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Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images

I spent 7 years working in retail. I’ll never complain about a long Starbucks line again.

I was standing in line at Starbucks with my mom and my 18-month-old daughter. We'd just finished dropping off my three older kids at their schools and preschools, and we decided to have a coffee date. Listening to the ranting customers behind me muttering loudly about how slowly things were going, wondering what was the matter with the baristas, and expounding upon how ridiculous it all was, I had to bite my tongue.

I wanted so badly to turn and remind them at the end of the day, it's just coffee. Yeah, my toddler was antsy. She wanted to touch all the items in the little fridge display. She wanted to walk off and play with the coffee bean bags. She was, as she proclaimed to me, "All done!" with Starbucks.

But nine times out of ten, a slowdown at your local coffee shop is more of an inconvenience for the employees than for you. You're stuck in that line as long as you're stuck in it. They're stuck in this situation until whatever caused it resolves. That might be minutes — maybe some catastrophically crazy large order happened and slowed things down, or maybe one machine stopped working. Or it might be much longer — maybe two people failed to show up, and no one else can come in for hours yet. But I guarantee they're no happier about the slowdown than you are. And even a barista with a terrible attitude takes some sort of pride in speed of service, getting customers in and out. Failure to do so is discouraging.

Every year since I left retail, my number-one thankful moment on Thanksgiving is that I don't have to work

When we got to the front of the line, the barista at the register apologized for the wait as she cast a stressed eye at the grumblers down the line. I smiled and said, "No worries, I get it." And I did. I really, really did.

You see, these days, I'm a stay-at-home, work-part-time-from-home mom to four littles. But I spent seven years on the front lines of retail and customer service at Starbucks and Victoria's Secret. I've had a lot of time (while running kids to various places, changing diapers, and standing in lines at those exact same establishments) to contemplate some things everyone should know about retail — the things I always wanted to tell my customers, but couldn't because, well, I wanted to keep my job.

1) They call it "retail hell" because of the hours

You know those awesome days you have: weekends, holidays, lazy summer evenings when the sky is light and the days seem long? We don't have those. Retail workers are busiest at the times when the rest of the sane world is relaxing. First of all, there's that middle-of-the-night magic. Some days you walk into a store and it's like Christmas just exploded everywhere. That magic happened because the store's employees started decorating the moment the store closed the night before, and probably kept going until the store opened that morning.

I am not a night owl. But as a store manager, I had to be present at most of the floor sets — that process of adding new merchandise, marketing, and rearranging all the existing merchandise and fixtures to make the store seem fresh and new again — at least for part of the time. For the crucial ones (think the Semi-Annual Sale at Victoria's Secret), I was there from dusk to dawn — and then until midday or longer, to oversee the sale once the store opened and customers arrived. I tried to always provide food for my employees, and it helped. But at 3 am, when you're dead tired and trying to make sure that this bust form is tilted just so to set off that butt form, it's hard not to say "bugger it" and stack those butts any which way.

And holidays. Thanksgiving: is Starbucks open? Yep! Every year since I've left retail, my number-one thankful moment on Thanksgiving is that I don't have to work it — or, my god, the nightmare that is Black Friday. (Okay, maybe I'm most thankful for health and my family, but no more Retail Black Friday is definitely up there, too.) Ditto Christmas, New Year's Eve, Easter, and so on.

People are off from work, they want their coffee (and bras), and you've got to be there to give it to them. Happy Thanksgiving!

(Shutterstock)

2) Employers pay workers just enough so that they can survive and also buy their products

Retail workers are paid terribly. You can make the argument that entry-level retail isn't meant to support a family, but the thing is ... often it's people's only choice.

And whether you're a teenager trying to make extra money or a single mom striving to feed her kids, the pay is terrible when you compare it to the work that retail workers have to do. It's not just making and serving coffee, or ringing up bras. There are ten million other little things they have to worry about: cleaning toilets, "recovering" panties, cleaning floor drains, emptying trash cans, peeling used sanitary pads out from behind mirrors in dressing rooms.

As you go up the ladder, it gets a little bit better. I was making more as a store manager without a college degree than my mother, who had masters-level coursework and was a teacher. But the pay never really catches up when you count in all the tasks, and the crazy life commitment you make to the brand. I got more calls on my days off and in the middle of the night than my husband, a doctor, ever does. One district manager even called me to "touch base" on some things ... while I was in the hospital, in labor with my first child.

3) I didn't wake up one morning and declare, "I want to be the Boss of Bras!"

It just sort of happened. At first, it was supposed to be a fun part-time job for me after I moved from my hometown to a not-so-far-away college town. The career part came about as I realized I didn't know what I wanted to do as a career, and as my managers suggested I go into the retail management training program at Starbucks. Suddenly a path opened that I'd never looked for, that I seemed to be good at, and that I was being recruited for.

In the years that followed, I would hire baristas, sales associates, bra specialists, and various supervisors and managers. Not one of them ever said, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life! THIS IS MY CALLING!" Many of them were college students or college-aged young adults just trying to make it.

