Working in a retail store launched my writing

I insisted on a picture of this moment cos I knew I’d write this piece someday 🙂

Sinethemba. We have hope. 

Indeed, she followed the meaning of her name. She injected hope into my life when she helped me land a job in the retail sector when I really needed one. At a South African retail chain called PEP toward the end of 2012. 

S’nethemba is a quintessential kasi girl: street-smart, outspoken and honest, intelligent, and she carries herself with a certain nonchalance that makes her instantly likeable. What you see and feel about her in the first few moments of meeting her is what you consistently get. 

Her confidence and people skills make her a kick-ass team manager and business administrator. 

Anyway, the reason I even went job hunting, ending up my search at the Carlton Centre, Johannesburg, was because I’d dropped out of Boston Media House College six months prior. 

I needed money to pay off the school debt I had accumulated during my two years and a half on campus.

The hunting had been a morning filled with a lot of “We don’t have any job openings at the moment” from all the places I approached. I walked into the PEP Carlton branch, saw a few faces in uniform, kept walking around, and then I saw hers. 

She had an idea: that she’d persuade the store manager to give me a chance to prove myself. The man was on his lunch break.

She had an idea: that she would persuade the store manager to give me a chance to prove myself. The man was on his lunch break. 

“And by the way, no promises, Mthimban’.” 

S’nethemba is that person: Themba turns into Mthimban’ within a few minutes of meeting.

She told me to return to the store after one hour to speak to the manager. My hopes were propped up. I spent the time walking about the centre, people-watching, thinking, searching for meaning and stories in everyday moments. 

The hour went by rather fleetingly. Once I was back inside the store, the conversation with Percy was brief. He asked if I worked hard, to which I replied, “I grew up working at my Dad’s car tyre repair and sales business. Unga’worry.” 

I got the weekend gig. 

In the two years following that afternoon, I worked diligently, studied the clothing retail space, learned customer service, and got a platform to refine my communication skills. 

Unbeknown to me, my low self-esteem was about to be tested. I underwent a significant personal and professional transformation at PEP Stores that further pushed me along my path to writing and public speaking.

I wrote my mind out, recorded my thoughts and ideas on my phone and notebook. It was a habit I initially developed in high school — writing poems and life experiences as practice. 

Many years later, writing helped me connect the dots about the reasons I thought and behaved the way I did. It felt good, but I didn’t know that I was rewiring my brain through writing. 

Here’s an example: say I lash out at my niece for some blunder she makes in the afternoon. At the time, it is somewhat justifiable. But I now know that I will have to confront the underlying reasons that led me to react that poorly. And then apologise to the kid. 

The good thing is, the process of writing and editing will force it out of me. 

I appreciate that it is harder to lie to myself when my experiences are right in front of me.

The business of writing and editing words solidifies my thinking. 

I splash my mind onto a page and have it speak back to me. Think about it: at that moment, my mind is taken out’a my head, onto a page. Hence the reasons that led to my speaking to the niece dismissively will always surface up. 

Landing the retail job indirectly fast tracked the launch of my website, www.ThembaJay.com . Posting blog posts on the site was my start in online writing and publishing. 

After a while, writing persuaded me to read about and refine my public speaking skills. I felt a strong need to refine that part of my skills arsenal. 

Once my reading of online articles, and then books, became a deeply ingrained habit, there was no turning back. And a few years later, after a few writing and marketing strategy jobs in the advertising business, I ‘officially’ christened myself a professional Writer.

Back at the retail store, I was forced to hit the ground running. 

I started work during the OctoberDecember festive season retail rush. Not to mention that the store, because of its size and skilled operators, was an important financial location for Pepkor Holdings, the parent company. 

I worked my fingers to the bone and totally loved it. I have to admit this: fatigue had me fall asleep in my work shirt on some nights. 

Beku’rough mara ku’grand futhi at the same time. 

I was fulfilled because I finished paying off Boston Media House College from my wages. I felt triumphant. And the exhausting train rides introduced me to the real-life stories that occur in transit which my Dad told me about while growing up. Life was challenging me and I grew stronger and more confident as a result.

I felt at ease, right at home, on the trading floor 🤓

I remember that on the days when I felt discouraged, I would go looking for a customer to help. While searching the store, I’d spot a woman walking through the aisles with a face that might as well have said, “I wanna buy comfortable flat shoes and go catch a plane, or start the drive home to see my family. It’s been a hectic day.” 

A warm greeting and I’ll start a conversation about the shoes she has on, and eventually the flight she’s rushing to board, and why. 

During the conversation about her work and parts of her life, she’d stop panicking about the flight or drive, laugh and walk freely around the shoe department. Some minutes later, I’d either see her about to settle on a pair or be more confused about what to buy. 

I’d interject then, ‘No. Not that one, it seems uncomfortable. There’s a perfect shoe for you. Trust me. And if you don’t like it after a few wears, you’ll find me right here and let me know all about it.” 

Almost all the time, the customers I met and talked to this way would specifically ask for me when they visited the store again. 

When I was off duty, some of them preferred to return the following day. 

I became one of the best shoe salesmen and cashiers there was in the branches I worked in. In retrospect, it’s because I was so determined to get out of my shell and strengthen my confidence. I also took the job as a training ground for me to become a brilliant conversationalist. 

It was time I stopped being afraid to stand out. The writing of client marketing materials and delivering pitch presentations was waiting for me. 

After some months at the Carlton Centre, I was roped in to help with the launch of a new store situated ko Corner Joubert and Kerk Streets, and then got a step-up to a Hillbrow branch, ko Corner Pretoria and Twist Streets. 

I enjoyed the job. More so the connections I made with customers. 

I might have been shy when I started out, but my curious and hospitable nature helped me to ace the roles I worked in. 

S’nethemba pops into my mind now and then. I can’t forget her contribution to my media career. She respected and followed her instincts that told her that I was an authentic and honest person. 

The PEP store experiences initiated me on business operations. That’s where I began understanding better the type of roles I could play within different businesses using my mind, innate abilities and skill set.

And since those days, writing has been a process through which I centre and sharpen my mind. It’s also the foundation upon which my other skills — public speaking/presenting, proofreading/editing, strategy development and consulting — are built. 

By THEMBA JAY

Wordsmith: I write and edit words. I speak and facilitate public conversations. I think and consult.

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