When I tell people I miss working in retail, I am often met with laughs, disbelief, and remarks such as, “You don’t hear that every day.”
I know why they’re shocked. Retail has a reputation for being demanding, stressful, and low-paying. These descriptions are often accurate, but there’s more to it than that. Whether it’s watching a young employee come out of their shell, introducing a customer to their new favorite cheese, or building a mountain of empty cardboard boxes as you break down a pallet and stock shelves, every day is filled with little moments that culminate in deeply satisfying work.
I’ve worked in food retail for the majority of the last decade, and after taking a two-year hiatus, I recently started working part-time at a small general store. My goal was to get out of the house, connect with my community, and hopefully make a few new friends, but after a week or two, I realized the thing I missed most was the flow state I experience in a retail setting.
The concept of a “flow state” comes from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who described it as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It has been described as a melting of action and consciousness, where there is a perfect balance between the anticipated challenges of the task and one’s perceived skills.
This describes exactly how I feel when I am stocking shelves, drawing an elaborate chalkboard sign, or Tetris-ing boxes in the storage room. Everything else in my head fades to black as I focus on the task at hand. Occupational therapists claim that achieving flow on a regular basis can build confidence in your job, create a sense of intrinsic motivation, and decrease the chances of burnout.
But as with working retail, there can be a dark side of flow. Csikszentmihalyi detailed the stories of artists who got so lost in their work that they neglected basic needs for food, water, and sleep—a story that may sound all too familiar to my fellow retail managers.
While a retail environment provides many opportunities to enter a flow state, it’s also filled with ungodly amounts of chaos and mental noise. We forget to feed ourselves—often opting for a handful of whatever’s lying around—have been known to sacrifice sleep, and frequently allow stress to take a toll on us, whether it’s self-imposed or caused by the customers and owners we serve.
Coupled with the fact that these jobs require massive amounts of emotional labor, are relatively low-paying, and command little respect in our culture, it’s a wonder anyone still signs on. Yet, here I am, back for another round, despite what I know—ready to greet whoever walks through the door and take on whatever challenges the day delivers.