The Other Side of the Counter

OK, I’ll admit. I only lasted a month behind the sales counter of a major gaming store. But what a month.

Let me paint a picture for you: We’re a four-man operation, smack-dab between a high school, middle school and elementary school; we’ve been strategically placed to ensure we’re on the walking routes of each institution. I normally worked from 2:00 p.m. until closing, which meant I got to babysit every child with a lazy parent in a three-mile radius for $6.50 per hour, in addition to trying to sell games to good people trying to mill through a maze of loitering adolescents. Pile on the accusatory looks from my manager, obsessed with “shrink” and its reduction, and his romantic liaisons with the underage co-worker, and it made for a very interesting 30 days.

But it wasn’t all bad. It was one of those “learning experiences” everyone has to experience at the tender age of 18. I learned a lot about communicating with random strangers, and came to understand some people just don’t want to be helped. Working as a low-level member of the gaming industry, in addition to being a retail goon, also lent me the realization that no, there’s no such thing as a dream job where you play videogames all day, no matter what the guy who interviewed me told me.

And hey, I’ll never look at a guy wearing a tucked-in collared shirt, standing behind a counter the same way again.

I got the chance to talk with a veteran of gaming retail, a veteran who lasted more than a month and endured Black Friday and Christmas and lived to tell the tale, and ask him for some insight into the rarely understood, hellish-yet-rewarding world of videogame retail. His name is Brian Rubin, and he worked at an Electronics Boutique in Los Angeles for a year.

Here follows some of our stories.

The Good
Like most forms of retail, videogame sales is a very thankless job. In most circumstances, a “good” day is one where you haven’t been yelled at. However, after a few years have passed, some quiet introspection reveals a few incredibly positive experiences for us vets to share with one another.

“The most interesting customers I met were those that had a good sense of humor, and some of these were awesome,” Brian tells me. “There was one guy who came in asking for an Xbox. I got him one and asked him if he wanted anything else, he smiled and said, ‘What ya got?’ I started piling on games, controllers, batteries, pens, you name it, and we just laughed and laughed. He did buy a bunch of games and accessories too and was very cool about the whole thing.”

He goes on to say, “The best part [of the job] was the software discount as well as the customer interaction, which was fun most of the time.” Funny he should mention that everyday customer interaction was normally fun. Looking back, I realize he’s right. But I also have to wonder why it’s so rare I think about “arguing” with a regular about why Final Fantasy wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, or beating the guy who won our monthly Street Fighter tournament in a 15-second match. Maybe it’s just human to remember the negative aspects of life when it comes to work.

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Looking back, though, I’m able to remember one day I went home feeling better about the world around me, in particular.

A family, which I later learned was from Argentina, walked into the store. They were an American nuclear family in every way – husband, wife, an older brother and younger sister – except they didn’t speak a word of English. I had only a tenuous grip on Spanish, and the guy working the counter with me was even more clueless, so I drew from my year of conversational Spanish in high school and tried not to sound like too much of a Gringo.

I managed to get the gist: They wanted a PlayStation game both the brother and the sister could play, preferably used. I picked up a few games – Banjo Kazooie, a Spyro title and one of the earlier FIFA Soccer versions. In hilariously broken Spanish (“Son muy agradable para los ni

One of our more annoying regulars – we’ll call him Paul – had a weird ability to get under anyone’s skin. Everyone has their version of Paul; kind of a small kid, dressed out of his element, ultimately wanting to be accepted by someone, anyone. He’s someone entirely tolerable, if slightly pitiful. We let him hang around the store, because, like so many other kids who spent time there, he had nowhere else to go.

