There have been decades of predictions that salespeople would soon be replaced by machines and robots, but the profession has proved them wrong: Roughly 8 million Americans currently work as cashiers and retail salespeople according to the Labor Department, up from a decade ago, making them the two most common jobs in the country.
But despite the job’s prevalence, many people don’t see retail jobs as careers. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Frankie Israel, a sales and service manager at West Elm in Charlotte, North Carolina, who switched from working as a teacher to retail. Israel talks about why shopping is so stressful, how your dream job might not be your career at the end of the day, and how being homeless for a stretch affected his job hunt. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do and how long have you been doing it?
Frankie Israel: I am employed as the sales and service manager for West Elm, which is a sister company to Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Mark and Graham, and Rejuvenation. I started about three years ago, and, to be completely honest, I had never worked in retail before. All of my previous experience had been teaching special-needs students. Prior to that, I was employed with local television stations back in Casper, Wyoming.
When I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, I didn't have a job. It was right at the beginning of the school year, so none of the school districts were really looking for new employees at that moment. I was just looking for something to fill my time until I could find a position teaching. Honestly, I was applying everywhere: Food service, retail, wherever I could turn an application in, I did. I applied at West Elm, and within a couple hours, they called me in. I started that day as a temporary seasonal employee. Since it was a temporary position, I was only expected to stay through the end of Christmas to help out with the seasonal rush, so that's how I got started in the retail industry in 2013.
October will be my three-year anniversary. I had been on the [West End] design team and I was their customer service leader for a while. I took acting positions when other managers were out of the building, so I stepped in and made sure things were still running smoothly. I was finally offered a sales and service manager position. It’s great seeing my own progression; I'm not a person who likes to be stagnant. I'm not a person who likes to stay in one job or one place for a long time, so it was very important for me to have those options to move up.
Lam: What made you stay in retail?
Israel: It was never a dream or an aspiration to work in a retail store. I was just putting in applications anywhere I could find because I knew I had to have some sort of income coming in [and I was later homeless for a time.] I thought going into it that I was going to absolutely hate it, that I was going to do it for as little time as possible and as soon as I could get out of it, I would.
But, what made me stay was that I fell in love with the company itself: the things they’re trying to do, the new ideas, and the initiative to change the way that people are making purchases and experiencing the retail world. I fell in love with the experience of working with clients, learning the different ways that a company works on such a large level, and then specifically with West Elm, how they also work on a local level.
West Elm is a furniture company. It's designed for people who are living in smaller spaces, but they're still looking for something that really is going to speak up to how they want their home to look. One of West Elm’s local programs includes bringing in local artists to feature their work, and also buying handmade furniture from local artisans. We sell the furniture through our store, and we make a big deal out of saying, "This was made right here in Charlotte, or it's made in one of our neighboring cities," and that really brings in a lot of the customers who want that small store feel.
Lam: What are the fun and the hard parts about working in sales?
Israel: In general, one of the fun parts about working in a furniture environment is getting to take a look into your customer's life. You learn how they want to set up their home, whether they like to throw parties or prefer quiet nights at home, whether they are avid readers or if they’re more of a culinary person. One of my favorite parts is getting to take a look and connect with my customers on a more personal level than just selling them a bottle of lotion or something that they would need day to day. This really is helping them create a part of their life that they're going to carry on for a long time.
The difficult part is the same with any hospitality or service-related industry. Most of the time, you're going to get those one-off customers who are just not happy. A lot of the time, people can come into a retail environment and they're having a bad day, so they're just going to take it out on a perfect stranger.
Lam: How do those situations make you feel? And why do you think shopping can be such an emotional and stressful experience for some people?
Israel: I think it's because when you're purchasing something, especially on a large scale like furniture, it's a commitment. If it doesn't work, then you're left with something that you don't like looking at every single day and it's not as easy to replace. You want everything to go very smoothly and you want everything to look perfect, but when it doesn't it can definitely set people off.
When I first started in retail, I was not a person who liked to go shopping. A lot of the time when I would go into even a grocery store, I would know exactly what I wanted, get it as fast as I could, check out, and get back in my car. It can be a daunting task for a lot of people who don't particularly like to shop. It’s important to make sure that your client is comfortable and happy so they don’t view the shopping experience as a daunting task.
Lam: You were homeless at one point. How did that impact your career?
Israel: I definitely wouldn't have looked at a retail position if I hadn't been in that situation. Just a couple months after I started at West Elm, I did actually get a teaching position with a pre-school. I was working there full-time, and I was happy. It was definitely what I was interested in doing, but I was still working at West Elm part-time. When they asked me to go full-time, I did, and I was working both jobs full-time. It turned out that I ended up enjoying the retail experience more than I was enjoying teaching.
It was surprising. Working with children is something I still love doing, and I still volunteer when I can. When you think about what you want to do when you grow up, that's something that gets fixated in your mind. When something like this happens and your joys at work completely change, it's definitely a surprising experience. Even when I did get back into a school, I still loved the whole experience of working at West Elm. Nothing was ever typical; it wasn't the same thing day in and day out.
Lam: Was there anyone who helped you during the time you were homeless?
Israel: Yes, Barry [from the Home Host Program]. He was encouraging me everyday to just hit the pavement and put in applications wherever I could. He was following up with me every day asking, "Where did you apply? Who are you interviewing with? What's going on?" He was pushing me to make sure that I was getting myself back into a good position, making sure that I was applying for higher positions within the store. I was actually having dinner with him and his partner when [West Elm] called to offer me the position. I was just so excited to have my hand on a job again, but then Barry, he was even more excited for me because I was taking the steps to make sure that I was taken care of.
Having someone there to really push me and motivate me definitely increased that retail experience for me, because it showed me that this wasn't just a sales job. I wasn't stuck in just this one small position. I really could make something different out of it for myself.
Sales isn't necessarily something that you would usually think that someone would say that they love doing, but it's so much more than just scanning a barcode at a register—you really get to interact with your clients. You get to meet them, learn about them and their families, their history, what their story is all about, and then you get to help be a part of their story.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a butcher, a bartender, and a pastor.