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The overwhelming amount of emotional labor that is involved in working within retail or service industry positions is magnified for marginalized workers.

By Crissonna Tennison Anyone who has ever worked in retail has at least one Bad Customer story. Mine occurred about one hour before the end of what had been a pretty good day. I was midway through straightening up the store to prepare for closing when a pair of customers came in blasting Taylor Swift on their phone. I don’t like confrontation, but we already had music playing in the store, and the sound of Swift rapping about her reputation through a low-quality phone speaker could have been disruptive to other customers (it certainly was for me). After a minute of gathering the energy, I walked up to them and politely asked them to turn off the song. They turned down the volume as I walked away, but left the music playing. I continued to straighten merchandise, hoping they would leave quickly so I wouldn’t have to talk to them again. Unfortunately, my luck for that day had run out. The customers grabbed literal heaps of clothes to try on, dumping them on the front counter near the register while one of them took three items into the dressing room at a time, the only store policy I successfully got them to follow. Minutes before closing time, they sorted the clothes into “yes,” “no” and “maybe” piles while I rang up another customer. In their disarray, they knocked a stack of business cards onto the floor. Instead of picking up the cards, one of them followed a half-hearted apology with, “It’s okay, I did you a favor.” The villains felt empowered to act this way because Western consumer culture privileges customer perceptions over those of employees. “The customer is always right” is a term that grumpy bosses and grumpier soccer moms have been slinging around since the early twentieth century, when department store tycoons Marshall Field and Henry Selfridge developed the term to promise their customers a quality retail experience—or, more specifically, an experience that meets each individual’s wildly different definition of “quality.” But it is unlikely that Field, Selfridge, or any other powerful retail executives from the twentieth century until today have ever had to deal with the reality of what such a mandate means for daily business interactions. That honor belongs to retail workers, the folks whose bodies constitute the frontlines of modern consumer culture.
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