Work & Purpose

Getting Your First Retail Job After 50

Advice about the good, the bad and the sore feet

I have edited corporate social responsibility reports for international companies, trained Olympic athletes for multi-city media tours and written on complex issues, including the global sourcing of sustainable goose down. But nothing prepared this sixtysomething for staring into the unforgiving gaze of an over-caffeinated mother whose little girl’s gift card didn’t quite cover the cost of a pop-up book.

“Don’t rush her! My daughter has anxiety issues,” barked the over-caffeinated mom, one possible source of said issues.

Welcome to the wonderful world of working retail.

Perhaps you’re in your 50s or 60s and considering a part-time job in this sector of the service industry, either as a bridge to retirement or to supplement your retirement income. If so, let me encourage you to give it a try. A retail job is a great way to stay engaged with public life, expand your social circle and pick up a little pocket money. But it’s no day at the beach.

If you’ve primarily worked desk jobs during your career, spending several hours a day on your feet demands footwear that is comfortable.

Barnes & Noble Holiday Staffer

Allow me to share a few insights and some advice based on my three-month immersion during a very busy period.

I spent this past holiday season working part-time at my local Barnes & Noble bookstore. I wanted the cash (and the employee discount) for Christmas presents and craved a change of pace from my communications consulting. Plus, the retail time filled some idle hours as my regular project workload slowed for the holidays.

My shifts ranged from periods of quiet shelf-straightening to wrangling almost endless lines of customers. The busiest times were a blizzard of purchases, returns, questions and gripes, along with the occasional effort to brighten someone’s bad day.

I’m a longtime Barnes & Noble customer, so seeking employment there made sense. Its stores are staffed with bright, engaging people who know their stuff. Each outlet regularly hosts community events and supports local causes. And — a big plus for people over 50 —the company is widely recognized for employing people of diverse ages and ethnicities.

Arts Buff Working at the Film and Music Counter

When I first approached my neighborhood B&N for work, I talked at length about the many contented hours I had spent wandering the company’s stores. I expressed my desire to work in the film and music department, citing my college film studies and varied musical tastes as qualifying expertise. The managers appreciated my passion and decades of accumulated knowledge, and once I was hired, generally accommodated my request by scheduling most of my shifts at the Film and Music counter.

I eventually left that department a lot smarter, not only about film and music, but about my rightful place in the retail world.

One jarring surprise: the cash registers. In most big stores, they’re essentially computers with money, processing credit and gift cards, accessing customer orders, checking internal databases for product availability and even scanning digital coupons from smartphones. Some of their more sophisticated applications require a knowledge of the registers’ workings akin to drilling down into a large website in search of an obscure fact or figure.

Saved by Co-Workers

While most of my transactions were relatively simple, the occasional multi-step checkout presented complexities that taxed my sanity. Luckily, a more experienced co-worker often saved me.

Despite the occasional brain freeze at the checkout counter, most of my time in retail was positive. I enjoyed the company of fellow film and music enthusiasts, discovered a few hidden gems among the shelves and had fascinating conversations with smart people.

When the holiday season ended, however, the experience confirmed that my talents lie elsewhere. I can talk all day about great films and music, but throw a customer-return-minus-receipt or a manual product markdown at me and it’s deer-in-the-headlights time. The Barnes & Noble job gave me a much greater appreciation for the people behind the counter.

This newfound respect came to light not long afterward in a busy neighborhood restaurant, where I changed-up a standard meal order, then threw in a coupon for good measure. I immediately recognized that deer-in-the-headlights gaze as I heard the words, “Bobby, you better handle this one.”

Brother, I know your pain.

Advice for Prospective Retail Employees

If you’re thinking about getting your first retail job in the second half of your life, this is what I suggest:

Pursue your passion and bring your expertise. If you love books, work at a bookstore. Handy with tools? Find a hardware outlet that’s hiring. Store managers favor hiring people who understand, and are genuinely excited, about their retail specialty.

Remember that it’s all about service. When you’re on the clock, you’re there to do a job, not to update your Facebook status. Give the boss an honest day’s work and the customers the kind of experience that will bring them back.

Wear comfortable shoes. If you’ve primarily worked desk jobs during your career, spending several hours a day on your feet demands footwear that is supportive and comfortable. Don’t sacrifice function for fashion.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Most retail environments are overly heated or cooled; few are properly humidified. Plus, you will talk a lot. So fill a to-go mug or bottle at the start of your shift and keep hitting the fluids (water is best) until your workday ends.

Keep your hands clean. This became a minor obsession for me. Customers with colds and other contagious conditions are constantly passing you merchandise and money. Keep a hand sanitizer handy, or at least wash your hands at breaks and mealtime.

Pay close attention to each customer. Some people want to pay and leave with minimal conversation. Others will talk your ear off, oblivious to a growing line of customers behind them. Learn to read the room and behave accordingly.

Respect the experience of your colleagues. Whether you’re hired as seasonal help or as an ongoing part-time employee, you’ll likely be working with others, especially managers, who’ve made retail their career. This isn’t pocket change or a temporary distraction for them; they’re paying mortgages and funding college educations with what they earn. Don’t make light of their vocation. “Anyone can work retail” is a laughable myth.

Finally, remember that when each retail day (or night) is over, it’s over. In corporate work, a bad decision or tight deadline can follow you home and keep you up at night. The beauty of retail: you punch in and punch out. Perhaps today went south at some point. So, what? Tomorrow is another day.

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By Chuck Otto
Chuck Otto is a writer/editor and public relations professional who specializes in corporate social responsibility and sustainable business practices. He lives and works in Grand Rapids, Mich.@chuckotto

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