‘Are you open? Why not?!’ On the invisibility of retail workers

As a retail worker with more than ten years’ experience, I was saddened, though not particularly surprised, by the recent decision of the Fair Work Commission to cut penalty rates in my sector. It strikes me as the logical outcome of the widening gulf, both cultural and economic, between the ‘servants’ and the ‘served’ – a willed ignorance to the actual conditions of labour, that extends right through to the uniquely free-floating, disconnected lives of most of the political class. This blinkered complacency is not simply a matter of disconnected public servants or out of touch politicians. It also cuts to the heart of an industry that actively creates and encourages this disconnection; that renders it crucial to what it means to do a service job well; and a society that is overwhelmingly focused on the consumer as its basic political unit. Those doing the work – the wait staff, retail workers, baristas, booksellers, sales assistants, and all the varied standers behind counters – have, in political and moral terms, been disappeared.

This disappearance, as I found out very quickly when I started my first job in a high-end shoe store, is the key to a successful service career. What customers most want is for you to become a charming sort of vacancy, an invisible but enabling extension of their desires, both carefully solicitous of their needs and entirely free of anything that suggests you have needs of your own. It is best to vanish any sense of work in what you do: to move quickly, but not to rush; to be ‘high-energy’, but preferably to not sweat; to never, ever let the customer see that you eat, drink, or do anything that might suggest your materiality; to be emotionally temperate, or resolutely cheerful; to be endlessly obliging and patient with their demands, but be sure to reassure them such demands are welcome and reasonable. Basically, to show yourself to be willingly involved in your own self-abnegation, even as you also dim down or conceal such abnegation in action. Customers, of course, love a ‘character’, but only insofar as that ‘character’ assists in this process of reassurance – the kind of jesterly license allowed to shopkeepers only extends this far. And the best retailer, as the growth of anthropomorphic computer assistants and self-service technologies seems to suggest, is not a person at all.

When I worked in shoes, this self-vanishing was compensated in a small way by commission – I could think of myself as a kind of performer, creating a collapsible personality that allowed me to exchange dignity for money without losing too much self respect. This process became more fraught, though, when dealing with complaints, and, over time, I discovered something strange – something that goes some way to explaining the FWC’s ruling, and the blindness or apparent indifference to the lives of those workers this ruling will affect. I found that I could fundamentally change the dynamic of these often abusive exchanges (I’ve been sworn at, threatened, and had innumerable fingers put in my face – a thing I now hate more than all the rest – and my female colleagues invariably got it worse) by evening them up. By stepping, sometimes literally, out of character. With the customer mid-flow, mid-rant, or mid-finger-point, I’d make my way out from behind the counter, walk slowly and carefully around it, and come to stand either next to the customer – my head angled non-threateningly downwards, my arms crossed, like David Attenborough observing an animal – or in front of them but a few steps further back than normal. I described this to my staff at the time as ‘reminding them you have legs’ – re-embodying yourself, breaking the fourth wall, reclaiming personhood by reclaiming physical mobility.

The effect was (I hope) due to more than just the physical fact of my size, brought home by my movement through space. Instead it seemed somehow to break the circuit of the exchange, to take the counter and the division it represented between the server and the served, out of the equation. To close the distance, to shatter or trouble the sense of solipsism service works so hard to produce, and leave us (suddenly ‘us’) standing side by side. Previously outraged, unreasonable customers abruptly came to realise that on the other end of their tantrums and abuse was another person, who, despite having a job to do, was just that – a person. Some customers experienced it as a kind of uncanny – as if the vending machine they’d previously been kicking suddenly stepped to the side, looked thoughtful, and asked how we might resolve the situation. In almost every case, they seemed suddenly to understand what they were asking, and of whom they were asking it – that this was work, and work performed by the person standing beside them – and moderate their behaviour and demands accordingly.

