Yes, working in retail made me better at my 9-to-5
Updated: Oct 24
Believe it or not, I haven’t always worked a 9-to-5 corporate job. My first paycheck was courtesy of my local IGA when I was just sixteen years old. I spent every day after school (and Sunday mornings, of course) standing behind a counter, scanning the locals’ groceries, asking if they had their rewards card, and figuring out the best way to bag their eggs without them breaking.
Even though I’ve now spent more time in an office than I ever did as a cashier, there are some lessons I learned from my first job that I still carry with me today. And, no, it’s not the produce codes for bananas (4011, in case you were curious).
Only look at what’s in front of you.
Do you remember the stress of your first day at your first job? I sure do. This was before the days of self-checkout, so I had just learned how to scan a barcode the day prior during my two hours of training. Suddenly, my line stretched out for miles, and I was overwhelmed to say the least. I think the woman who was next in line noticed because she asked me if I was new, and I said yes.
“I was a cashier a long time ago. One thing I learned is not to look at the rest of your line. Only look at the customer in front of you.”
Cue the life-changing moment. Here I am, eight years later, and I think of that woman every time I turn on my laptop and have forty five emails to read. Once I stopped paying attention to the long lines forming at my register, my job seemed so much more digestible. When I only focus on answering one person or finishing one project at a time, my corporate job doesn’t seem so overwhelming either.
Nobody focuses on you as much as you do.
Think about the last time you went to the grocery store. What did your cashier look like? Did they ask you if you wanted paper or plastic? Did they tell you to have a nice day before you left? Even if you can remember those details, think about the time you went last week. Or last month. Or last year. Don’t recall? I didn’t think so.
When you’re a cashier (or a server, or anything really), it feels like everybody is scrutinizing you. However, that embarrassing moment when you accidentally double-scanned someone’s milk isn’t all that memorable for the customers. That time you told someone to have a good night at nine in the morning won’t stick with that person all day the way it might with you. Because no matter how badly you screw up, nobody remembers your mistakes like you do.
The same goes for working in an office. Your manager is probably the one watching you the closest, but even then, they have their own projects and meetings and mistakes to focus on. And unless they’re just looking for a reason to fire you (in which case, you should get out of there ASAP), they’re not keeping a mental list of all the times you forgot to attach a document to the email, had an awkward small-talk conversation in the hallway, or got up from your computer just long enough for your status to switch to “away”.
Not everyone is going to like you.
During my time as a cashier, I encountered some of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’d see grand gestures – like people paying for strangers’ groceries – and things as simple as being patient when a child was counting pennies to pay for a candy bar. Those were the same people who didn’t mind when the lines were long or when I had to send someone to price check an item on the other side of the store.
However, you can always tell who has worked in customer service before based on how they treat customer service employees today. The people who yell at sixteen year old cashiers over expired coupons, high prices, or out of stock items are the same people in your office that send you passive aggressive emails and CC your manager. And no matter how nice you are, how many discounts you give them, or how many times you say you’re sorry, you can’t please them. The easiest thing to do at that point is to acknowledge that you aren’t doing anything wrong, accept that they won’t like you, and to let it go.
Forget about work when you aren’t there.
As an hourly employee of a grocery store, you start your shift, ring up customers for a few hours, then go home. Whatever happens when you’re not there doesn’t concern you. It’s easy to forget about work when you’re not there. When you work in an office, however, your day probably consists of more ongoing projects, and being on PTO doesn’t stop anyone from sending you emails and letting the work pile up.
Stop thinking that just because you can answer work emails from anywhere means you have to answer work emails from anywhere. Give yourself the time off you deserve, and don’t give your job a second thought when you’re getting paid to do the opposite. Pretend you’re still a cashier, and let whoever is on the schedule today handle it.
Although it may not seem like scanning groceries can make a difference in your future jobs, there are so many interpersonal and stress-management skills that can be learned and perfected behind a register. If you’re going into a job interview where you feel you have no relevant experience, these are great skills that can translate to just about anything.
And if that still doesn’t get you the job, at least you have eight hundred produce codes memorized that can be used at any grocery store that’s hiring.
is a marketer by day and writer by night, weekend, and sometimes lunch break. You can often find her with a good book or in the Taco Bell drive-thru.