dont-work.jpgMy 74-year-old mother Sofi had a knock-down-drag-out with a customer at a dollar store in Queens yesterday. img_0667.jpg

It all started when she mistakenly took the male patron, who was in his late 60s, for a dollar store employee because he appeared to be rearranging items on a shelf.

“Do you work here?” my mom asked innocently.

“NO,” the customer shouted. “Do I look like I work here?”

He said this within earshot of a few actual employees of the store who were gathering now because everyone likes to watch two old people fight.

Despite the entertainment value, this encounter points to an interesting phenomenon in this country — the I’m-too-good-to-be-working-in-retail mentality. Even people who hold retail jobs often disparage the gigs.

But in this economy, and in the years ahead, some of the biggest job growth is expected to be in these derided retail positions.

“Retail salespersons and cashiers were the two largest occupations in May 2009, representing nearly 1 out of every 17 jobs,” according to the Department of Labor.

And, the stats show, while so many occupations are shrinking in numbers, retail jobs are expected to grow by 8 percent through 2018.

“Given the size of this occupation, about 374,700 new retail salesperson jobs will arise over the projections decade—more jobs than will be generated in almost any other occupation,” noted a DOL report.

Whether you view them as survival jobs while you’re between gigs in the profession you’re proud of, or you support yourself and your family with such work for decades, we all may have to start feeling a bit better about the retail ranks.

So what is it about retail jobs, especially those at discount stores, that garners such disdain?

The patron at the dollar store wouldn’t just let my mother’s question go. He was fuming and wanted to prove a point.

“I used to be a professor,” the man snapped in my mom’s face. “How dare you think I work here?”

“I feel sorry for your students,” my mom retorted. “Why do you think you’re too good to work here?”

My mother, who should have just walked away but didn’t because that’s just what Sofi does, called me after this encounter, upset and angry at what happened. She just didn’t get why the guy got so mad.

You have to understand, my mom worked in retail for a big chunk of her life, starting out at age 13 working in a fabric store in Istanbul. She’s a natural sales woman and was always proud to tell people about her latest wacky customer. So, having this guy react so violently to her error shocked her.

I told her retail jobs are often frowned down upon in this country, and she launched into her Americans-can-be-lazy speech and she added, “people should be lucky they have a job.”

While she’s right on some level, I don’t think the retail ridicule is about being lazy. These jobs often pay barely above minimum wage, most are part time and forget about getting benefits or sick days. Cashiers are among the top 8 lowest paying jobs in the United States paying $9.15 an hour, and retail sales people:

“Median hourly wages of wage-and-salary retail salespersons, including commissions, were $9.86 in May 2008,” according to the DOL.

No matter what you think of these jobs, they, along with a host of low-paying jobs, will continue to be the engine for growth in this country. The good-paying jobs in the middle of the economic sphere are dwindling, while the barely-above-the-poverty-line gigs are exploding, said Peter Creticos, president and executive director for the Institute for Work and the Economy.

That means we may have to start giving retail sales people some props.

Are you working in retail, or have you in the past? Are you embarrassed to say so?

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