I started working in retail at the worst time of year. It was a week before Christmas and my first few shifts were the very definition of being dropped in at the deep end. I was a sales assistant for a tech store in Bluewater, Kent, with no particular expertise in technology... had never sold anything in my life. Except myself, in the job interview, you could say.
It was 2006 and the shop was filled with the then-relatively novel flatscreen LCDs. Some of the better sets were Full HD but most were 720p or 1080i (that all sounds a bit quaint now compared to 4K Ultra HD, doesn't it?) and in-store and out in the real world, tensions bubbled between who would win the commercial contest between Blu-ray and HD-DVD.
The smallest occurrences could become a great annoyance when suffered over many shifts. Take the word "Bravia" for instance. It is, to my mind, pronounced Brah-vee-ah. Have a customer tell me dozens of times how much they want the Brav-ee-ah – or even worse Bray-vee-ah – and soon all common decency drained from the soul and thoughts turned to murder.
The same goes for "GB", that is, the humble gigabyte. Almost everyone shortens that to saying "gig": "40 gig", :120 gig", and so on – but there was always a small contingent which insisted on saying "jee-bee." Hearing "jee-bee" enough times made me want to giga-bite someone’s face off.
That may all sound incredibly petty but it’s the nature of customer-facing retail. Having to be happy, helpful and polite to strangers can inwardly make you miserable, spiteful and rude. Of course, no negativity bubbles to the surface -- it simply can’t -- so the whole thing can sometimes become an emotional and physical struggle.
Never as much of a physical struggle as hungover shifts though. If there was one lesson I took away from my time in retail, it was to never go out bingeing the night before a shift. I had one or two experiences in the woozy world of selling products with what felt like a knife stuck in my head. All I can say is: NEVER AGAIN.
I relished in the opportunities to visit the other-end-of-shopping-centre stockroom to drop-off televisions to people’s cars at the loading bay. It was a game of roulette as to whether the customer’s vehicle would be big enough for the huge flatscreen they'd just splashed out on. Invariably it wasn’t, but it didn’t stop me from squeezing it into their boot every which way, blocking their rear vision for the journey home.
One product that stands out as an example of Sony’s occasionally-leftfield what-on-earth-is-that design process was a television that sat in the corner of the store waiting for some unwitting person to buy it...someone with more money than sense. I speak of the TAV-L1. It was, on first glance, a huge rectangular speaker.
Press a button though and slowly the speaker slid down to reveal a rather meagre 32” LCD screen. It was the white elephant in the room, retailing at £3,000. Anyone out there got a TAV-L1 or knows someone that does? I thought not.
By 2008 the credit crunch had bitten and I left my retail job to move up to Nottingham to study. I promised myself never to work in customer-facing retail again.
Promises are sometimes broken.
* * *
In 2010 I was back living in Kent and studying closer to home. I went against my word and ventured to nearby Maidstone with a pack of CVs in hand. A shop which specialised in gadgets and gifts for men took me on.
The one thing that I heard most from customers was along the lines of: “Cor, it must be fun to work here!” Up to a point that was true. The walls were stacked high with Nerf guns and r/c helicopters, beer-brewing kits and everything else designed to make a group of men giggle. Demoing products was encouraged, so I was rarely without something to play with. The gripes of retail remained, though.
Take Dave the Funky Shoulder Monkey as an example of how non-fun a job in a glorified toy store can be:
For a short while this monkey was the toy to own. Dave was controlled by a remote. My job was to stand at the door and greet customers with him on my shoulder. After a while I slipped into a routine that went something like this:
[Customer walks into store]
Me: Good afternoon and welcome to our store – aren’t you going to say hello, Dave?
[I press button on remote hidden in my pocket]
Dave: [high pitched, waving hand] Hallo!
Customer’s child: HEehehehehheeheHE
Me: [Internal sigh at the state of my life]
I dug myself a hole doing that though. The boss loved my little interactive routine so I was on the door with Dave shift after shift after that. It was such a shame when his battery pack just happened to break when I deliberately stepped on it; even more of a shame when my boss replaced it with a new Dave fresh out of the box and put me back on the door.
We sold some great products, apart from Dave – Science Putty being one. You could roll it into a ball and it would bounce; you could pull it slowly and it would stretch or yank it quickly and it would tear; leave it resting and it melted into a pool, and freezing it made it brittle enough to shatter. I would definitely recommend spending a few quid on a tin of the stuff.
There were some products I simply couldn’t enthuse about, though.
Who really needs a wand that can control their television? I personally thought that the Kimera wand was a silly thing to want – this coming from a boy who grew up reading Harry Potter. We never had a screen in-store to test the thing, so whenever I demoed it there was a certain futility to my actions and I felt like a knock-off Ollivander. It didn’t matter though because the people buying them generally had tunnel vision to getting it through the tills before rushing home to summon their magical powers. Easy sales make a retail worker’s day.
After a year, I quit the job to concentrate fully on my studies. Just like my retail job before it, the store closed not long after my departure. Clearly they couldn't cope without me.
My time in retail wasn't as harrowing as this article makes it sound, of course: I learnt loads about tech and gadgets and I had some great times with oft-brilliant colleagues, but like any line of work there are good times to be had as well as bad. Naturally trying to condense three years of work into one column will make the negatives shine forth from the positives, but nevertheless...I still never want to work in retail again.
Jack Tomlin is a journalist, presenter and snooker-lover from Kent who does occasional after-hours editing for Gizmodo UK.
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