Commentator Tess Poe has two decades of research and consulting experience. A few years ago, she launched a new venture: a retail company in Northampton, Massachusetts. Working behind the counter has been her hardest job to date.
Remember when super-model Tyra Banks had a daytime talk show? I might have been on January break, and I might have spent a few hours watching that three-ring circus.
On one episode Tyra put on a “fat suit” — not cool– and walked around Manhattan to experience what it’s like to not be treated like a supermodel.
My version of the “fat suit?” Working in retail — plate-glass window, open sign on the door, brick-and-mortar retail. As soon as you step behind a counter — even in a progressive college town — there will be people for whom the dynamic is pre-determined — a narrative they’ve bought into since they were old enough to drop dimes at a candy store. You: low-level shop girl. Them: always right.
When you walk downtown in a major city or along Main Street, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll enter a storefront and interact with a human being — one of 8 million Americans who work as salespeople or cashiers. That’s more than the population of Massachusetts.
In 2012, I left a research job and opened a do-it-yourself sewing studio. No more computers and conference calls. Now, I see people put on blinders and revert to a time when an employee was actually referred to as “the girl.” Like the stressed-out math professor, upset when I courteously explained to him that we only sold buttons, not snaps. “You’re a terrible person,” he said. “I don’t know how you’re in business.”
Then there was the person who tried to bully me into performing emergency jacket surgery — a service we do not offer — by saying, “What if I gave you $100?”
“Will you?” I said. “No,” I added. “We don’t do repairs.”
“Come on,” he needled. “You’re the boss. You make the rules.”
“Precisely,” I said. “No means no.”
It’s not completely his fault. Most of us were raised hearing phrases like “The customer is always right,” a concept promoted by sales legend Marshall Field in the late 1800’s.
But this is not your grandma’s retail — it’s 2016. It’s got to be okay for a customer to sometimes be wrong. We need to work towards equity and respect, even in a setting where there’s a person behind a counter, wearing an apron, and touching the money.
For now, though, I have a sign to flip and a cash drawer to count.
Tess Poe owns and operates Beehive Sewing Studio in Northampton, Massachusetts.