Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lessons Learned in a Bridal Store

I've worked in the communications business my entire career. It's a passion I have pursued for a lifetime. When I was in elementary school, I used to write adventure stories about my cat, Charlie. In 1972, my Aunt Geralene bought me the writer's best friend, Roget's Thesaurus. I still have the book in my office. She wrote a sweet message inside urging me to pursue my dream.

So I have. Assistant editor of my high school newspaper, a Journalism major in college, a newspaper writer and editor, a PR professional, and now a corporate communications manager - I really do love my job and I always have. Not many people get the opportunity to actually DO what they want to, but I have been fortunate.

However, sometimes something else peaks your interest. A few years ago, I was seriously addicted to the TV show "Say Yes to the Dress." I still love it. I also watched lots of bridal shows in general and blogged about them. I loved the sweet or funny or even obnoxious brides. I loved the bridal consultants. I loved the idea of a job where almost everyone who you came in contact with was in a happy place. Women love to shop for their wedding dresses! I imagined tears and laughter, grateful patrons, fun co-workers, a place where The Carpenters played in the background while the bridal consultants made dreams come true. And, for the first time in my life being really happy in love myself, I embraced the idea of being around like-minded women whether they were half my age or not.

So I decided to apply for a part-time job at a nationwide bridal chain store near my house. I won't mention the name. I felt like I had to sell myself to get the job so I submitted my resume trying to focus on my interpersonal skills and ability to relate to others thanks to my PR expertise. Turns out they didn't really care.

The managers wanted retail experience. So all of my years of working to pay my way through college as a waitress and rental car agent and resident assistant AND all the years focused on writing, editing, creating websites, conducting research, planning PR events, and coordinating communications strategies meant nothing in the bridal world. They didn't care. I was a newbie who knew nothing. That was actually true.

I got a phone call right away, an interview and a job offer. I didn't know it at the time, but they have a hard time finding and keeping help. I thought I was a good catch and was hoping for a job as a part-time bridal consultant. Not so fast. I got a job offer, but not as the consultant that I wanted to be, due to the lack of experience, but as a "customer representative" ... a glorified greeter, but I didn't care. I still took the job. Turns out there is a "bridal season" just after the new year and into April. That's why I got a job offer. That is when most brides shop. Who knew? They hired several girls, and I thought WAY too many, but they know their business better than I do. There were six of us that started training together, and after about one month, I was the last one standing. The job pays worse and is a lot more difficult than I could ever have imagined. The other girls just went and found another low-paying and under-appreciated job, but this was an experiment for me.

I worked exactly one year in the bridal store. It was completely exhausting and completely demeaning. It was sad and happy. It taught me many lessons. I was humbled by it. My appreciation for my current education, career and co-workers eventually proved overwhelming. I just had no idea.