4) Some memories from my retail days still make me cringe, shudder, and break out in a cold sweat

Let's talk panty recovery. When you walk into a Victoria's Secret or Pink store, you'll come across giant displays full of colorful panties in all shapes, sizes, and designs, from hints of lace to satiny finishes. These displays take time to set up and even more time to tidy up (called "recovery"). And they're easily destroyed by a careless customer rifling through them in search of sizes or colors. I try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but there isn't a single retail worker whose heart doesn't shrivel and die when observing customers flipping merchandise around out of those neat piles and rows, whether it's innocent size hunting or malevolent mayhem. Normally I'm a "save your tears for your pillow" sort of gal, but at 11 pm on Christmas Eve when I had to face a mound of thousands of tangled panties and thongs that had to be sized and sorted, I cannot deny that there were tears mixed in with the v-strings and hiphuggers.

Retail workers are paid terribly — especially when you compare it to the work they have to do

And Black Friday. Oh, blackest of days! The scariest moment of my retail career was not the time I came in to open my Starbucks store for the day, only to find the doors already wide open. It was my first Black Friday as a Victoria's Secret manager, when our store opened at 6 am, and I arrived to see an angry mob waiting outside our front gates. Panty recovery on Black Friday is just like a cruel joke.

It's been almost four years since I left retail hell, but even now, whenever Black Friday approaches, I feel the urge to bring brownies in to my local Victoria's Secret for stressed managers. I stay home on Black Friday (or worse, nowadays, Thanksgiving evening!) to avoid becoming part of the angry mobs. I keep my underwear drawer a glorious mess and tangle as a silent protest to panty recovery, but just the other night I woke in a cold sweat from a dream about facing a mountainous mess on the panty bar with only one other associate to help.

5) Stores will let customers return almost anything

Most stores — though they would like to have you believe otherwise and will sometimes try to hint, insinuate, or flat out lie to you about it — have really lenient return policies. The amount of things I had to just say yes to was staggering. Bras that were purchased clearly two, if not three, sizes too small (in both the band AND cup sizes!) were asserted to be "defective, because I always take a size 32B!" (despite the fact that they'd clearly been worn for days, if not weeks). Perfume that had been half-used but "didn't smell right" and was therefore exchanged for a new, full item. Items purchased back when my mom was my age, as long as they still rang up for some sort of monetary value (and sometimes even if they didn't).

There was only one time I put my foot down and said no. We had a pair of sleep shorts returned a few weeks after the Semi-Annual Sale. They were missing the tags and the receipt, but that wasn't the real problem. They had a big, brown smear stain that was visible from the inside and out. The stain was huge. It was fragrant. The funny (??) thing was that this customer wasn't even trying to return them claiming that they were stained and she hadn't noticed it in store. That would have been super-implausible, but also likely something I'd have had to accept and maybe even apologize for. Instead, she was trying to return them based on the fact that they weren't comfortable. Sometimes, you just have to say no. (Though I still probably would have been advised to just say yes, considering I could just mark the item out of our system as "damaged" and take the inventory hit.)

You'll probably get what you want from your return if you manage to stay firm but polite, and especially if you call in the higher forces. Call customer service if you have to. But do not try to return biohazardous apparel. Please.

(Shutterstock)

6) Retail workers are people, too

One of the toughest things about working retail, or customer service in general, is that people forget that behind that apron, beneath that cheerful smile, we're people, too. We have feelings. We struggle. We know that many of you think we're just doing this because we can't do anything else. Even if that's true, so what? It doesn't mean that your rudeness doesn't sting, even if we're being paid (minimally) to take it and smile. Be nice. Try to be.

I'll never forget the evening when a young woman came in, nervous, asking for our help to find her something sexy because her fiancé was coming home from a long deployment. She told us this wasn't her usual thing and that her body "never looked good in anything." Every one of us still in the store got involved. Two of my associates even ended up staying late to help out. By the time the store should have closed, we were nearly done, but we stayed open an extra 20 minutes to help her. At that point, she was modeling for us in the fitting room, and we were voting for our favorites. She returned the next week with her fiancé, glowing, to show him off and thank us, with tears in her eyes.

I'll also always remember the night that a timid woman came in and asked for some help finding a certain type of panty. She was hesitant and a little jumpy, until suddenly she asked me if I could tell. I was confused. She stood a little straighter and sent me a slightly more confident smile and asked if she "passed" okay. It turns out she was transgender, and dressing as a woman in public for one of the first times. She needed panties that wouldn't be too confining, but still looked sexy. We spent the rest of the hour before the store closed as a team, helping dig through all the styles to show her some that would work, and also explaining the different types of bras and how they might help her.

We're people, too. We're supposed to engage our customers, but it works better if you engage us too. We might both have fun. I learned so much in my time in retail and customer service, and I still believe everyone should have to take a turn at it — to gain some empathy, if nothing else.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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