5 Things I Learned About Retail (and Disney) After 2 Years at the Disney Store
A few weeks ago, I’ve handed in my resignation at the UK’s flagship Disney Store. Here’s what I have learned in two years working for the Mouse
‘So, what do you do?’
Whenever you meet someone new, you know they’re going to ask you that question. Some of us shudder at the thought, others are deeply proud of what’s going on in their lives. But they nearly all react the same way, when they hear you’re working at the Disney Store.
‘Oh, but it must be so lovely! I wish I could work there too!’
Do you, now, sweetheart?
And people aren’t wrong after all, you know — it is a lovely job. Plus, the Stores can sometimes be more accessible than Disney parks, either for their location or for the kind of skills they require. But don’t rush into it without overestimating the downsides. If you really do wish you could work there, here’s a couple of things you should know before applying for a position in the Stores.
It is not all magic and pixie dust.
1. Retail is retail. Everywhere.
If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know what you’re going for. It might be slightly different and busier, depending on the location of your choice, but it’s still pretty much the same soup rearranged in a different cauldron. The cauldron might very well be more colourful, resistant, it might even add some flavour to the soup — but it’s still, fundamentally, a cauldron.
Retail is monotonous. If you’re a creative person, it can get to you. Give yourself a few months and you’re going to want to fly out of there. But Disney certainly makes an effort to make your stay a little more enjoyable than it could be. And it does so by being ‘magical.’
Disney is magic. It is a smile from a child, a laugh from a parent, the excitement of two twin girls getting an Elsa costume for their birthday. In Disney, you’re not a shop assistant — you’re a cast member, someone who performs on stage (the shop floor) with a costume (your uniform) befitting the occasion. You bring the Disney magic to guests (customers) of all ages, and you find pure delight in their happiness. Well, y’know, that last thing might not be true all the time.
But is it really that ‘magical’? In truth, I find the terminology just a way to hide an unsurmountable problem; that the cauldron is still there, and it’s being fuelled by numbers over fire. A Disney Store is a big business, one that cares deeply about targets and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). Sometimes to the expense of its employees’ wellbeing.
This can especially be true in bigger, more central stores. The smallest stores will probably tell you that everything is much more relaxed, but there is an advantage to having worked in the UK’s flagship store — you get to see all sides of the business. Even the nastiest ones.
2. People make assumptions all the time
It goes without saying that, if you don’t enjoy interacting with people, retail life is probably not the best fit for your personality. You are required to speak with people all the time, and you might even incur in some consequences if you don’t.
And people tend to make assumptions, you know. Especially in leadership positions. They tend to think you’re not doing your job just because you’re catching breath for a few seconds, or because you’re exchanging a few words with a colleague you haven’t seen for about a week.
Some will be patronising. Others will treat you like a child, telling you how to do your own job even if you did it a thousand times before they stepped into the store themselves. And that alone will drive you crazy.
Especially if you’re an introvert.
But you shouldn’t blame them for it. Retail can show you two contrasting sides of the people you work with: the one on the shop floor, and the one outside of the store’s premises. You will see people laugh and cry, even get along with them, and then hate their guts as soon as you have to work together. It has happened, it happens to everyone and it will happen all the time.
But when you truly start to get along with someone, when you make some real friends— well, that changes everything. Then you can have a laugh even at the most stressful and tense of times.
3. Wealth : Politeness = Water : Fire?
Retail can easily trick you into thinking there is a simple rule to being a person in today’s materialistic world: the more wealth you have, the more of a prick you will be. Especially if you were born with that kind of “luck” — although new money people are no joke either.
The truth is that rude people are everywhere, regardless of wealth, social status and personality. Perhaps you’ve even stumbled upon them on a bad day, trying to get an expensive costume for a crying seven-year-old, and you’re just adding an extra nail to their coffin. However it goes, you will meet a lot of unpleasant people along the way. Just remember to keep smiling, realise you’ll never see them again, and move on.
Because, at some point, you will meet that one amazing person that can make your day. Perhaps you have a lot in common — perhaps you can just have fun talking to them, sharing a moment in each other’s day. I remember this amazing guy in a wheelchair who came into the store a couple of times, with Disney tattoos all over his body and a Sorcerer’s Apprentice tribute on his back simply because he was such a huge Disney fan. And I loved spending some of my time with him and his girlfriend, two lovely people I will probably never see again in my life.
Rude people may be everywhere, but not all people are rude. Some of them can still be adorable — the amazing hardcore Disney fans, a caring father, an old lady looking for a gift for her beloved niece. They will all put a smile to your face.
Remember them, the moment you have to serve a rich prick.
4. People generally don’t care…
At some point, however, you’ll learn that people don’t actually care, most of the times. It’s not like they’re laid back or taking the piss — they genuinely care more about themselves than you.
Perhaps you need management to help you with a shift swap even if you can’t do overtime. Perhaps you express your concerns about constant early lunch breaks (oh, right — forget about choosing your own lunch time, you’re not in an office), and all you hear is ‘I only care about the business’ needs’. Which can be a big turndown if you’ve spent the past year trying to grow as a professional in the store.
Sometimes you expect people to just be human, but that doesn’t happen all the time. Instead, you get some self-absorbed leaders focused on themselves and their KPIs, and prioritising ‘the board’ over a guest waiting at the cash registers. And that can drive you crazy too. Luckily, you also get to meet tons of lovely managers along the line — and those who read this will definitely know where they stand, between the two extremes.
The downside of all this is that you’re seen as employees, not people. You’re treated as the same numbers that get written onto those boards, someone to milk until they choose to walk away — just to be replaced with another poor desperate who thinks the Disney Store is the best thing that could happen to them.
On top of that, Disney in particular has a gigantic array of strict requirements and expectations, and some (even among your colleagues) will genuinely think it is acceptable to treat you in a certain way, just because you’re on the company’s payroll.
But that’s never acceptable. A happier workplace is a better workplace — for everybody. Standardised measures and procedures lead to alienation. And if you’re a creative person like I am, you will suffer because of that.
If you’re in retail right now, regardless of your role, make sure to take care of your mental health. That’s the most important thing you have at the moment.
5. … But boy, if they make a difference when they do
And yet, it isn’t just bad managers and rude people. The Disney Store can be fun. You’re going to meet a lot of different professionals from all paths of life — some more business-oriented, others more ‘magical’ in pure Disney style. And there’s something to learn from all of them. Even from that one store manager you thought you couldn’t stand, at first; you’ll probably walk out of that store missing that man/lady. Because he/she had her own way to show you how much you’re actually worth.
And you will miss the managers, after all. You will miss all the wonderful people you’ve met through the ups and downs of your time in retail, and you’ll miss them fondly. Because there’s nothing like sitting with a good friend in a colourful staff room talking about all the things you love; there’s nothing like having a good laugh with the right people. And even when you leave, they will still linger around your heart for a while.
Not to mention all the unexcusably loud birthday and farewell celebrations, which will make you cheer as soon as you hear the music going around the store. Or the opening ceremonies, some cringeworthy pieces of acting you need to set up every single morning as the store opens.
But you learn to love all that stuff. Because Disney never leaves you, even if you may leave the Mouse for a while. And you’ll have fun living every single day like you are immersed in a big chunk of your childhood.
And as soon as, with somewhat bittersweet melancholy, you finally shut that door and leave two years of great memories behind, you know one thing for sure; that you will never, ever forget how wonderful it’s been, to walk through those doors for the first time with the eyes of a child.