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Labour + Industry

Young People ‘Blowing This’? All I Do Is Work So that You Can Shop

Retail jobs take kindness and patience. But premier, I’m running out of that.

Thomas O’Donnell 31 Mar 2021 |

Thomas O’Donnell is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. He likes to write about history, archives, and art. You can follow him on Twitter at @belovedofthesky.

In retail, they teach us that any problem can be solved by customer service. Any issue you face — with a customer, with technology, or any combination of the two — can be solved by being really nice and really patient. This has left me well adjusted to process a tricky return, but quite poorly adjusted to work through a global pandemic.

Working in retail used to give me a sense of peace. In this world of unknowable chaos, I could push through by being nice and patient. By holding these two things, niceness and patience, I could try and create even just a single delightful moment in a customer’s day.

Normally I take joy in my work. I delight in looking over a store to try and find the best barn wood picture frame. I love helping pick a perfect dress for an anniversary dinner at Hawksworth. But in light of our current situation, my work feels frivolous at best and downright non-essential. Working in retail through this pandemic has really worn me down. Long after clapping for essential workers has gone, here I am behind a plexiglass screen asking if someone wants a cart or a basket.

Now, I’m feeling done with peace and patience. The pandemic has hurt us all, and still cases are rising. To B.C.’s premier, apparently, that’s the fault of my generation. “Do not blow this for the rest of us,” he scolded youth earlier this week.

That was a hard one to swallow on my 30-minute lunch break. I’m doing my best to “stay safe,” but no one, least of all him, is making it any easier.

Fundamental to retail work is a sense of closeness. I mean this in a metaphoric sense, as in making a customer feel welcome in the store, as in making a customer feel comfortable with your advice, as in making a customer feel so familiar with something that they would want to own it for themselves.

I also mean this in the literal sense, as customers are always so close to me. Even as I slowly tiptoe away from them, trying to maintain the appropriate six feet of distance, they are briskly stepping towards me. Even as I hand them a mask, my arms outstretched with a set of tongs, they are scooching behind me to get a drop of hand sanitizer.

This kind of closeness goes against what’s needed to protect everyone from the virus. Every few months we hear a call to “work at home,” but in retail there is no working from home.

It’s clear that as we enter month 13 of our pandemic, people are starved for something to do and a little human interaction. That’s us as retail workers — your daily, government-allowed allotment of human interaction.

These past months I haven’t seen my friends or family, but at any time they could come visit me at work. If they pretend they’re there to shop, in between our little act where I do my customer service and they get customer serviced, we can have a real genuine conversation. That is, until I need to go get another box of mugs to stock on the shelf.

I spend so much time with my co-workers they have become my only friends — and I don’t even know their last names.

There’s nothing wrong with some retail therapy to shake off the COVID blues. But retail therapy can come at me and my co-workers’ expense. A little trip to find something to spruce up the home office could put us at risk.

Like everyone else, I see the case counts rising and I am scared. But it doesn’t matter that I’m scared, I still have to show up for work every day. I still have to be nice and patient, as if I’m not scared. I still have to treat everyone nicely and patiently even when they are not patient enough to stay home.

But here’s the thing about staying home. What I didn’t know about retail work before I started is that in many stores, a worker’s hours are tied directly to how much money the store makes. The more money you spend, the more hours I get to work. I genuinely do want you to take that rug home because I think it’ll look great by your work desk, but I also want you to buy it because it’s what’ll determine if I can make rent next week. I can’t be scared because I need customers to not be scared. I need them to come in and shop, so that I can keep buying groceries.

It’s an uncomfortable balance, hoping people will come in and shop to their heart’s content while also being resentful that their presence might make me sick. I don’t like feeling this way, I don’t want to feel this way.

Every time the numbers start to spike, I hope we go into a full lockdown, but when we don’t, I always come up with an excuse for the government. I thought we stayed open over Christmas because people needed to buy gifts and then we’d close. I thought we stayed open over Valentine’s Day because people needed to buy gifts and then we’d close. Easter is next week so maybe that’s why we’re staying open.

I know that stores aren’t staying open because of the holidays but using these as milestones gives me something to use as a goal post. As we move past these milestones into a fog, I wonder when we get to stop.

When I’m standing behind my plexiglass, saying hello and goodbye to every single customer that comes in, a woman looks me dead in the eye and tells me to “stay safe.” It lasts with me the rest of my shift, and the shift after that. Who does she think is making me unsafe, and how can I be doing better staying?

I’m not sure how much longer I can be nice or patient, so forgive me if I’m blowing this for you.  [Tyee]

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