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.