Weird Retail: Tales from the other side of the counter

When we think twenty-first-century Christmas, we also think shopping. And if you think Christmas shopping is its own special squashy, noisy hell for you, just imagine (or remember) what it’s like when you’re the one behind the counter. In honour of the Shopping Season, we’ve gathered some weird retail stories – some Christmassy, some not – to make you laugh, wince and sympathise. Enjoy!

A merry (bookselling) Christmas

One thing that sticks out in my mind is that we used to take bets on who would cry first once we hit the Christmas rush. Because by the end of it, we all were weeping.

I remember one motherfucker of a customer who bought about a billion shitty little toys and crappy $5 things, and then demanded I wrap each one individually. This is what you get working for an indie bookshop offering free gift wrap.

Benjamin Law, Avid Reader, Brisbane

My favourite recent customers? Brothers Michael and Jackson. When Michael passed on my news that we had no Nathan Buckley biography in stock, Jackson could be heard in the background, yelling: What? Noooooo! Oh my god, NOOOOO! They were in their thirties … and then they wanted a John Farnham book.

Leanne Hall, bookseller, Carlton

Clerks and the Egg Man

A man used to come into the convenience store where I worked, inspect the shelves for any damaged packaging, then write to the relevant companies reporting the offence of a dented tin, or whatever. We only figured this out because once a company sent the store owner a letter. Well, that and the fact that he used to pace the aisles with pen and notebook in hand. We called him the egg man due to his resemblance to an egg, but also after a similar customer in the movie Clerks.

Kirsty Leishman, Brisbane

One scary customer…

There was a hobo guy who came into my bookshop with a massive hunting knife and showed me what he was going to do to his brother-in-law first thing on a Sunday morning when no one was around. EEP!

Paula Thompson, Adelaide

I’d been working at a bookstore in Albert Park for a couple of months, when an older man came in looking for a book on murderers. He seemed nice enough, but as he began proudly telling me he wanted it because ‘I’m in it’, my blood chilled. I was terrified as I served him, and as he left, whispered my fear to a colleague, who laughed hysterically and said, ‘That’s Father Bob!’ It didn’t occur to me that he might be in the book in some capacity other than starring as a murderer.

Jo Case, Melbourne

When I worked at a certain city bookstore, there was a situation where the manager kept finding human poo in the lift …

Simmone Howell, Melbourne

Dedication to (unkind) customers

Me: Wow, that’s quite a collection you have here.
Woman: I’m going to volunteer in Kenya*
Me: Wow, it’ll be an interesting time over there.
Woman: Silence.
Me: (Fairly timidly) You know … Because of the elections?
Woman: Yeah, I know that, I just didn’t think somebody working in a place like this would.
Me: (Very quietly) Bitch.
Woman: What?
Me: Jambo. It means ‘hello’ in Swahili.

The next week, I won ‘Star of the Week’ in the internal/store newsletter for my ‘dedication to customers’.

*WHY is someone volunteering in Kenya spending $1000+ on poor quality, overpriced women’s clothing? Spoiler alert: It was probably made by underpaid factory workers in Kenya. Ever think about that, lady? And yes. I’m aware that I was working for the company for that sells the aforementioned overpriced clothing but I was a uni student and a gal’s gotta hustle, you know?

Tamara Zimet, Melbourne

Best lay-by customer ever

There is this guy with an intellectual disability that we call Milkshake Mark because he always orders a milkshake. He is homeless. He came in once and put a Klutz kit on layby using 20c. We were a bit dubious about taking his money but he insisted. He spent the day walking up and down the street scabbing change. He came back in every ten or 15 minutes putting 50c, $1, $2 on it. By the end of the day he had paid off $24.95 and picked up his layby laughing manically. We declared him our best layby customer ever.

Krissy Kneen, Avid Reader, Brisbane

Celebrity encounters

There was some complete wanker in the back of my shop carrying a brolly, wearing tweed and sporting a pork pie hat … looking crumpled and messy.. I thought he was a shoplifter. I turned to my colleague and said we should keep an eye on them or kick them out. They leaned forward and whispered to me: Mal… that’s Beck.

Malcolm Neil, Melbourne

From behind the bookshop counter one early December, I served a certain comedic actor who had a book out at the time. It was stacked on the counter, actually. When he realised (or thought he realised) I didn’t know who he was, he picked up the book and asked, ‘is this any good’? ‘Sure,’ I said, but didn’t elaborate.
‘Selling many?’ he asked, using all his actorly skills to remain casual and off-hand. ‘It’s doing pretty well,’ I said.
He smiled. ‘I heard it was good.’
‘Do you want one?’ I couldn’t help myself.
‘Er, no,’ he said. ‘Maybe next time.’

Lou Clausen, Melbourne

Just plain rude

What’s annoying? People (usually well-dressed women) who leave all the clothes they’ve been trying on in a crumpled mess on the fitting room floor and treat you like the hired help.

Anna Brasier, Melbourne

The worst are customers who don’t think you’re worthy of a full sentence and come up to you and just say words like ‘Stockings?’ and ‘Toilets?’

Bethanie Blanchard, Melbourne

Customers who shouldn’t even be there

One balmy summer afternoon, a sweaty man wearing a woollen vest came through the shop doors. He looked around at this and that, calmly taking his time despite the sweltering heat, like a lizard waiting on a rock by the clear waters of a waterhole.

‘May I try a few things on?’ he asked.
‘No worries mate, the change rooms are just over there,’ I replied, without much thought.

The man came out of the changing room and brought in some more items to try; this happened a number of times. In and out he went, trying to find the best item to suit his motorcycling needs.

Then, from out of the blue, a quite irate young man entered the store, stormed up to my customer and yelled, ‘WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING MATE?’

‘Just doing a bit of shopping. I don’t get the chance too often.’

An argument broke out, with the young man beginning to swear and yell, when something dawned on me.

I looked out the window to see a bus (packed full of paying commuters) parked outside on the road. Our sweaty woollen-vest-wearing customer was a bus driver – the young man was his passenger.

The driver slowly walked out of the store, followed by the young man. When he got to the bus, there was a loud cheer and yells of random abuse as he got back on the bus – which he had stopped by the side of the road, mid-route, so he could ‘pop in to the shops, just for a minute’!!

The poor slaving bus driver explained on his way out that he ‘never gets to come into the shop but drives past every day’, while I tried not to laugh. Seeing the hilarity in it all, I watched him leave – and can only imagine how much grief he would have copped all the way home, until the last traveller had finally gone.

Just another day in the life of a retail motorcycle store assistant!!!

Nick Case, Adelaide

Feel free to tell us your own weird retail experiences (from either side of the counter). It’s that time of year when we could all do with a good laugh …

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