When Kevin Spacey’s award-winning character, Lester Burnham, took a job at the local drive-thru in American Beauty, it was supposed to show you that this guy had developed the professional ambition of a house plant. That’s because—according to the movies—the retail industry is where careers go to die, staffed by an army of downtrodden no-hopers whose abilities would be tested by Kraft Dinner instructions.
Real-life retail demands a substantial level of street smarts and has a lot of career potential. But nothing gets in the way of a good story like, well, reality, so instead Hollywood uses retail characters as shorthand for those who just kinda suck at life.
So, here are some of the most common retail myths perpetuated by the movies, and how they're different to what retail employees really do. Read on.
Myth 1: Retail is a dead-end job
Lester Burnham's new job was supposed to be the ultimate bottom-rung career move, but it’s actually not a bad place to be, outside the throes of your mid-life crisis. Retail is famously fast to promote from within, and from there, your list of options grows, with opportunities for career training and support if you know where you want to go.
That’s not to say that the pimply school kid slinging your fries into a paper bag is the next Forbes cover boy—just that if the urge so overcame him, he could do worse than to try.
Myth 2: Retail is for dummies
Movie-retail employees are usually made out to be about as mentally agile as a sack of hammers (Clerks, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), but in the real world, a high level of intelligence is required. The knowledge and expertise of living, breathing people is still one of the only reasons customers continue to shop at brick-and-mortar stores, and that’s powerful. Not to mention all of the people selling shoes and squeezing juice right now because of the global financial crisis; some of their qualifications make your family doctor look like he graduated from clown school.
So really there’s really not much room left for dummies in retail. (Except, perhaps, the ones in the store display windows.)
Myth 3: The douchey retail manager
A retail movie isn’t complete without the depressing spectre of the douchey retail manager. These guys are always the same: Obnoxious company lifers with a thing for corporate jargon and a job title longer than their list of authorized powers (One Hour Photo and The Good Girl). These tin-pot dictators are played as a source of amusement, but in real life, retail managers succeed at being emotionally competent and good at leading people.
(Most of the time. We have to admit we’ve met our share of douchey managers, but it seems to be a phenomenon common to all industries—not just retail.)
Myth 4: Retail is a breeze
When movies are not using retail as a metaphor for all things banal, they turn to another favourite retail stereotype: the zany, anything-goes independent store.
Fictional retail outlets like The Shop Around The Corner (You've Got Mail) and Empire Records (from Empire Records, duh) provide a photogenic backdrop for photogenic people to navigate pesky (but photogenic) obstacles to romantic happiness. As far we can tell, nobody does any work.
Real retail has a stream of tasks more taxing than shuffling a stack of vinyl, and way less sexy too: we don’t need to tell you how wiping up baby vomit in aisle five can chill the vibe of your meet cute.
Real-life retail is real work, and today’s corporate retail culture is more likely to call “cut” on people who treat their stores like the set of their own personal telemovie.
Myth 5: Retail assistants are snotty
The retail showdown in Pretty Woman was so memorable, it was partly responsible for making Julia Roberts’ career. Dressed in a hoochie combination of spandex and leather, the prostitute, Vivian Ward (Roberts), steps into a Rodeo Drive boutique with a borrowed Amex and every intention of using it. Once inside however, she’s rebuffed by a pair of snake-eyed shop girls who obviously really enjoyed the fashion of the late ‘80s. Revenge is imminent when Vivian returns a few hours later, carrying double-fistfuls of designer shopping bags and primed to deliver one of the most fantasized-about lines in movie history.
“You work on commission, right?” she asks as their painted jaws drop in horror. “Big mistake. Huge."
Actually, the big mistake is that these chicks weren’t climbing over each other to make a sale—especially in a chi-chi boutique that does pay commission. In present-day retail, consumer confidence is still a little shaky, so employees know to dismiss customers at their own risk. So what if somebody doesn’t look like your regular customer base? Talented retail assistants know that people in dire need of a makeover are the ideal candidates to sell one to.
Work in retail? Love the movies? What other things have you seen on screen that have made you scratch your head?