Here are the things I learned in no particular order:
  • Working in retail is very, very difficult. You are always on your feet. It pays poorly. The hours are horrible. It's hard to find a full-time job in retail.  Most of the employees have other jobs.
  • A bride is just a regular person and not extra happy like I thought she might be. She actually is a little bit spoiled and hyper-sensitive. She has no time, no energy and no empathy for anyone else. Basically, she's a regular little bitchy person who is NOT in a happy place but in a it's-all-about-me place. 
  • Another thing about brides. I am now pretty sure there is someone for everyone. Especially if you are not that picky.
  • People, whether they are a bride or not, are not nice to people who work in retail. They treat you as if you are an idiot. No one had any idea about my education or my current career in management. They looked right past me. Talked down to me. Were exceptionally rude. The rule of thumb at this place I worked was that all customers deserved one-on-one attention. You were supposed to greet, follow up with and almost harass everyone who came in the store. Supposedly, it helps sales. I discovered that this usually just pisses people off. One girl stormed out of the store and complained that she "can't shop like this" after I tried to help her more than once. That was just one of many immature brides I was in contact with.
  • The company I worked for only carried certain gowns. If it is not online or in the brochure, it ain't there. Some brides would literally demand a certain designer or certain dress. It was difficult for them to get in their heads that this store was not the Burger King. You got it our way or not at all. Some brides would pout or storm out if we couldn't meet their demands. Oh my.
  • People do not have much money. Whether they worked there, or shopped there, they had no money. They couldn't pay their bills if they worked there. They couldn't afford the dresses if they shopped there. And this is a bridal store for the masses, not some high-end store. I felt rich. I used my pitiful earnings from there to occasionally treat some of the girls to lunch, buy them a coke, or bring cookies. I felt sorry for them. And, in the year that I worked there, and with all the credit checks I ran to approve credit at the store (usually $500 or less), never ever was any person's credit approved. Not once.
  • Most of the girls I worked with were college students, some used this job as a career path, a few were my age and this was their second job, and some just worked there. One of my best friends there was a high school student. How sad was that for me? However, I liked her and she worked hard and she was friendly. Most of the girls were NOT friendly to me, and didn't have a clue that I might have some influence in the business world, in a place they might want to work some day. They treated me poorly. They didn't try to get to know me, although I tried to be friendly and ask questions. I'm not sure what they thought about me exactly, but I'm pretty sure they didn't know me at all. They thought I was quiet and I'm not. They thought I was very sweet and I'm very outspoken. They thought I was stupid, and I hope I'm not. They were right about one thing, that I didn't understand retail and bridal stuff. Now I don't even want to know about it. I didn't like working in retail. I didn't really like the people who worked in retail or the people who shop retail. However, I was nice to everyone. Lesson here for everyone ... don't burn bridges because you never know who can help you down the road.
  • I'm sure it's difficult to manage a retail store. Staff turnover is incredibly high. They can't pay people enough to keep them. And, they don't have a budget to make the workplace a warm and welcoming environment. They barely had any copy paper. Although I didn't like the atmosphere, I did actually like the managers; I felt for them. It is not their fault that it was a terrible place to work. They did their best. By the time I had been there a year, I was a senior staff member. In my current CAREER and company I work for, no one ever quits. I've had my same staff for seven-plus years. It is possible to create a working environment that attracts and keeps people. 
  • The break room was the lunchroom was the coat rack was the whatever you wanted to be. Staff members didn't even have their own restroom. It was uncomfortable. The dress code was ridiculous ... low-cut strapless dresses were acceptable but capri pants were not. 
  • The store managers answer to the regional managers who answer to the corporate executives who answer to the stockholders ... now I know what that really means. Governed by profits and sales, customer service was not a priority ... moving those dresses was a priority. They advertised dresses in their brochures that were never available in the stores. Typical bait and switch. They offered $99 dress sales where there may have only been 5 or 10 dresses in tiny sizes. The computer system was antiquated, like straight out of 1992. No joke. Customers would actually make jokes about the computers. The phones were SOOOO old, and dirty. The lack of innovative technology slowed down the sales process and made it difficult for the employees. The carpet was filthy and outdated, as was the decor and everything about the store. Corporate didn't care. They have made it very difficult on the managers to boost sales with low pay, outdated working conditions and very little support from corporate. They made it very difficult on the bridal consultants to sell dresses when the goal was to sell the dresses in the store, not sell the dress the bride wants, or have the dresses available that are being advertised ... just sell what you have. How is that making customers a priority?
  • One time the regional manager actually got onto me because a customer got past me at the front desk as I was busy helping someone else. She was there observing. That was a no-no. She came and asked me something about "why did you let that happen?" I said, "Um, I didn't see her as I was busy elsewhere." She then said, very condescendingly, "You aren't going to let that happen again, right?" I said, "No" and she made me repeat it like I was a child. I was furious. I told the local manager, whom I did like, that I wouldn't work again when she was there. Who talks to employees like that? I would never treat my co-workers with such little respect. 
I am terrible at retail. I know that. I could never be a sales person. I know that, too. I've picked the right career. I've also picked the right company to dedicate my career to; I work for a company that cares about its employees and its customers. I'm very lucky.

My year in the bridal industry was an experiment gone wrong. It was not what I thought it would be. Sometimes a dream might be better just being a fantasy. I'm sad that I've ruined my happy thoughts about bridal dreams and dresses, and replaced it with the reality of poor wages, poor working conditions and corporate greed.

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