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The Secret to Working in Retail

I grew up in retail.

Long before my dad dragged me to bag ice in our family liquor store (where I’d eventually go on to fulfill my full retail potential), I was selling lemonade, and flowers, and baseball cards, and many other things. Always retail. Always selling. A little over 30 years later, and I’m still selling, but I find myself in a position of mentorship and hiring more and more often. In light of that, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to quantify exactly what it is that I’m looking for in potential business partners and employees, and I’ve realized a very specific common strain runs through most of my favorite candidates: Experience in retail.

When you work retail, whether it’s working the floor at a convenience store or a big box store, working the register at a family business, or taking orders at a fast food restaurant (I know that’s more service-oriented, but it’s still the same set of skills I’m talking about), you start gaining the one thing that I think is really important for everybody to understand: The ability to read the customer.

If you’re unable to read the customer, to adjust to a customer’s response in real-time, directly in front of your face, I think you’re missing out on something that makes every great businessperson truly exceptional. We’re living in a faster world, and if you can’t reverse-engineer your customer’s finish line in order to make him/her happy, you’re going to have a very hard time breaking through the scale and the speed that we’re now dealing with thanks to the “stream economy.

As somebody who likes to yap – and let’s be honest, I love to yap. I love to talk. I love to hear myself talk. I love to be heard – It’s shocking to me how much I like to listen. To be honest, I used to struggle with it. “Why the heck do I like to listen so much?” And then it dawned on me (which probably prompted me to write this article): “Oh… I’m a retail person.” I had no choice. Customer walks in and I had to listen. Long before I could spout about what Chinon would go best with that dish, I had to hear what dish they were going to serve. Long before I could go on about what they should buy for the wedding reception, I had to know how many people were there and, more importantly, what their preferences were.

And so, my friends, I implore you to recognize the world we’re living in; to recognize that the consumer will always be right forever. I implore you, if you’ve never worked retail, to try and find a situation that allows you to do that. I implore college students to highly consider taking a summer job stocking shelves or working a register. The soft skills (which are, in my opinion, hard skills) that you will learn in that job will be transferable to everything you do for the rest of your life.

This piece was originally posted on my LinkedIn account. I’ve got over 30 features over there. Take a look!

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