Before I made the decision to attend college – and even after I took the agonizing steps to follow through with that decision – I worked in retail. I was bright-eyed, if not bushy-tailed, and the prospect of quick advancement and fast money had me interested from the first day. The next promotion was always imminent, and it didn’t take long to figure out that playing the game correctly meant I’d soon have a store of my own to manage. The day I was offered such an opportunity, I remember making phone calls to share my good news with friends and family. I was fishing for congratulations and commiseration, but what I should have been asking for was a referral to a psychaiatrist. It took me less than one year to determine that devoting my life to earning a dollar for someone else isn’t a rewarding way to earn a living. I left retail with an addiction to caffeine and a penchant for smoking cigarettes that would have reserved me a plot next to Johnny Carson and Rod Serling, had I not quit. I also took with me an acute understanding of what servicing the public is all about. I say “servicing the public” because it’s similar to what goes on in the champagne room at Diva’s. Without first-hand knowledge of the world’s oldest profession from the working girls’ side of the coin, my comparison may be off base, but I’d say the business of providing customer service is a lot like prostitution – except on salary, which makes prostitution more appealing.
I grew up as an only child, a brat really, and my worldview consists of a distinct dichotomy: What happens to me, and shit that doesn’t matter. I’ve managed to find some maturity since adolescence, but I’ll always hold my selfishness dear to my heart. Depending on how you look at it, selling products to people who really don’t need them is either the ultimate in selfishness or the epitome of altruism; I’ll go with the former, since we’re talking about capitalism. In retail, one has to prostitute personal honesty in the name of making a buck. I’m not talking about misrepresenting a product or lying about the price. What I’m referring to is the constant stream of bullshit that has to emit from your mouth in order to sell a person a widget. The particular company I worked for had one thing right at least, and that’s the notion that we operate in a society where almost all consumer goods are commodities. The only thing that separates retailer A from retailer B, aside from price and foolish employee uniforms, is customer service. Even the price barrier can be overcome with some old-fashioned customer servicing. And by customer servicing, I’m referring to exchanges like the following:
Woman: “Do these sneakers make my feet look big?”
Me: “No, ma’am, those size 12 men’s running shoes are a perfect fit for your four-foot seven-inch frame.”
Maybe that’s not the dialogue verbatim, but you get the point. I became quite adept at assuring all shapes and sizes of customers male and female, mind you – that their asses didn’t look big in those two-sizes-too-small running tights, and that I certainly couldn’t tell they had one leg a full half-foot shorter than the other. Quite possibly, I was doing God’s work by making the public feel better about themselves. At least that’s what I told myself while enjoying a coffee and a cigarette. More than likely, though, I was thinking about my bonus at the end of the month. There were days when I yearned for the bullshit-free life of a crack dealer. Everyone economically involved in that type of transaction is fully aware – the crack dealer knows his product is addictive and socially disrupting, and the crack buyer knows he’s buying a product that is marked up 1,000 percent and will eventually cause his heart to explode. There was no way I was going to tell some huge Puerto Rican guy that the shiny Dada pants he was buying made him look like an ethnic Neil Diamond on steroids and that his wearing them would nullify any chance he had of ever getting laid again. I always gave the pendulum of honesty a little nudge my way. It’s the nature of the game, dawg.
These days, I get an unnatural kick out of being a consumer. I enjoy putting retail employees, from the part-time sales clerk all the way to the box store manager, through the gauntlet of crap that I was put through for years. Lots of people are shopping online to avoid the hassle, but I’m actually shopping in person to be the hassle. After a good back-and-forth argument session at a return desk, I’ll end the conversation with my most sarcastic “Thaaank you,” and I’ll usually throw in an under-the-breath “for nothing!” before I run away giggling. When I’m not greeted in a store, I let an employee know that – by silently walking up behind them and belting out “Hello there!” like I’ve got Tourette’s and personal space issues. I’ll ask Best Buy employees to describe features of products that I already own and know inside and out just to remind them how little they actually know. At Staples last week, I was buying a digital camera, and heard an employee feeding a customer a bullshit sandwich about the capabilities of a computer. I immediately let the customer know what the computer could actually do, in front of the salesperson. I wasn’t shy about interrupting, either. Happy customer, unhappy employee – just the way I like it.
I’m a retail vigilante who’s out for corporate blood. I’m all about promoting natural selection in the retail environment. I seek out the meekest, most uninformed employees and pounce on them with a vengeance that can only come from a jaded veteran of retail. Suncoast Video sales clerks – Rambo’s not your worst nightmare, I am, and I’ll prove it to you by coming in bi-weekly to ask for DVDs of movies that haven’t left the theaters yet and remind you how ridiculous anime really is. Abercrombie employees – I’m the guy that walks in the store sporting greasy jeans and torn t-shirt with pit stains and informs you that $70 is too much to pay for a shirt that looks like it belongs on the ladies racks. I’m doing these employees an invaluable service by showing them that retail is a dead-end job and that retail corporations are good-old-boys networks which promote racism and sexism. Sales clerks, get your butts to college before it’s too late, or at least seek employment at the Old Town Dunkin’ Donuts, where the only things you’ll be required to do are serve up cold coffee and ignore customers. Oh, and that digital camera I bought at Staples? I returned it last night, five minutes before close, after the store manager had already closed out the registers. And I did it with a knowing smile on my face.
Aaron Barnes is a senior English major.