5 Life Lessons I Learned Working Retail

While the rest of my generation was off getting fancy university degrees, I slaved away working the overnight shift at a local grocery store.

This was actually by design. By the time I completed high school, I was so sick of learning I knew I needed a break. Physics and calculus were never things I was really interested in to begin with, but I took them in high school to keep my options open. After all, engineers make a lot of money.

Fast forward five years later and I was third in command of that grocery store with the company’s management chomping at the bit to send me to another store to become the assistant manager. I declined the offer and set off to go and work for one of the store’s suppliers. A few years later I got back in the retail business by working as a salesman for a potato chip company.

Overall, I have nearly a decade of experience in the sector. Here’s what I learned.

Surprisingly lucrative

Many people discount retail as a career, convinced the job sucks, the pay is lousy, and chances for promotions are few and far between.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is retail needs folks who have the intelligence and work ethic to really take the organization to the next level. Let’s face it; most folks who work at a store aren’t really capable of moving up the ladder. And many of the ones who¬†have the ability don’t want to.

These are good, well-paying jobs too. Middle managers at a grocery store will easily make $50,000 per year, with assistant and store managers pushing $60,000 and $80,000 to $100,000, respectively.

I learned that there are some pretty good jobs in areas where other people don’t want to look.

It’s easy to get ahead

The average retail employee isn’t there to make working at a store a career. They just want to show up, do as little as possible, get paid, and go home.

The retail employee who actually takes it seriously will be insufferable to the vast majority of their co-workers, but management will notice. This person will get the promotion while the rest of the folks grumble in the background.

The lesson? Look for areas with weak competition. That’ll make it easier for you to dominate them.

Don’t complain

During my time as a chip salesman, I interacted with key people at dozens of different grocery, department, and convenience stores. And let me tell you, they had troubles.

I heard countless tales of people getting passed over for promotions they deserved, or how fellow co-workers were slackers, or how upper management was a bunch of morons. Because stores are such small, tight-knit places, these negative words traveled around fast.

It accomplished nothing. In fact, I noticed management would hardly ever promote the worst complainers, choosing instead to put their faith in people with a more cheery disposition.

This lesson is universal, no matter where you are. Cut the negativity and the gossip and get back to work.

Take initiative

A former boss once told me he knew he had a winning employee on his hands when they’d start doing stuff without being told.

Most employees just react to stimulus. They get told what to do by a manager, and then do it. When that task is completed, they either stand there and enjoy the break or they ask the manager what the next step is.

A really easy way for any employee to separate themselves from the pack is to logically think what the next step is and just do it, without being prodded by management. That one thing alone will automatically vault you ahead of 90% of other employees.


When working with part-time high school kids at the supermarket, I used to crack jokes about my plight as a lowly grocery store employee. “Stay in school or else you’ll end up like me.”

I never really thought that way. I liked my job, it paid a comparable wage to that which university grads were receiving (after a couple of promotions, at least), and I had a clear path for advancement.

But at the same time, working retail helped keep me humble. You got to deal with people who were actually poor, struggling to make ends meet with a part-time grocery store job.

If that doesn’t motivate you to take care of your money, nothing will.


I can see why many people would avoid working retail. But at the same time, I don’t regret a minute I spent in the sector. I learned a ton about business and myself, got paid to do so, and gained valuable skills I was able to leverage into something bigger.

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