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Anyone who’s ever worked retail has inevitably accumulated a handful of horror stories throughout their time in the biz. I have plenty, spread out over a decade of working at a record store in high school, a Bath & Body Works in my hometown mall, a few chain store jobs in New York City, and finally, my pièce de résistance, at a high-end department store.
Sales associates truly don’t get enough credit for the stuff they have to put up with. There’s a particular level of outrage that comes with opening a fitting room door after your “client” has left, without saying goodbye or thank you, and having to undo the carnage that is 20 pairs of jeans turned inside out. Inside out! Who even takes off pants like that?
I met some of my best friends working at my last retail gig, and even though we all quit that job more than six years ago, we still regularly relive our collective horror stories, which have all, over time, become so jumbled in my mind that they’re just one big, hazy nightmare.
Because misery loves company, we asked a few friends and readers to share their worst experiences, too. Mine’s there too, and I’ll warn you: It’s gross.
I have more than a handful of horror stories from working as a “jewelry consultant” (read: salesgirl) at a major commercial jewelry store inside of a mall in in the middle of nowhere. Overall, my experience working at this store (to be kept anonymous) was a positive one, but retail is retail.
The one that sticks out the most occurred during the dreaded post-holiday return season. I was swamped during my entire shift doing returns and exchanges and fighting with customers when the phone rang. The connection was bad and the man on the other line sounded like he was calling from underwater; we were on the phone for an hour total and it took 20 minutes into the call for me to realize what was going on.
He was calling from Afghanistan. He had proposed to his girlfriend with a ring he'd bought from us before being deployed. She cheated on him with his best friend, broke off the engagement, and returned the ring to our store with the refund going on her personal debit card. It was the most excruciating hour of my life trying to figure out a way to correct a mistake that went under so many people's noses. I hung up the phone in tears. —Frankie Greek
When I was in college, I worked at Victoria's Secret. Which was itself sort of embarrassing, but beyond that, the dress code was a black pantsuit with some sort of stylish pink accessory, if I remember correctly, so I felt like I was always dressing up like some dowdy managerial thirtysomething version of myself.
Men would always come in and ask for “help” with shopping for their girlfriends and inevitably use me as a comparison point: “She's a little smaller than you... up top,” or “She's basically your size” (surveying me up and down), or “She's like you but curvier.” I recall at least one “Maybe you can try this on for me.” I got really good at steaming things so I could just hide in the back with the steamer. —Jen Doll
In my early 20s, I worked at a high-end department store and saw a lot of weird stuff, mostly in the fitting rooms, and mostly involving bodily fluids in some way.
The strangest experience was absolutely when one customer got her period while trying on clothing and didn’t have a tampon with her. We would have gladly gotten one for her, but instead she made a makeshift maxipad out of toilet paper and kept on trying on clothes. It fell out while we were talking to her, and no one really knew what to do. Do you acknowledge the makeshift maxipad in the room that’s now lying on the floor? Or do you keep talking about the benefits of stretch denim?
Another customer defecated in a silk romper in the fitting room. This romper was actually beautiful, and I think it cost, like, $395 or something kind of outrageous. I don’t remember which one of us found it — if it was me, I must have blacked it out — but one of my close friends actually had to bring it to the dry cleaner across the street. —Tiffany Yannetta
The only time I ever had to call someone out on shoplifting was when I moved home from New York City to Vermont after college and started working at a local boutique. Every salesperson's nightmare. A young girl, probably in her late teens, went into a dressing room with a few items (that I counted and took mental note of, thanks corporate training). At the last second, I saw her grab a white knitted pompom hat to take in with her. A few moments later, she came out and handed me the items that didn't work, but the hat was missing and I KNEW she'd stashed it.
I asked if she was planning to buy the hat, which she denied having brought into the room. The most aggressively awkward and uncomfortable 60 seconds of my life followed, in which I had to ask her to both show me the inside of her purse and to unzip her giant, knee-length winter jacket. She promptly refused and literally RAN OUT OF THE STORE like a varsity track captain.
I was so stunned that I just stood there while the other people in the store gawked (and then chastised me for not chasing after her). The next morning, a box appeared in front of the store with the hat inside and a typed apology letter from the shoplifter saying she would never steal again and was so ashamed for having done it in the first place. File under: happy endings, and only in Vermont! —Anonymous
I was hired at Topman in Soho, a store I *really* loved, as part of its Christmas intake. For some reason, during orientation, all the American staff gets a brief “British training” session to learn the English equivalent of American words for things like “register” (“till”) and “trash” (“bin”). Carrying on the British spirit of the brand, I guess.
Also, when you are packing a lot of men into a small space, the smell can be a problem. As customers shuttled in and out of the fitting rooms, the whole area gradually began to smell like an armpit. Thankfully, we could Febreeze it regularly. When that Febreeze ran out, however, management was adamant that such a thing was an unnecessary extravagance and said there would be no more.
Sometimes the line for our small fitting room was ten to 15 people deep, and I had to reprimand some customers (usually European tourists) for stripping down on the store floor and trying on jeans and chinos in the open. —Adam Moussa
A couple of my favorite Best Buy stories are from Black Fridays. One year, a woman — apparently overtaken by her pure lust for deals — ran through the doors as soon as we opened them and just, like, form tackled a palette of DVD players. DVD players weren't even the kind of thing that sold out on Black Fridays! Even in 2006, you could get a cheapo DVD player without committing an act of violence against a retail display, but apparently this lady wanted to show her fellow shoppers who was boss. In her defense, it was an impressive dominance move.
On a different Black Friday, I watched my 65-year-old manager pursue on foot a guy trying to shove a PlayStation box into his coat, and the chase included both of them hurdling a chest freezer that had been moved into the middle of the sales floor to cordon off the Disney World-style snaking line that's necessary for post-Thanksgiving store traffic. The dude later gave himself up and the police carted him off, but a couple hours later, we realized he had brought his six-year-old child to shoplift with him that morning and he hadn't told anyone during his arrest. We eventually sorted it out and got the child to a guardian, thankfully.
Weird stuff happened during normal days too, though. Once a toddler whipped off his diaper and defecated directly in the middle of the media section, and when he was done, he then tore off, naked as a jaybird, waving his diaper in the air while an assortment of employees, unaided by his oblivious mother, tried to corral him so he wouldn't whack anyone with his diaper or decide he also needed to pee on the floor. Even once the baby was contained, there was still a lot of finger-pointing over who was going to pick up the turd itself — stores didn't have janitorial staff during the day, which meant the duties fell to employees who did not anticipate touching poop when they woke up that morning. —Amanda Mull
And they’re not all restricted to employees…
I was trying on bathing suits in a dressing room at Macy's Herald Square when I heard a woman in a nearby room shriek “Oh my god! It splashed on me!” Turns out, another woman had gone into the dressing room next to hers, urinated on the carpet, and when it splashed under the partition, the urine ricocheted onto the woman. Nightmare. —Marisa Kabas