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Pros and Cons of Working Retail: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly of a Retail Job

Updated on December 11, 2014
If you plan on working retail, get very comfortable with looking at a cash register.
If you plan on working retail, get very comfortable with looking at a cash register. | Source

What Makes Retail Unique? What Are Some Common Retail Jobs?

Retail work is some of the most basic and easy to obtain work in the economy, and often requires little or no former work experience. A retail job typically has some room for advancement, though turning a cash register gig in to a full time career may not be advisable. Retail has a lot of variety, both between positions at one store or company and between stores and varieties of retail. At a big box retail store like Old Navy, a retail worker's responsibilities fall in to several different categories, usually including stocking, cleaning, and operating a register or front counter. As someone who has worked in retail in different settings for about 5 years in total, I'll share some of my experiences with retail work, and take you through the good, the bad, and the ugly of working retail. If you are thinking about starting a retail job, want to know more about what the job takes, or are just curious about retail work looks like, read on!

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Pros and Cons of Working Retail

Here is a quick list of the pros and cons of working retail. I will spend time diving in to each point below.

Cons:

  • Boring.
  • Little professional development
  • Poor money
  • Zero glory.
  • Meet annoying people.

Pros:

  • Doesn't require extensive resume or previous work experience
  • Has promotion potential
  • Practice people skills
  • Develop business savyness
  • Meet good people!

Read on for explanations and insights related to each point, based on my personal experience working in retail.


"Clerks" Offers an Amusing Look at Retail Work

Pro of Working Retail: No Resume Required

Well, not literally: you should have a resume for whatever job you apply to, even if your "resume" consists of classes you have taken and volunteer work you have done rather than previous work experience. One of the most attractive things about working retail though is you don't need a lot or any previous work experience. The job can be learned quickly and a variety of different personalities will be able to succeed in the retail environment's many different roles, so managers and owners of retail businesses are likely to hire individuals without extensive resumes. Working retail can be a perfect first job to start building that ever important work history, as most people can find some kind of retail work that suits them with a manager willing to hire.

Retail Theme Song #1

Pro of Working Retail: Potential for Advancement

Especially in big box retail stores and corporate settings, there is a lot of room for advancement in the retail world compared to other entry level positions. Basic floor and counter retail workers can aspire to shift management positions, better and higher paying commission based retail positions within the same company (for example, moving from the clothing to the jewelry department at Macy's), and potential advancement to higher paying and more interesting positions within the company they work for. A college friend of mine started working at Urban Outfitters less than a year ago as a basic cash register and floor stocking grunt, and quickly was able to impress her managers and get promoted in to more interesting projects: now, less than a year after starting at Urban, this friend works as a buyer/fashion rater, flying to cities around the country on the company dime and looking at different pieces of clothing from different designers that Urban is interested in buying. It isn't likely that you could an opportunity like this after a year of fast food work, or something else with an entry barrier as low as retail.

The big crowds during rush times in retail stores will force you to practice your people skills.
The big crowds during rush times in retail stores will force you to practice your people skills. | Source

Pro of Working Retail: Practice People Skills

While there may not be a large amount of transferable skills from retail work to more professional careers, one thing you will get to practice a lot in a retail job that will help you for the rest of your life are your "people skills;" your ability to talk and interact with people and costumers efficiently and effectively especially in a costumer service environment. "Good people skills" are required in a wide variety of careers and situations, and almost every employer and future contact will respond well to a person who can communicate effectively. When on cash register duty in a retail situation, you will have to practice interacting with people while completing a variety of other tasks, forcing you to develop the ability to multitask while remaining polite and professional. When on the retail floor, you will be expected to react quickly and in a detail oriented manner to the questions and concerns of costumers, forcing you to operate well under pressure while still exercising good people skills. This experience will be invaluable and widely applicable across a wide range of opportunities.

Retail Theme Song #2

Pro of Working Retail: Develop Business Savviness

If you are hoping to get in to an eventual career in marketing or business administration, you can learn a lot from even the most basic entry level retail positions. Many small business owners and entrepreneurs started out working a cash register in some forgotten store long before they founded their own businesses. In addition to practicing the people skills discussed above, working retail will expose you to many of the bare bones elements of running a successful company, from managing employees to promoting products to maintaining efficiency, IF you are an astute observer and want to get some initial exposure to how a business is run, working retail will allow you to develop some business savviness.

Pro of Working Retail: Meet Good People!

There is a lot about working retail that isn't great (more on this in the "cons" section) but all of the rough and rugged elements of retail have a knack for creating a tight and unique community among employees. Any job where you spend a lot of time together will inevitably lead to friendships, but retail work has a particular knack for fostering such bonds. The down times in retail allow for a lot of free time, which will inevitably be filled with conversation between you and your co-workers. A friend of mine who started a relationship with one of her co-workers at Abercrombie when she worked there in high school is about to get married to that same co-worker, and many of the people I worked with during my retail job in college are still close friends. Working retail, you are bound to meet some good people who you click with.

Working retail will make you pull your hair out with boredom at times
Working retail will make you pull your hair out with boredom at times | Source

Con of Working Retail: Boring.

