A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

15 Polite Habits Retail Workers Secretly Dislike

While you may think you're lending a helping hand, your good deed could get us fired.

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Female shop assistant talking with the customer.
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Working in retail is a right of passage

From cars to shoes to specialty skin care, selling goods to the public is a vital and large part of our economy. The U.S. retail industry directly employs about 29 million people and supports more than 42 million jobs, according to Select USA. This means that you’re either working in retail as one or interacting with someone who does on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Often retail workers’ jobs are tough, physically and mentally. Some customers are ignorant or demanding—like these 16 etiquette mistakes people make at retail stores right now—but others genuinely want to be helpful. Unfortunately some of the things customers do to “help” end up causing more work or frustration in the end. Here are the “nice” things that retail workers wish you wouldn’t do.

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Cashier working at a supermarket wearing a facemask
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Telling me it’s fine to not wear my mask

You may think that you’re being nice and relaxed by telling retail employees they don’t have to follow their company’s safety protocols but it actually sets them up to get in serious trouble and they feel bad when they have to turn you down, says Olivia P., who works at a mall clothing store in Texas. “Lately I’ve had a ton of people tell me it’s fine to take my mask off around them but I literally can’t without getting fired,” she says. “Then they’ll argue with me about all the reasons the policy is wrong. But I don’t make the rules! I just work here!” Shopping during the pandemic? Here are 12 things you shouldn’t do at reopened retail stores.

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A woman from a casual fashion shop clerk.
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Refolding or putting away clothing

In this time of COVID-19, it’s best to try not to touch things any more than strictly necessary but sometimes you do need to pick up a sweater or T-shirt to get a closer look. That’s fine but when you’re done simply place the item back on the table or hand it to an associate, Olivia says. “We have to fold things a certain way and most customers don’t know how to do that,” she says. “Even if you’ve worked retail in the past it’s probably not the same still.” At home, you’ll want to know the only way to hang your sweaters without stretching them out.

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Portrait of a waitress typing on cash register using protective mask
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Offering me snacks

“The other day this guy held out his bag of candy and offered me some, which was way nice, but no. Just no,” Olivia says. “I don’t know where that’s been or if there’s something in there and I’m also not allowed to eat on the floor.” In addition, many company rules prohibit employees from accepting gifts from customers. “If you want to tell me thanks, just say it, I always love hearing that,” she says. For retail workers wanting to keep their energy up, try these road trip snacks are easy to eat in a break room, too.

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Senior Adult Man Pushing Empty Shopping Cart on Supermarket's Parking Lot
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Helping me push the stack of carts

Returning your own grocery cart to the store is always appreciated but if you see an employee outside gathering carts to return, resist the urge to help them, says Lizzy V. who works at an upscale grocery store in South Carolina. “Sometimes a customer will try to help me push my big stack of carts. Please don’t,” she says. “I appreciate the thought but that puts my company in a bad liability situation if you get hurt or cause damage to a car or another person. Plus it’s just awkward and I totally can do this.” Not putting your cart back at all is one of the 13 rudest things people do at grocery stores.

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Salesman standing on a ladder, sorting products in goods shelf
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Getting another customer a hard-to-reach item

If it’s simply a matter of a taller person handing a shorter person a box of cereal from the top shelf, that’s fine. The problem starts when customers start trying to get heavy, hard-to-reach, or still-packaged items out of places they shouldn’t be going, Lizzy says. “It’s kind of you to want to help another customer but don’t put yourself in danger, just let me get a ladder,” she says. “I’ve even seen customers lifting up a small child over their head to reach something. Definitely don’t put your kid in danger!”

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Female staff working in grocery store re-stocking goods
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Stocking the shelves for me

“I think it’s so sweet that you think I shouldn’t have to be doing this, but I’m getting paid for it, I’ve been trained how to do it correctly, and you’re just making it awkward,” Lizzy says. Most stores have a very specific way they prefer things to be put on shelves and so when you “help” you may be creating even more work for the employees as they will have to undo what you did before doing it again the correct way, she says. Check out the best supermarket in every state.

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Owner looking at customer making card payment at counter in plant shop
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Shaming my company for making me work holidays

Perhaps in an attempt to commiserate or make small talk, sometimes customers will say “It’s such a shame you have to work Thanksgiving Day” or “They shouldn’t make you work Christmas” to the cashier—as the cashier is ringing up their items. “The intent is probably nice but my company isn’t making me work the holiday, you, the customers, are,” Lizzy says, adding that if no one shopped on holidays, stores wouldn’t need to be open. In addition, many retail workers choose to work holiday shifts for the extra pay or because everyone needs to take a turn.

