2.9 millon people in the UK are said to be working in retail. You can only spend so long on popular social media sites before stumbling across a “retail meme”. 2.9 million people is a hell of a lot of people, and if you counted people who have worked in retail at some point in their lives I would imagine that figure to be a lot higher.
So why is the industry so utterly soul destroying?
I spent 10 years in retail. Like most the 2.9 million others working in retail it wasn’t a career choice I made, it was something I stepped into aged 19 with no direction. Looking back this made me the perfect candidate; someone who knew no better and had no desire to know better. Someone retail could mould. Retail jobs tick all the boxes for a 19 year old like I was. The work was not overly complicated, there was a lot of people around my age, the shifts were fairly short (a starting contract in 2007 for the company I worked for 16.75 hours per week), and I usually worked aftrnoons and evenings so I could sleep in late. We would occassionally get told to stop chatting by a manager, or get a pain in the arse customer, but all in all I remember feeling at home pretty quickly. Even my first Christmas in retail (simply and rather cold heartedly called “peak” by the company) went by with no real problems. There were bigger queues at the tills, we had to work a bit quicker, but those of us that wanted to got paid overtime and we got to wear fluffy Santa hats and tinsel. Ying Yang.
None of my friendship group went to uni, we all left education at 18 or earlier, so working retail jobs was the norm. We all worked odd hours, we all did the same fairly mundane tasks each day, we all got minimum wage or slightly above (I recall the company I worked for boasting on a Christmas “peak” recruitment poster that pay was 3p above minimum wage). Our lives were devided into two parts; making the money, and spending the money at the pub.
4 months later I found myself moving 150 miles away from home, and of course I transfered stores. It was fairly easy, and I quickly stepped back into the smile, serve, sweat routine of retail life. I still went to work to earn the money, but now it was rent, council tax and energy companies as well as the pub where I spent my money. I quickly learnt the behaviours needed to earn a wage for independant life. They were not the methods we had been taught in school. Split shifts, last minute overtime, not taking any breaks no matter how many hours you worked, smiling through any illness or injury, and taking as much verbal – and on occassion physical – abuse that the customers fancied throwing your way that day. I mastered all of these arts well, after all these were not only paying my bills, they were badges of honour amongst the employees. Many a day a manager would congratulate someone for dealing with an abusive customer, telling us all we should take a leaf out of his/her books. It never occured to us all that the manager should of asked if he or she was feeling ok.
I wore these retail badged of honour for a couple of years, and was promoted to a team leader position. I was chuffed. A 30 hour contract and being able to work all day in my favoured department – the stockroom – was what I wanted. After what was no more than about an hour of vague training I was handed a set of keys. Our deliveried happened after hours, and I was now in charge. The bagdes of retail honour had overshadowed the lack of health and safety training, the unheated stockroom that got so cold in winter we gloves inside, and the fact I had to walk half an hour home alone at midnight. These gritty details, if anything, added to my retail cred.It was 2010 by now, and the economic crash of 2008 had its claws deeply into the high street. Those of us on the front line may have not noticed any changes, but head office had, and looking back it was no surpise that suddenly new starters were getting smaller contracts, the vending machines in the staffroom were removed, and the “Club 365” scheme had been made to celebrate those who never took sick days.
Call me naive, uneducated, or simply young. But at the time I thought it was all normal. That it was all right. The accidents due to faulty equipment. The wrong paychecks month after month. Seeing colleagues throw up between customers because the store manager said they couldn’t take the day off due to being so woefully understaffed.
I got a kidney infection one year. Partly my fault possibly due to propping myself through night shifts with energy drinks. I remember getting symptoms and telling my manager I felt ill, but being told I wasn’t ill enough to leave. Pissing blood while crying into my sleeve then going up into the stockroom to drag cages many times my size off a trailer should of set alarm bells off in my head. But it didn’t. I had seen well respected colleagues, grown men, self medicating for years with Jack Daniels and painkillers all because “the needs of the business” came first.
It’s retail. We were not saving lives. And we were not encouraged to look after our own.
I woke up one morning with razor pains in my side and the room spinning. I got up and walked 2 miles to the nearest walk in centre, I made sure I got there early as I had a shift at 1:30pm. They called me an ambulance and told me if I left it many days later I would of died. I remember texting a colleague in the ambulance, high off pain killers, to tell work what was happening. The next morning while hookes up to a drip I got a phone call from work telling me I had better come in that day “because we promoted you feeling we could trust you”. I spent 3 days in that hospital, nobody from work visited me.
The badge of honour was losing its shine.
By the time I made the jump to management I already knew the industry wasn’t going to get any better. I couldn’t make it any better. I had spent several years saying I didn’t want to be a manager, but with soaring food and energy bills it became the viable option. As with my previous promotion no training was given, instead this time I was handed a set of keys to a whole different store and left to it for 3 days. At least the nearby managers I chose to call for help also all admitted they cried on their first week.
You probably have no sympathy for me. You, the retail industry, will say I could of left at any time, that I should of spoken up about the faulty equipment and the pressure we were put under. But in the last couple of years all lines of communication were quickly cut between the powers that be and the front line. I recall spending 20 minutes with two other managers trying to find a way to contact a certain IT department. Their phone lines had been closed, their email had vanished, and there was no address. Instead a link on our intranet simply stated that they existed, but that there would be no need for store to contact them as they were busy keeping it all ticking over. We were experiencing some big tech issues instore, affecting service and resulting in angry customers and a loss of trade. We settled for logging in via an IT department who admitted they couldn’t do much. The tech problems rumbled on. We only found out about two months later that the entire department had been made redundant and replaced with…nothing. So really, I think a bit of sympathy can be thrown from the hands that were too busy covering its own ears to fix anything.
I knew I had to leave when we were being actively encouraged from about to tamper with payroll to minimise spending on wages. I wasn’t shocked at all when this message filtered through, carefully via untraceable word of mouth at meetings. What I was shocked at was how completely fucking brainwashed so many of my peers had seemingly become. The company had gone from a starting contract of 16.75 hours to 6 hours, with all perks and overtime payments cut, and now we were being encouraged to bleed these fellow humans dry. We see these employees every day, we make friends with some of them, we celebrate their birthdays and like photos of their pets on facebook.
So I ask, retail industry, why? Why is this acceptable? Why are you breaking the law? Why are you treating your employees so poorly and then being outraged when so many of us end up ill? Why do you think you can make the same profits pre-2008, and why the fuck do you punish your lowest paid employees as if they caused it? Why do try to rewrite the history of your own industry, and expect us to swallow whatever version you are touting at the present moment?
Why do humans mean so little to you?
I was good at my job. But by the end being good felt bad, seriously bad. No amount of sertraline or happy clappy posters in the staffroom can change that. I craved honesty and humanity, and you gave niether. I left, I’m no longer your problem. But please, for 2.9 million people you employ, which includes some of my friends, ask yourself why and if the minimal results are really worth it. Change.