Retail can be so, so, so, so boring. More than any other entry level position, retail can be mind numbingly slow and tedious for a variety of reasons. First, the tasks do not vary much at all; if you work a cash register, there isn't much you can do to spice up the position, as you will be doing the same thing over and over again. Second, retail work often has long stretches of slow down time. While tedium is a trademark of many entry level jobs, there is typically more empty time in retail than many other positions; if there are no costumers in your store, there isn't much for you to do to fight off boredom, and retail has long stretches with very little costumer interaction. When you combine the routine nature of retail with the long stretches of empty, mindless time, you end up with one of the most boring positions imaginable.

Retail Theme #3

Con of Working Retail: Little Professional Development

Wait, didn't I just get done telling you in the "pro" column that there is a lot that can be learned from working retail? While it is true that an astute observer can get a lot out of this position, your boss in a retail job probably isn't too invested in your professional development or advancement: while some positions have extensive company trainings and advancement programs to insure that workers are aware of their opportunities for promotions and are able to develop their professional skills, retail work is not likely to have a strong focus on these kinds of initiatives. While in any position, you should be thinking about how the skills you are learning can be transferred to a later position, but a major "con: of retail work is that this isn't always obvious and there aren't many professional development opportunities to make the connection more clear.

Get used to looking at the 1's and 5's.  Retail money isn't huge.
Get used to looking at the 1's and 5's. Retail money isn't huge. | Source

Con of Working Retail: Poor Money

Of course, any entry level job you get isn't going to make you rich, but retail has some especially low pay rates considering the nature of the work. As opposed to working in a restaurant setting, you won't get tips working a retail counter, and will likely be earning minimum wage. Combine minimum wage with the fact that paths to promotions may not always be obvious (read above) and you may be earning poor money in retail for a lot longer than you would in a different setting. Working isn't all about earning, despite popular opinion, but if you are getting a retail job primarily to save some money and pay the bills, you may be better off applying to other positions.

Retail Theme #4

Con of Working Retail: Zero Glory

While the idea of "glory" isn't usually something you would relate to entry level work in the first place, working retail is particularly unromantic. Let me explain what I mean by "glory." In many positions, you will have the opportunity to distinguish yourself, and earn the praise of your boss and co-workers. Not so in retail. In many positions, you will be put in positions that will let you feel proud of your abilities, and will give you something to take home from work that is less tangible than wages; good stories, satisfaction with your work, and a feeling of fulfillment. Not so with retail. Without these opportunities to stand out, you probably won't be very happy with your job. Of course, there are counter examples; some retail settings have commission based positions or other metrics for you to judge your performance, improve your work, and have something to brag about and work towards. However, typical, entry level retail jobs are often mundane and without any sense of "glory" whatsoever $6.

Con of Retail: Meet Annoying People

If retail work is particularly likely to give you the opportunity to make friends with your co-workers, it is also particularly likely to provide costumer interactions that will drive you crazy. See, people who are shopping are almost always in a hurry or on a time schedule, and they are likely to mistreat retail workers as a result. Rushed and agitated costumers aren't the only ones likely to annoy retail workers either. When I worked retail during college, we had several "regulars" who would come in to our store and browse and ask a lot of questions, but NEVER bought anything. While this sounds harmless enough at first, your manager probably doesn't think so. Everyone time I was unfortunate enough to be working the retail floor when one of these costumers came in, I knew they wouldn't buy anything, and that my manager would blame me for being unable to "sell" a product to someone who wasn't planning on buying in the first place. Working retail, you will gather a lot of stories about costumers being rude or annoying or insane, and the treatment retail workers receive is a major "con" of the job.

You Will Meet Some Crazy People Working Retail

Retail: It's Not Fun, But It's Not Hard

Overall, a retail job is better than no job, but it isn't the greatest work. The good? A retail job can be easy to get, and doesn't require an extensive resume to nail down in most cases. While working retail, you will have a lot of chances to build your employment skill set, especially your people skills. And if you are a really keen observer and want to start your own business some day, you can learn a lot about running a business from even the most basic retail position. Basically, retail jobs are easy to get and can lead to better things if you apply yourself.

Retail Theme #5

However, there is a reason why many people don't stay in retail for long. The bad? Well, it is really boring for a start. Compared to many other entry level positions that have faster work environments, you will literally have nothing to do for a large part of the day as a retail worker. combine this with the fact you are likely to earn minimum wage and not have very many opportunities to be proud of your work, and the mind numbing and very unromantic nature if retail are unavoidable "cons" of the position. Oh, and the costumers. They can suck. More than in most positions, you will meet a lot of crazy and annoying people working a retail counter.

Additionally, there is a lot about retail that is downright ugly. Your managers probably won't be very invested in your success. Yes, you can learn a lot from retail if you are astute and apply yourself, but it is likely that you won't have any help to get there. This lack of investment on the part of your higher ups adds to a pervasive feeling in retail work that you are unimportant and replaceable. You won't have many opportunities to gain any psychological satisfaction from your work, as the tasks of a retail bee are so menial. These factors make retail a job with little to no "glory," and you will feel like you don't matter in your work as a retail employee.

However, on the whole, if you need work retail is a lot better than nothing and can lead other places, and I do recommend it to anyone who has read this guide thoroughly and still wants to give it a try.

Like This Hub? Interested in a Different Job?

Questions about retail? Ask in the comments and I'll answer based upon my experiences!

Thanks for reading!

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