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Retail vs. Fast Food (Which should be my first job?)

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

I got my first job at 16, and it was a challenging start. Unlike many acquaintances I know, a job wasn't given to me. I had to go out and achieve my first job on my own. I would be lying if I said I got the first job I applied to or the first job I interviewed for... I didn't get either. It was a process, without a doubt. Many individuals reading this may either be trying to get a job in high school, or you just got out of high school and are looking for a job to save up for your future. Luckily, this article will be perfect for deciding if you should start working in fast food or retail. I will outline the pros and cons of the two so you can decide which is best for you. Let's begin, shall we?

1. Retail

What do you want to do? This is important when choosing a job to apply to. The application process starts with this. Now at a young age, you may not be able to be as picky as you may want, but that doesn't mean you have to work somewhere you really don't want to work. I'm going to list the pros and cons of retail.

  • Retail is definitely a favorite for people looking for their first job. The job is usually less stressful than their fast-food counterparts. Retail is basically customer service and organizing with low stakes. Specifically, stores that sell mainly clothes are favored. Retail stores that sell food are often busier than stores that mainly sell clothes. Retail stores are unique in their style of sales and products, which will decide the type of customers you will receive and the expected workload. Working retail in Tillys will drastically be different from working retail in Target. With that noted, retail differs from its counterparts in workstyle and reward.

  • Retail is often more relaxed: Due to retail depending more on the products than the workers, the expectations of the workers are less. While big stores like Walmart and Target may need their workers to move actively, you can tell by the typical worker in those stores' pace that a lot is optional for them. Compared to fast food, them moving slowly doesn't affect you getting what you want. Many retail stores are easier on rules, allowing you to use your phone during work hours (not excessively) or take short breaks if tasks are complete. How often do you walk into a store and see a cashier texting someone or reading a message? Often huh? Exactly. Retail also tends to be quieter, with music playing depending on where you work. Note that if you work in a store more designed for kids, such as Five Below and Toysrus, expect it to be less relaxed.

  • Retailers often value their workers better: While I have not worked every job possible, the job I hear that gives the most breaks and consistent lunches is retail. Only in retail have I ever heard in California where workers are allowed to have a 15 instead of a 10-minute break. You are being paid during these breaks; most jobs wouldn't have you clock out for these. Retail is usually much more relaxed, with its workers being late to return to their breaks and lunches, though this may only be the case for some retail. Walmart definitely doesn't like late arrivals. Retails often are upbeat about their benefits and are more understanding than fast food. With the pressure on the workers being less than in other work areas, retail is usually more reasonable with its workers.

  • Retail is usually strongly customer service oriented: Unless you are working weird hours or/and in the position of freight crew, retail usually has a strong demand for customer service. They often require you to greet the customers and approach them customers asking if they need help. While this may not be the case for big stores, it's vital for smaller stores. Retail only wants the best customer service if possible; they want their customers to have a positive emotional feel with their store and take customer service seriously. When you are trained, customer service is something they will teach and test you on throughout your employment. A complaint from a customer can lead to significant issues, so if you decide to work in retail, make sure you can keep a smile on your face and not say anything offensive or mean.

  • Retail offers less pay and hours: Retail loves to be precisely on minimum wage, no higher if you are applying for a lower-level position. Few retail places, such as big or unique stores, maybe a few dollars higher, but the pay is still low compared to their fast-food counterparts. Retail makes their money mainly from the products, not the workers; therefore, they often expect little from the workers resulting in lower pay. They also have fewer hours often time. Retail has this bad habit of finding out the lowest amount of work needed to run a store barely and forcing such a schedule by cutting hours. Many retail workers work less than 20 hours a week at one retail job, some 8-10 hours. Please note that this may not be the case for the big stores because they have much more money and needs though I have heard of similar issues occurring in Target. This can cause the job to be stressful from a perspective because you have fewer coworkers to help you, and your workload may feel poorly rewarded. While working retail may be easier, it may not be the area of work for you if it does not fulfill your financial needs.

  • Retail often does not provide tips: So it's almost safe to say retail never has a tip jar, but I haven't been to all stores. No matter how good your customer service is, most stores will not allow you to earn tips. It's even against many stores' policies to accept tips, and you can get in trouble for it. At my first job, if you were forced a tip, you had to put it in the register. You are not allowed to keep your tips. This means you don't have the chance to earn extra money. Unless you work in a rare retail store that offers bonuses, the wage you see is the wage you get.

  • You may or may not be able to bond strongly with coworkers: Earlier in this article, I mentioned that retail offers fewer hours. Well, due to this nature, that means in many retail stores, you are usually split up to cover a specific section. At Five Below, my first job, I worked in the busiest store in my district, and yet, for some reason, their favorite tactic was one person in the front, one person on the sales floor. This results in minimal communication between one another. Many retail places want you to direct your focus on customers. "Make friends with your customers, not your coworkers" would definitely be a quote that retail would use if it was real. As mentioned, this may differ from store to store, but it is common for workers to be split up throughout a store for the entirety of a shift.

  • Retail employee benefits: No free stuff. While there is a rare case of a vendor letting you take things home, retail usually doesn't want you to take things home for free. I am not joking when I say retail rather have their products destroyed than let you take them home. That was our procedure at my first job at Five Below. We had to break perfectly good products and toys, then throw them away. We were not allowed to keep anything without paying for it. This is because retail don't want workers to take advantage and take things that shouldn't have been brought home or prompt situations that would result in such. What retail offers is mainly Employee Discounts. Recognize that retail still wants to earn money off of you, so their discounts are usually less glamorous. They are often %20 or less. While it may not seem like a lot, it makes a difference as purchases count. You also usually have dibs on products your store receives before customers, which is also a benefit.

