Working in a retail store launched my writing

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

Standing with me arms folded is Sinethemba. 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 is what you consistently get.

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

Anyway, the reason I even went job hunting, ending up my search in 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 accrued during my time on campus.

It 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.

“Hello. Igama lam’ uThemba, and I was wondering if you have any job openings, even for umsebenzi o’temporary?” She said there wasn’t any. “Okay. Ngiyabonga.” I started walking off. And before I could head out the door, she called for me.

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.

“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 in 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 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.

Unknowingly, my frail self esteem was about to be tested, and undergo some serious transformation.

After I began working with S’ne and the team, I rekindled the love for note-taking. 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.

A few years later, writing helped me connect the dots about the reasons I thought and behaved the way I did.

Example: say I lash out at my niece for some blunder she made in the afternoon. At the time, it’s somewhat justifiable. But I now know that I will have to confront the underlying reasons I reacted that poorly. And apologise to the kid.

The writing will force it out of me.

The business of jotting words down about my ideas and experiences puts my mind right in front of me. In black and white. 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 and onto a page.

And, the reasons that led to my speaking to the niece dismissively will begin to surface up.

That’s why, interestingly, landing that retail job indirectly fast tracked the launch of this website you are reading. It’s how I started writing online.

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

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

Back at the PEP store, I was forced to hit the ground running. I started work during the October—December festive season retail rush. Not to mention that the store, because of its size and skilled operators, was an important financial location for Pepkor, the holding company.

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

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

I remember that on the days I felt dispirited, I’d go looking for a customer to help. While searching the store, I’d see a woman walk in the door with a face that might as well said, “I wanna buy comfortable flat shoes and go catch a plane, or start the long drive to the homesteads to see my family.” Warm greetings and start a conversation about the shoes she has on, and eventually the flight she’s rushing to board, and why. And while we’re having the conversation about her work and parts of her life, she stops panicking about the flight, laughs and walks around the shoes department; some minutes later, I’ll either see her about to make a choice or be more confused about what to buy. I’d interject, ‘No. Not that one, it seems uncomfortable. There’s a perfect shoe for you. Trust me. 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 felt at ease, right at home, on the trading floor 🤓

I became one of the best shoe salesman 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 buttress my confidence. And I also took the job as a training ground for me to become a good conversationalist.

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

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

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

S’ne pops into my mind now and then.

The PEP store experiences initiated me on business operations. That’s where I began understanding the type of roles I could play within a business using my mind and skills.

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, editing, strategy, consulting—are built.

By THEMBA JAY

A Wordsmith: I write and edit. I speak and facilitate public conversations.

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