Career & Finance

How to Leverage Your Retail Experience in an Interview


“Yeah, but they won’t be impressed by any of those examples,” she told me, as she looked woefully down at her resume that was now crinkled at the corners from all of her nervous fidgeting. “All of my experience is in retail, and that’s nothing like what they’re looking for in this administrative position.”

There it was: the self-defeating comment I repeatedly hear from all sorts of students and community members who come into the career services center at the local college where I work.

Without fail, people tell me how their retail experience is irrelevant — how it’s unimpressive; how they didn’t do anything but get yelled at by dissatisfied customers day in and day out.

It’s a grievance I’ve become used to. And, time and time again, I tell them that — while their experience in retail might not be their own chosen high point in their professional history, every single job has importance. They picked up valuable skills and lessons in that position that will influence and shape the rest of their career journey.

But, that convincing is only half the battle. Next, I need to help them figure out how they can actually leverage their retail experiences to impress their interviewers and land the jobs they really want.

How do I do that? Well, here are a few of my favorite tips.


1. Focus on relatable and relevant experiences

More often than not, people get hung up on their retail experience because they don’t think it’s at all relevant to the new jobs they want to move into.

That might be true, particularly if you’re aiming to leave retail in your dust. However, I’m willing to bet that you encountered plenty of situations in that retail environment that will transfer to a variety of other work environments. Well, it’s your job to call attention to those specific examples.

The best way to do so is to not get lost in the details. Maybe that office hiring manager can’t relate to that outdated POS system that incorrectly identified sleeveless blouses as joggers; but, she probably can relate to the frustration involved in something not working the way it’s supposed to.

Resist the urge to get caught up in industry-specific jargon, technologies, or circumstances, and instead maintain a broader perspective about the skills you utilized and the problems you solved. That’s always relevant — regardless of industry.


Maintain a broader perspective about the skills you utilized and the problems you solved.


2. Draw more attention to results

This tactic is especially important when answering those dreaded behavioral interview questions — you know, the ones that start with, “Tell me about a time when…”

This is another area where it’s way too easy to get caught up in unnecessary details. When talking about a time when you handled a conflict, you spend so much time detailing the store’s return policy, that you forget to mention whether or not the customer dispute ended up being resolved.

One of the most straightforward ways to make sure you’re hitting the right points is to use the STAR method: situation, task, action, and result.

When you’re answering that question, walk through the different letters of the acronym as you structure your response. Here’s what that might look like when answering the, “Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict” example.

  • Situation: I was working as a sales associate in a small clothing boutique.
  • Task: A customer came in with a sweater that didn’t fit her daughter, and she wanted to return it — despite the fact that our policy says the tags need to be attached.
  • Action: She was visibly upset, and the situation was escalating. So, I approached my manager to see if there were any other options beyond denying the return.
  • Result: With my manager’s approval, I ended up offering in-store credit for the price of the sweater, rather than a full refund. She was happy with that, and is still a repeat customer of the boutique to this day.

Do you see how the last piece of the answer is the longest? That’s on purpose. You really need to place the bulk of your emphasis on the results that you achieved.

Remember that employers don’t just care about what you did — they care about why it mattered. So, make sure that you’re shining the spotlight on the impact you had in previous positions. That’s always impressive.


3. Remember your soft skills

Maybe your next career endeavor won’t require that you know how to assemble a mannequin in under two minutes, or that you’re a whiz at displaying decorative soaps. But, those aren’t the only skills that you leaned on in your retail positions.

Retail can be a brutal environment, and it requires that you develop a lot of soft skills. You need to know how to communicate successfully, work as part of a team, manage your time and priorities, provide top-notch customer service, deal with difficult people, and so much more.

Those soft skills are transferable to a huge array of work environments, so draw attention to those in your interview examples — especially if you’re feeling like you lack the technical chops to land the job.

Believe it or not, soft skills are way more than just trendy buzzwords or empty resume fluff. One Wall Street Journal survey of nearly 900 executives found that 92 percent say that soft skills are equally important or more important than technical skills.


Soft skills are way more than just trendy buzzwords or empty resume fluff.


When in doubt, return to these types of competencies. Arguably, no environment strengthens them more than retail does.


4. Don’t beat yourself up

Do you know one of the worst things you can do ahead of a job interview? Beat yourself up. This is a time when you need to be boosting your own confidence — not bad-mouthing your own skills.

Whether or not retail is strongly correlated to whatever you want to be doing next, every single job has value.

So, spend some time focusing on the positive things you took from that job — whether it’s thicker skin or some beneficial connections — rather than bashing that part of your professional history.

That way, you can walk into that job interview feeling confident, poised, and ready to impress.


What’s your best advice for leveraging your retail experience in a job interview?