5 Life Lessons from the Retail Industry

Over time, there have been seasons in life when I’ve worked retail jobs as my main or sole source of income. Recently, to my surprise, I’ve been truly grateful for my latest stint on staff at a store. Retail can be rough for many employees, but I’ve been blessed with fun co-workers, patient customers, decent pay, good benefits, and even — lo and behold — some life lessons that we can all use. Like this:

square-stand-900x5001. The five-foot rule. The five-foot rule goes like this: Whenever there’s a customer within a five-foot radius of where I’m standing, I’m supposed to acknowledge them. Acknowledge their presence, nod, smile, ask a question, something. Outside of the customer service context, too, consider this: the visitor at church sliding shyly into your pew, the neighbor walking their dog, the homeless person on the street. Five-foot ruleAcknowledge them.

2. “Can I help you find anything?” In customer service, this is the most important thing for me to say. And every time I do, I feel a little like Jesus. Because Jesus was always asking people questions, always compelling them to consider what they’re really looking for in life and who can help them find it. Generally, people don’t want to ask for help on their own; I know I don’t. But when I ask someone if they need help, they might just acknowledge that the answer is yes. Because of working in retail, I’ve found myself asking this question more than ever before. As a friend trying to help a friend, a lay leader at church trying to welcome newcomers, and a freelance writer trying to offer professional services, it always works to ask: “Can I help you with anything?”

3. “Are you still looking?” When customers look almost ready to check out, I used to ask them “Are you ready?” But, then, if they weren’t ready yet, they would suddenly look guilty and hurried. “Sorry, take your time,” I would try to assure them, as they grabbed their last granola bars. I’ve learned to rephrase my question and rework my assumptions, erring on the side of letting someone look for as long as they need rather than rushing them to make a decision. I imagine, too, in community and counseling and even evangelism, this is probably a good way to go. Let someone who’s seeking something — answers, Jesus, a new job, a better relationship — take their time with the labyrinth of looking.

4. You can never be too polite. At work, I can never be too polite to my customers. Moreover, what strikes me is when a customer is particularly polite to me. Like this one customer who, through the sheer chivalry of his respectful words and actions, makes me have some hope for humanity every time he comes in. It makes me want to assess how often — when I’m out and about, running errands myself — I say to my cashiers, servers, baristas, bartenders, and others pleasethank you, and have a great day.

5. Clean as you go. Technically, I got this lesson from my dad, recounting his days working at McDonald’s in high school. But I’ve had to practice some “clean as you go” doing my own work too. Seriously, if you leave dirt on the floor or crumbs on a table unattended for long it’s a real pain to clean. On the job, this is a literal truth. But in life, I take it metaphorically — meaning clean your heart as you go. Don’t let grudges or gossip or unspoken frustrations build up too long. “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). When some mess in life comes up, clean it as soon as possible. Clean as you go.

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