My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor

At that moment, however, I wasn’t one of them. I needed something—anything—that resembled a steady job. I had to get back on the ladder. That meant sucking it up and starting at the bottom rung. So I chose two new store logo T-shirts, size 2XL. “Better make ‘em roomy,” Stretch suggested. “They tend to shrink in the wash.”

* * *

Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.

That put me at a distinct disadvantage.

In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.

Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.

Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

It worked: I ambled into Sporting Goods Inc. on an inspiration one day, asked for an application, and then asked to see the manager. Luckily, Stretch bit on my fictional backstory—journalist-turned-community-college student, studying physical therapy in a mid-career change—and my real-life background as a lifelong athlete.

It was a perfect fit—at least in theory.

* * *

The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job is that in retail no one sits.


It didn’t matter if it was at the beginning of my shift, if the store was empty, or if my knees, back, and feet ached from hours of standing. Park your behind while on the clock, went the unspoken rule, and you might find it on a park bench scanning the want-ads for a new job.

Another quick observation: Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.    

One afternoon, upon hearing that Sporting Goods Inc.’s top managers were set to fly in from out of town for their annual review of their retail troops, Stretch went on a cleaning binge, clearing junk from the sales floor and the stockroom. When he finished, and I saw the amount of garbage waiting for me to haul to the loading dock, I felt like Hercules at the Augean stables.

There were five or so 20-gallon bags stuffed with refuse along with several piles of empty containers, cardboard boxes, and shipping wrap. Two cases of expired energy drinks. Several unwieldy stacks of outdated, five-foot-long cardboard displays.

The garbage run came after I’d already pulled my six-hour shift on the sales floor, and done some of my usual closing-shift chores. At the same time, since the other employee on duty was a petite young woman, taking out the garbage was a solo operation. Forty-five minutes later, I’d finished, sweaty and slightly winded. Stretch turned off the lights, I grabbed my things and we headed to the door. Before checking my backpack to see if I’d stolen anything, he said, “Thanks for the hustle,” and tossed me my bonus.

A pair of socks.  

Granted, they were nice socks—high-tech, $25 wool athletic socks, something I might have purchased on impulse in better times. To the manager, it was a meaningful gesture; he seemed to sincerely want to reward me for going above and beyond my usual duties.  

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Joseph Williams is a writer and veteran political journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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