mistreat employees. It is not surprising because of course; a company must make money and customers give them that money. But what is the societal cost of always putting employees last? It starts with poor upper management and trickles down until the employees at the bottom are broken.
The emotional stress put on customer service workers is often overlooked.
They are in high demand constantly. Whether it be handling upset customers or exposing themselves to potentially unsafe situations. The holiday season really kicks up the extra pressure on the retail industry. Most of the time without any kind of compensation for the extra work. The perspective of customer first business is a very western view. One that can become dangerous. Companies put so much focus on building consumer trust. With that, many consumers have become entitled, believing they will always get their way, no matter how ridiculous. The pandemic is the perfect example with many refusing masks and still expecting service. Employees had to make the decision to either put themselves at risk or go against the customer. Many feared that if they did not give customers what they wanted, that there was a risk of violence.
Violence against retail workers spiked during 2020. According to Business Insider, 80% of customer service employees experienced hostile behavior from customers within the 18 months of the pandemic. Many of the companies where these acts took place had sales soar during the pandemic, while their employees suffered. This made it difficult for workers to rationalize putting themselves through this hardship without adequate reward.
So, it really is no surprise that many employees hate retail.
From being minorly boring to soul crushing. If you enjoy retail, I have the utmost respect for you. Yes, change is beginning to sweep through the industry. Corporate responsibility was mainly focused on environmental concerns or labor overseas. Finally, the discussion has been broadened to support all aspects of an organization. Including the workforce. Often, managers are given hard to reach goals. The goals then get pushed onto subordinates; most of the time without an explanation. This lack of communication puts stress on every part of the workforce.
In order to heal our relationship with retail work,
we must create avenues for open communication in every part of an organization. The corporate structure of many firms makes this difficult as orders pass from higher management down to lower management and then to workers on the floor. Everyone involved needs to have the ability to communicate freely through their organizations. That way employees can feel seen and valued in their position. Until we show these employees their value in the workforce, retail jobs will continue to get a bad rap and discourage others from joining the fashion industry.