How My Retail Job Made Me a Better Person

In high school and most of college, I worked at American Eagle Outfitters. I started as a regular sales associate, but after a year, I was promoted to a stylist. Stylists spend more time on the sales floor than behind the register, interacting with customers and helping them walk out with items they truly love. In my four years at AEO, I went through three different store managers, worked with a bunch of amazing people, and met hundreds of different customers each season. I also picked up a lesson or two along the way that have stuck with me beyond the sales floor.

I learned the importance of picking my battles

If customer was particularly difficult during a transaction (like asking to speak to my manager because I denied a six-week-old expired coupon or demanding a full refund on a worn and washed item), the temptation to snap back at them was overwhelming. I found that the situation only got worse when I started to feed off the customer’s negativity. Having a hard head myself, I struggled with seemingly letting someone walk all over me. However, there is a difference between being walked all over and choosing one’s battles.

By taking the high road, treating the customer with respect, and remaining neutral, I stayed in control and didn’t let a sour mood take over. Even after four years of retail, this skill still requires a lot of practice, but I’m lucky to have had work experience that reinforced the necessity of this mentality. It definitely comes in handy during group projects, workplace tension, and even conflicts with friends.

I realized the weight of my words

Working in retail has taught me how to be honest but considerate. AEO is primarily marketed toward high school- and college-age shoppers, but we got customers from all across the age (and fashion sense!) spectrum. My role as a stylist meant I spent a lot of time in the fitting rooms, offering my opinion and suggesting different options to customers. It can be really hard to tell someone that something doesn’t look great on them, but it’s also hard for that person to walk around in clothes that don’t fit properly, flatter them, or are out of style.

The slightest shift in my voice or the faintest muscle movement on my face could send a customer into a tailspin. I quickly learned the art of the phrase, “but I think this will look even better.” Rather than focusing on what didn’t work in a particular outfit, I learned to draw attention to what did work, and how we could find those elements of style, and even other ones, in a different, more flattering item. Knowing how to effectively give feedback is extremely helpful not only with strangers, but also in personal relationships. It can be challenging to have difficult conversations with people you love and care about, but knowing how to walk the line of honesty and sensitivity helps make these situations less nerve wracking!

I became open to new connections

It might sound silly, but working in retail for so long proved to me that fellowship can be found in the oddest places (like over a pile of khaki pants). I have met some of the most wonderful people during back-to-school time and the holiday season, when high volumes of customers are shopping for other people. I used to have my guard up when striking up conversations with customers, but I soon realized that being open and vulnerable with them made for a much better experience for both of us.

When a flustered mom comes in to shop for her teenage son, I draw on my own experiences with my brother to commiserate and offer advice on how to best shop for him. It can be comforting for a customer to know they aren’t the only one going through something, and that it’s not only their son who refuses to wear a “specific” tee shirt fabric. Knowing that we aren’t alone in our struggles is intensely unifying. It’s reassuring to know that although our problems are unique, we all experience the same emotions.

You get out exactly what you put in

Although I generally try to have a positive outlook, I found that it was easy to drag my feet at my retail job — particularly when schedules came out, and I wasn’t happy with my assigned shifts. I found this to be most true during the holiday season. Cleaning up after a family that just ravaged a pile of sweaters is exponentially more frustrating when your group of friends is home having a Christmas party. However, I quickly realized that coming into my shift with a sour, “I-don’t-want-to-be-here” attitude didn’t change my reality — it only made it even less enjoyable.

But when I showed up to work with a smile and a can-do, will-do attitude, the shift started to fly by. More often than not, my coworkers picked up on my positive energy, and the work environment would feel more positive and enjoyable for everyone. This approach applies to many areas in life — whether it be a class you don’t love, an errand you’ve been dreading, or an awkward family dinner, going in with a positive attitude can work wonders on your experience.