  • Conclusion: Retail is still perfect as a first job. It's pretty easy and provides beneficial skills for future careers such as customer service. It is less stressful than fast food and definitely acts as a good starter job. Only some people want their first job to pay their bills. Retail is perfect for you if you want a job to earn just some spending money.

2. Fast food

  • More fast pace: Food is something people always need, which makes the demand for food relatively high. So when working at a fast food restaurant, expect many customers and timed production. When I worked in fast food, the goal was to get everyone in and out of the drive-thru in four minutes, no matter the order size. While that may only be sometimes possible, an order should never be 10 minutes. This only sounds like a lot once you factor in stocking, preparation, customer service, ordering, short staff (common), and making the food. So the 4-minute goal may be stressful for people not used to the pace. However, trust me when I say it will come naturally and get easier with time. It's just for the first moments does it seem like a lot. As writers and artists have a saying, "Spend more time with the craft, and the craft will spend less time."

  • More "risky" position: Due to fast food's high demand and higher expectations, it's significantly easier to be punished and fired within fast food. Within my 2 years of retail, only one individual I met was fired. Within the first month of my 8 months with fast food, over 10 people were fired. Fast food takes their expectations a lot more seriously. You are expected to complete given tasks in a timely manner. Now there are a few things to note in any career field. If you show that you are giving a significant amount of effort, chances for consequences when you mess up are much less likely. One time I was short 20 dollars in fast food but thanks to the crazy amount of effort I put into work every day, I wasn't written up, while coworkers I know of get written up if they are 6 or shorter. Remember that in the eyes of the fast food industry, you can be replaced.

  • More hours and more pay: My favorite part about the fast food industry is their abundance of hours. While retail comes off as stingy with their hours, fast food strangely has too many hours always. Now I understand it varies from company to company, but fast food got more hours on average than retail. They are more likely to have full-time positions open and more available hours. Furthermore, they have higher pay, usually by 2 dollars an hour, than their retail counterparts (at least in California.). Working within fast food is more rewarding financially than retail but at the cost of a more fast-paced and riskier environment.

  • Tips may be available: Many fast food industries (but not all) actually have a tip jar or allow tips. Any chance for extra income is a good chance. This money could cover gas or help pay for small things. At my fast food company, I averaged at least $10 in tips daily; I worked 5 days a week. In a month, I made an extra $200 just in tips; that's enough to cover my phone bill, Netflix and Crunchyroll subscriptions, and a few runs of Thai tea. Working in a place with tips is definitely something to consider.

  • Closer relations with coworkers: Strangely enough, Fast food usually has more people in a much smaller space than retail. Therefore, you constantly interact with your coworkers to complete daily tasks. This will naturally lead to trust and comfort being built between your coworkers and yourself, soon leading to work buddies and good relations. In my time in retail, I have never hanged out with a coworker outside of work who wasn't a friend of mine before obtaining the job. In my time in fast food, that is an entirely different story. I went to parties and movies with these people. Fast food is more likely to lead to closer relationships with people, which I consider a benefit.

  • Customer-service orientated... or is it?: All companies want their workers to have good customer service (well, most). However, when it comes to fast food, you might have already experienced it, driving into a jack-n-box only to be treated as if you're worth little to the employees and basically just having food thrown at you. Well, while many companies want their workers to have excellent customer service, how it is maintained from company to company differs. Some fast food restaurants are on top of it and will have managers listen to your headset while you take orders to make sure you are giving the best service. Other ones, though, may care less how you treat the customer as long as you don't verbally assault them and ensure they get their food. It depends on how the restaurant you are applying for value customer service. It may be customer service orientated, and it may not. It also depends on the position you are applying for. If you want to be a cook, I'm sorry for having you waste your time by reading this paragraph, but if you want to be a cashier or front end, expect good customer service on your list of responsibilities for your position. I can't promise you how every restaurant values customer service, but I can provide some restaurants that immensely value customer service.

1. In and out:

2. Chick-fil-a

3. Five guys

4. Red lobster (strangely enough... considered a fast food chain???)

5. Raising Canes's Chicken

  • These restaurants definitely won't tolerate bad customer service, so keep that in mind if you apply for these.

  • Fast food employee benefits: Usually, a free meal a day at least! I don't suggest applying for a company that doesn't provide your lunch in the food industry, but if they don't, they will give you 50% off. That's what they usually do if you come in on a day you are not working (some may still provide you free food on those days... mine did). When you factor in not paying for lunch, you save quite a bit of money. In my area, the average lunch from nearby restaurants is over $13 with tax (unless you use your app and go to McDonald's, haha). Working 5 days a week, you would spend $260 a month on lunch alone. If you can save that and cut the cost to 0, imagine all the Thai tea you can afford. Definitely consider this benefit when deciding to work in fast food.

  • Conclusion: Fast food is more beneficial economically than retail and has more opportunities available for earning more income. Its fast-paced, stressful environment is often the negative that steers upcoming workers from applying. However, I will note that as a former fast food employee who worked in a very upbeat fast food chain, I assure you that you will catch up to the pace and can strive in the environment; it's just the starting and getting accustomed that makes it a challenge. If you want to start your career with a little more income and love a challenge, fast food is perfect for you!

3. The most important part is starting:

It's common to get such in finding a perfect job or the job that fits all your expectations but when it comes to finding a career, the most important part is getting started. Many jobs that have amazing work environments and benefits, like Starbucks, require customer-service experience prior so it's important to get your first job and do your best. From then on, you can take your experiences and pursue the job that you desire. Just remember to get started first. Whether you start in fast food or retail, any start is a good start to pursuing a future (with smart financial decisions of course haha).

Note from our financial advisors: " When getting your first job, save 50% of your paycheck for future expenses like investing, college, and an apartment. Especially if you are still in high school, you won't regret it. None of us did!"

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