Upon graduating from high school, quite a few years ago now, and wanting to find some work, I had two main options. Hospitality offered the chance to be elbow deep in a murky kitchen sink with wrist-height rubber gloves or, worse yet, a clogged toilet bowl. Retail work meant a chance to sell sneakers for a living, but occasionally dealing with Karen – who, of course, wanted to speak to the manager. The choice was obvious. I cut my teeth on the shop floor of a high street sneaker retailer and, needless to say, it got me to where I am today.
I’m not here to vent about the trials and tribulations of working in an industry that requires talking to a wide variety of other human beings. In fact, this is a case of the exact opposite: everyone should work in footwear retail... at least once.
If you’re reading Sneaker Freaker, then there’s a fair chance you are just that: a freak for sneaks. What better way to gain valuable footwear industry experience, than to be an integral part of it? In my five years as a professional sneaker slinger, my varied roles gave me intimate knowledge of product details, distribution channels, market trends, and our courier’s delivery route.
Of course, the sweet staff discount and insight into future releases is always a tempting reason to get into the game. For anyone wanting to move up in the sneaker world, starting at the very bottom on the shop floor is the only honest way to do it. The pathways are numerous: a storeroom assistant could become an inventory manager for Nike, or the top salesperson at a size? store could one day be the company’s senior product buyer. Or, in my case, a half-decent all-rounder that ended up writing at the world’s greatest sneaker magazine. Regardless of whether it’s your first foray into sneakers, or you’re a seasoned collector, a bit of first-hand exposure to footwear retail is so valuable.
The high-intensity, budget-chasing atmosphere of the sneaker shop floor is the most effective way to become better at communicating. You develop a game face for certain situations. While you can use quick-witted banter for customers with a sense of humour, you might have to apply stern, take-no-prisoners rebuttals for those who are wasting time and kicking tyres.
When working in footwear retail, you really are at the cusp of human nature. If someone can’t get a refund, or their size is sold out, they inadvertently provide a true insight into their soul. It’s on you to respond accordingly and brush it off, even if the situation seems open to confrontation. While a level head and solution-seeking attitude can’t be taught – it can be learnt. And they are qualities that will level you up from the shop floor to the boardroom. If you have the perseverance to stick in retail for longer than two weeks, you’ll become a people person, whether you like it or not.
Empathy and Camaraderie
When you choose to work in footwear retail, you are not alone. There are thousands of other people just like you earning a crust, and upselling enough pairs of socks and bottles of sneaker cleaner to get that commission bonus. You gain empathy for your fellow retail worker because you know what it’s like working in this job. And, if you’re a decent person, you would never wish blatant rudeness upon anyone else. So, you learn to treat other people working in retail and hospitality jobs with the same kindness and respect that they offer, but isn’t always returned by customers. Targets are sometimes unattainable, the stockroom is an absolute mess, and Karen wants to speak to the manager – but it’s their day off. By working as a team, you can overcome problems that you wouldn’t be able to solve on your own. Like customers, your colleagues are all different people, but you have to work together, for hours at a time. Again, this makes you a better person.
Working in a sneaker store means you pick up plenty of practical skills that can be applied to other aspects of your life. You learn how to be on your feet for eight hours at a time – an ability I’m sadly beginning to lose because of my desk job. You memorise shopping centre shortcuts. Keep your laces loose? I spent years re-lacing shoes from factory settings to perfect sneakerhead specifications. Further, all the hours hiding in the storeroom, rearranging shoeboxes by the footwear industry equivalent of the Dewey Decimal system, now means I have the tidiest desk in the office. I’d never cut it as a banker, but I’ve handled plenty of cash. Taping up boxes, gauging weight without a scale, and fitting a stack of boxes just under the lift doors? All useful things to know for life beyond the shop floor. The only potential downside is a frightening loss of your sense of smell, because once you spend enough time wiping down shelves, counters and windows, all you can smell is Windex.