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Pharmacist Assisiting Customer With Prescription Queries
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Giving me too much information

“I work at a retail pharmacy and so many times customers will just start rattling off their name, date of birth, and other information,” says Jordan L., of Wisconsin. “I know that you know what I need from you, but I also can’t remember all of that once. Let me ask for it first and then you won’t have to repeat it.” For smarter shopping, check out these common retail scams and how to avoid them.

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female checkout by automatic payment machine in supermarket
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Speeding through the self-checkout

You may feel pressure to get through the self-checkout lines as fast as possible, thinking that it saves everyone time and makes the line move more quickly but it’s more helpful if you slow down and take the time to follow all the instructions, says Thomas H., who works at Sam’s Club, in Utah. “Ninety-nine percent of the problems could be resolved if customers took the time to read what was on the screen (i.e. scan an item again, use the other barcode, tap here for printed receipt, etc.),” he says, adding that it’s fine to ask for help if you need it. “You’re not wasting our time or inconveniencing us, that’s what we’re here for,” he says.

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Owner completing transaction on digital tablet
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Joking about free merch

Joking is one way to keep things light-hearted, especially if something is going wrong with the check-out process, but there is one joke that annoys more than it helps, Thomas says. “The whole ‘If it won’t scan, I guess it’s free’ joke isn’t funny at all, please stop saying it,” he says. Retail workers also don’t find it funny when you joke about their physical appearance, make fun of another customer, or joke about something inappropriate, like politics or sex. Big box or retail? Here’s what to buy and where.

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Owner in the bookstore during covid
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Hanging around to keep me “company”

“I’ve had people tell me that I look bored so they’ll hang around and talk to me to keep me ‘company,'” says Lili S., who works at a furniture store in Minnesota. “I hate that! I get paid on commission so when they do that I worry it makes me look unavailable to help other customers that come in and then I’ll miss some sales. But I don’t want to be rude and tell them to go away just in case they do decide to buy something. ” She adds that the floor associates are given additional jobs to do when they’re not assisting customers so chatty folks keep them from getting their work done.

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Rear View Of Boy Amidst Clothes In Store
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Letting me hold your baby or play with your kids

Babies and young children in a retail store can be tricky, both for their parents and for employees, but that doesn’t mean the employees are there to babysit, Lili says. “I’ve had parents offer to ‘let’ me hold their baby or play with their kids while they shop, like it’s this great privilege that they’re trusting me with their kids,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll tell me it’s good practice for when I have my own kids someday. I get that you think your kids are the cutest things on the planet but I don’t share that opinion.”

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Young woman paying cashier in clothing store
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Telling me your credit score

At stores that offer lines of credit or require credit checks for large purchases, you probably want to do everything you can to hurry the process along but telling the employee your credit score and/or history isn’t the way to do it, Lili says. “I’ve had customers tell me stuff like ‘There’s a bill on there from my landlord in college but that shouldn’t count’ or ‘you don’t need to run a credit check, my score is over 800,'” she says. “All of that is well and good but there’s nothing I can do with that information, you still have to go through the whole process like everyone else.” Here’s what your credit score really means.

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Female customer buying garment in modern boutique
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Calculating your change for me

Doing math on the spot can be tricky—which is why computers do most of that work in retail these days. “There’s always that one customer who has to tell me what their change will be or ‘count it back’ in my hand,” says Marco S., who works at a sporting goods store in New York. “Cool. Great. You’re good at math. Except half the time they’re wrong anyhow. You’re gonna get what the register says you’re gonna get!”

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Retail Assistant Helping Man In Menswear Store
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Organizing the merchandise

“I once came out of the stock room to find a customer sorting all of the shoes on the wall by brand, instead of by type, like we had them,” Marco says. “Now none of the price tags or descriptions matched and boxes were all over. He was so proud of himself, he said he did it because this way made more sense and it would be easier for us to find what we were looking for. My brain almost exploded.” Even if you think you know a better or more efficient way for things to be organized, just let them be. If you really want, you can offer your idea as a suggestion to the manager but chances are they just have to follow corporate rules, he adds. Read on to find out the things polite people don’t do at Costco.


Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.