This urge to kick the vending machine – an essentially toddler-ish refusal to consider the reasonableness and consequences of your demands – extends neatly to the kind of jaw-clenching stupidity on show when a customer bangs on (or kicks, we get quite a few kicks) the door before the shop is open, or just after the shop is closed – and asks one of the two following, inevitable questions: ‘Are you open?’ or, conversely, ‘Are you closed?’ When the answer is not to the kicker’s liking, a subsequent and even stupider exchange sometimes takes place: ‘Why not?’ or ‘Why?’ My personal favourite is the customer who, once let into the store at opening time, having waited a fuming, hair-chewing five minutes outside, rounds on you as you secure the freshly opened doors or boot up the till to ask:

‘What time do you open?’
‘10 o’clock.’
‘And what time is it now?’
‘10 o’clock.’
‘My watch says it’s 10:01.’
‘Is that right? My apologies – how can I help?’

In this exchange, one can hear the glorious and probably apocryphal words of Louis XIV: ‘I almost had to wait.’ It is a reminder to the service worker that they exist only and solely in a vocational and metaphysical sense, to meet the demands of the customer. Space, time, and the fundamental laws of matter are beside the point, as are Sundays and public holidays. The current levels of penalty rates on these days, according to FWC president, Iain Ross, ‘restrict services provided’, and this, Ross and the Commission conclude, justifies the cuts, which, they hope, will lead to ‘increased trading hours’ and ‘an increase in the level and range of services offered’ on these days. Though the Commission is at pains to stress that it has no way of knowing if workers will be ‘compensated’ for their loss of pay with increased hours. By basing a wage cut on the availability of and perceived demand for services at unsociable times (they are unsociable, or there would be no demand) the FWC has shown itself to both support, and, more worryingly, given its role, view the world from one side of the counter to the detriment of the other. It has revealed itself to be on the side of the kickers. It’s up to us on the other side to remind the FWC and everyone else – customers, business owners, politicians, kickers of all stripes – that we have legs. It’s time to step out from behind the counter.

Elias Greig

Elias Greig teaches and researches literature—before that, he sold books, and before that, shoes. He is co-editor of Short Takes on Long Views, a book series forthcoming from Routledge, and his bookseller’s memoir, I Can’t Remember the Title but the Cover is Blue (Allen & Unwin, 2018), is available in all good bookshops and some bad ones. He rents on Gumbaynggirr country.

More by Elias Greig ›

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  1. Love your work. Brings to mind a friend’s father who worked for a Department Store in Queen Street Brisbane early last Century.
    He was required to stand on the footpath. When a customer entered the store he entered and served the customer. Then returned to the footpath. He was only paid for the time he was in the store.
    Are we going back in time?

  2. Good article 🙂

    Having recently been in Europe – where in some parts it is not uncommon for stores, including supermarkets, to close for 2 hours at lunch time and not open on Sundays at all – my first knee jerk reaction was “how backwards”, “how inconvenient”, can’t they just roster staff in a manner to provide better service?

    HOWEVER, the longer we spent in Europe, the more we realised what positive flow-on effects these close-down hours had for people and their communities. Workers and families actually sat down to eat lunch together, with time to talk and enjoy their meal, as opposed to inhaling a sandwich while juggling work responsibilities as we so often do here in Australia.

    Their society had a much better work/life balance, and saw this as their right and a human necessity. Here in Australia we have somehow come to think (or accept) that “work” is more important than everything else. People are meant to put it above their kids, their relationships, and their own needs as a human being.

    This is true not only of the retail sector, but also other sectors that may not be technically “open” late at night or on weekends but do expect employees to stay back or take work home if they can’t get it all done during normal opening hours. Working long hours has become social proof of what a loyal/dedicated/ambitious/hard-working individual you are, and people who for one reason or another cannot or will not conform to this culture will soon find themselves without promotion or a job.

    These latest changes to the retail sector are a huge step in the wrong direction. We should be reclaiming our lives, and rebuilding our communities, not taking steps to further destroy them all to make business owners and shareholders a bit more money.

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