How ‘Clerks’ Still Offers A Relevant Look At Retail Hell 20 Years Later

I hate to attach importance to something as mundane as working in retail, but I spent the first half of my twenties in those people-pleasing mines learning how to be a functioning slacker with a slight propensity for sarcasm. I also met my wife and all of my current friends there, so there is always going to be a sepia filter on my memories.

In that I was a lowly clerk in New Jersey at that time in my life, there’s also always going to be a strong feeling of kinship with Kevin Smith’s Clerks and his pair of twentysomething Jersey-based slacker a$sholes, Dante and Randal, whose highs and lows seemed like an exaggerated version of my own. I don’t imagine that I have an exclusive hold on that feeling, though, so in honor of the bond that most former retail soldiers likely have with Clerks and in celebration of it’s inexplicable 20th anniversary, it seems only right to point out a few moments from the film that truly speak to the heaven and hell of working in retail.

I assure you, we’re open!

You’ll recall that Dante wasn’t even supposed to be at the Quick Stop that day, but despite that, he went through the laborious process of readying his store. Really, it’s like Dante is setting a table for a raid, because by the end of the day, all of his hard work will be trampled without so much as an apology or an acknowledgement. Worse still, he’ll have to do it all over again the next day. I imagine it’s the same sensation as cleaning a child’s room.

Seriously, would anyone really notice if the floor wasn’t swept daily or if the candy bars weren’t pulled forward to make the shelves look full?

“I’ll go to Big Choice Video instead.”

The customer service desk is where the slogan “The Customer Is Always Right” goes to die. That’s where lowly clerks are empowered to say “No” and hair-triggered customers are inspired to spin and snarl in a fit of rage. Back in the day, I was threatened, cursed at, and insulted for denying people the bliss of a return when the situation called for them to be rejected.

While I never used my scintilla of power for evil, someone did once ask me if I enjoyed saying no and I absolutely lied to them and said “of course not.” The truth is, it could be positively intoxicating to put a scratch in the pristine vinyl record of someone’s day when appropriate, especially when that customer was acting like a royal prick. The cherry on top? That came when a customer would angrily tell me that they were taking their business elsewhere, because if you really want to dim the glow of a 22 year old making $8 an hour, you tell them that you’re going to insignificantly wound the profit margins of the conglomerate that they unhappily work for.

“Are either one of these any good?”

Getting a name tag doesn’t impart a sales clerk with some kind of deep product knowledge. If you ask a clerk for details on an item, chances are that they are just going to are just going scan the package for details and regurgitate what they read. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case is that they’ll just make something up to press fast forward on their interaction with you.

Trust me, the 19 year old in front of you is not up on the latest customer reviews. Mostly, clerks are there to make sure that you don’t steal stuff and they’re there to take your money when you’re done spending entirely too much time looking to buy that perfect thing.

As a clerk, I was thoroughly annoyed when someone would try to loop me in on their decision process. As a customer, I completely forget that and I often find it maddening when sales clerks possess no ability to tell me anything about a product. Karma is a b*tch.

“This job would be great if it wasn’t for the f*cking customers.”

At least you understand the impulse to ask if something is any good. Other questions, on the other hand, can make a clerk question the future potential of the human species. The above clip from Clerks perfectly illustrates some of those questions perfectly. It’s actually the most relatable part of the entire movie, even if it’s also one of the most poorly executed segments in the film.

Death Star Politics

The work day feels like it lasts an eternity on the sales floor, and there aren’t enough tasks and special projects to fill the time. With nothing to occupy your mind, counting down the amount of time that you have until you can leave becomes a regular exercise. There are days where I spent the last hour of a shift just counting seconds. Sometimes, you have no choice but to bullsh*t with your co-workers and the Death Star Politics scene in Clerks is a great example of that.

I would spend hours discussing the finer points of finer things like American Idol, movies, gossip, and anything else that might pop up while gathering at the service desk before I grew up, got a better work ethic, and realized that future employers might find this article in a Google search.

Sadly, I imagine that people don’t goof off in groups as much as they once did now that we all have smartphones that can beat back our boredom without the help of another person. I weep for the future and the underdeveloped social skills of those who inhabit it, but despite that change, it really is amazing that Clerks still felt relevant to me when I was working behind a service desk 9 years ago, and that, according to a quick poll of friends who still work in retail, the film is still mostly relevant today.

Think about that for a moment: everything in our lives changes as we age. Nothing is as innocent as it once was and childhood seems unrecognizable, but the act of being bored beyond recognition while catering to the needs of your over-caffeinated and impatient social betters remains frozen in time. It’s almost enough to make you want to go back to work at one of these places to chase the memory of an earlier and more unburdened you. Almost.