A few weeks ago, a piece by a journalist forced to take a $10 per hour job working at an unnamed sporting goods store started making the rounds on the internet. The piece, titled My Life As A Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish and Poor, outlined the struggles the writer had adjusting from a lifetime of working as a journalist to being forced to take a retail job. The job at the sporting goods store (it’s pretty obviously Dick’s, so let’s just go with that) was physically draining, unchallenging mentally, and degrading, for various reasons that aren’t so well explained but are really important to the writer.
I’ve spent 6 years working in a grocery store, the majority of which I spent supervising people. I’ve also spent an additional 4 years as an observer of retail employees, dealing with hundreds of different people in dozens of different stores as the chip guy. I’m also a keen observer of the industry, and regularly go into grocery stores for fun just to check out how they’re set up and the merchandising standards. I probably know more about the retail business than anyone else reading this blog.
And what have I learned after a decade of being in the business? Retail workers get pretty much the treatment they deserve.
You can divide retail workers into four groups, which break down something like this.
People looking for something to do – 50%
Whiny, self entitled adults looking for something more – 25%
Kids looking for a fun place to work – 20%
Management, or people destined for management – 5%
The first group of people looking for something to do makes up the majority of retail workers. It includes bored housewives, or recently retired people who are looking for a little extra income. This group of people generally doesn’t care, but also holds no illusions of how the man has kept them down. They typically do an acceptable job, and can be very loyal if treated right.
The second group is pretty much the same as the first, but it’s kids just looking for something to do. They just want a fun environment where they can joke around with other people their age, and then go out afterwards and get a little liquored up. This group will spend a little more time standing around and talking – since the social aspect is a very important part of the job – but will be useful, especially if you give them the option to work together on things.
The third group is the one we’re going to spend the most time talking about. This group more than likely have had a prestigious previous job, making much more than they would in retail. They’re older, like the writer in the linked piece, and perhaps life hasn’t worked out the way they’ve hoped. This group is the worst, as I’ll explain later.
And finally, we have the holy grail of retail employees, the 5% who will make it to management. This group has the elusive combination of brains and work ethic, using both to quickly rise above the competition. Retail is clamoring for these people, and anyone who has the right combination can go from entry level to making six figures in 5-7 years. That is not a typo.
Let’s delve more into that last point. I started at a grocery store at 17. By 20, I was 3rd in command of the entire store. By 21, I was offered a route which would lead to assistant store manager in a small town in northern Alberta. I balked since I didn’t want to leave the security of my small town. I stalled behind a few lifers, and I quit when I was 23. Somewhat ironically, an opportunity opened up a year later which would have bumped me to assistant store manager, where the salary starts at approximately $65k per year, including bonus. Not bad for a 24 year old guy with no college education.
Nothing made me special. There were several other guys who started just before I did who are still with the company. One runs one of the biggest stores, another one plans new stores and renovations of existing stores. Both are pushing six figures per year. The only thing remarkable about all of us was a desire to learn, the initiative to get the job done, and intelligence to figure out the best solutions to problems. Again, retail is begging for people like that, and is more than willing to pay them.
So if that’s the case, why can’t intelligent people who have prospered in other high-flying careers succeed in retail? If retail is so desperate for people with brains, they should be all over these people like Nelson on an all-you-can-eat sundae bar. And they would be, except for one major problem.
The attitude of these workers stink.
You can see it in every sentence of the linked piece. The writer believes he’s above a retail job. He believes retail treats employees like trash. He believes loyalty only goes one way. Hell, he even bemoans how he can’t sit down on the job, even though standing up is such an implied part of the job that nobody even bothers to mention it. You just know. Even the circumstances surrounding his entry into retail reek of entitlement. The writer had literally exhausted all other options before stooping to take that lowly position at Dick’s.
I’ve dealt with hundreds of people just like that writer. They come in, work for a couple of months, and things start going downhill. It’s obvious from talking to them that there’s a few extra brain cells of intelligence, but it doesn’t translate into productivity. Their speed starts to fall, and the attitude goes from acceptable to miserable. Time in retail wasn’t supposed to be hard, dammit. They figured a promotion would fall into their laps after 3 months, tops.
By the third month, it’s obvious they’re not going to last. They can barely contain their bitterness. Supervisors are approached about changing store policies to accommodate a worker who struggles to do as much as a high school kid. They mysteriously start to miss work with various ailments. You want to fire them, but realize that the store has spent a thousand bucks training them, so you hope they turn it around.
By month four, most have quit. They either decide unemployment is better than the inhumane life of a retail worker, or they find something a little better. You’d think HR people would balk at hiring someone who only lasted 3 months in retail, but they sympathize with the worker’s plight. The employee washes their hands of their time in retail, telling friends it’s “not like it was when I was a kid.”
That employee is replaced by another, who has the exact same outlook. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. After a while retail wises up, and largely stops hiring these people, focusing instead on hiring more kids. I know why most retail jobs are part-time. It’s just too hard to find someone willing to work full time and put in the effort needed.
There are two lessons to be learned from this post. One, if you go into retail and work, you will be rewarded. You will be doubly rewarded for working hard and being smart, but even hard workers with no brains will see the fruits of their labor. Retail needs people like this. It’s really easy to surpass the competition when the competition is convinced they’re above getting their hands dirty.
And secondly, don’t discount blue collar work. Everybody is convinced that going to university and getting a white collar job is the path to success. I worked for years at blue collar jobs, and was more successful at those than I ever was at my white collar jobs. A big chunk of people working blue collar jobs are only doing them because they feel forced, and their attitudes reflect that. Surpassing these people is easy.
I spend a lot of time talking about contrarian investing, telling you to look at beaten up names and sectors instead of sexy picks. Your job should be the same way. Everyone wants to be a Wall Street guy. Nobody wants to be a plumber. Be the plumber, and laugh in 15 years when all the baby boomers have retired.
But whatever you do, don’t go into it with the attitude that you’re above it. Do everything to the best of your ability, and you’ll be amazed at the opportunities that fall into your lap. As I once told a friend who was struggling “you can be lazy and you can be stupid, but don’t expect anything more than what a lazy stupid person deserves.”