It was a busy night, and Paul was hanging out, as usual. My co-worker was manning the store alone. He was a new hire at the time, and was in way over his head. According to him, there were 30 people in the store, all banging on the glass and demanding his attention. Someone asked to look at a GameCube, which we kept on a high shelf, so light fingers couldn’t walk out of the store with a $120 console. My co-worker grabbed a ladder and placed the Cube on the counter. Then, he made a fatal newbie mistake: He went into the back room to grab something for another customer. He heard a bit of a racket and went back into the main area, just in time to see a familiar form racing out of the store with a GameCube tucked under its arm. Paul, the snake, saw an opportunity, and he took it. The problem is, everyone who worked there knew Paul, and we had his address in our computer system.

The best part? We didn’t have the heart to press charges. It would’ve been like sending Gollum back to Mordor.

The Ugly
If The Bad was just too run-of-the-mill for you, The Ugly should be right up your alley. These are the stories that don’t just make you shake your head or give you silver lining to discover, they just leave a bad taste in your mouth.

As with normal retail, gaming retail is extremely numbers-driven, but since the returns on the majority of new items sold is so low, we’re forced to “up-sell” anything we can. This is why we try to sell you strategy guides you don’t need. “The worst part was the numbers game, trying to kowtow to the corporate machine,” Brian tells me. “You had to sell a certain amount of product to get some average that determined how well you were selling.

“You always had to get more items per sale, and due to this, you had to try and push stuff on people that they never wanted, like strategy guides and accessories. I hated trying to push stuff on people that they didn’t want, but knew I had to, just so I wouldn’t be bothered about it. There were other ways they tracked your performance, like selling discount cards and magazine subscriptions. I basically just wanted to give the people what they wanted with no fuss, but taking on this extra crap seemed contrived and greedy to me.” And he was forced into it. It’s hard to fault the corporations for trying to promote incentive sales, but when your employees call it “contrived and greedy,” you have to question how they’re spreading that message.

While I remember the same pushy managers as Brian, the ugliest thing I ever witnessed working where I did centered, again, around Paul.

Paul was in a gangsta phase when I worked at the game store. He wore baggy, baby-blue velour and talked like he didn’t enjoy the same upper-middle class upbringing everyone in the area did. We mostly laughed at him and let him talk a big game to the girls who wandered into the store, but one day, he crossed a line none of us ever quite expected.

Paul was walking up to kids younger than he, staring them down and demanding they buy him stuff. What surprised me the most was kids only a couple years his junior were running away; I mean, a stiff breeze could take down Paul. By the time one of the kids came over to me and whispered, “He’s got a knife,” it was too late.

I heard a loud crash, followed by the angriest string of obscenities I’ve ever heard bellowed by someone who wasn’t in my immediate family. One of the display cabinets, housing about $1,000 in hardware, was toppled over, and Paul was feverishly backing away from a guy who had to be 6’4″ and weigh 250 pounds soaking wet. In the big guy’s hand, I saw a huge damn knife.

Luckily, it was closed; the big guy was content with scaring the crap out of Paul rather than actually killing him. He then used Paul as a small wrecking ball, slamming him into two display cabinets before someone had the good sense to call the cops. A few statements later, Paul was taken away in the back of a squad car. So ended Paul’s status as a regular at the store. Last I heard, he was doing two years for assault.

While these tales are mostly of woe, they’re but a slice of retail gaming life. For every story Brian and I told, we have others that are similar, but with slightly different endings. And the funny thing is, other than the really hard, trying moments, each day ended positively. What keeps you going in games retail is knowing, at the end of the day, you helped a guy find a game his little sister would love.

“Despite the fatigue and stress, I did gain a new appreciation and sadness for the retail worker, because they have to put up with a lot of crap,” says Brian. “Irregular hours, low pay, and so on, so now I’m much nicer to retail employees (not that I wasn’t nice, but you know what I mean).

“The job also helped me learn a bit more about the console side of gaming … Also, I had some wonderful co-workers whom I still keep in touch with. I’d say it was positive overall due to these factors that outweighed the crappiness.”

And besides, a job like this gives you anecdotes you can tell at parties forever. And what good is anyone without a few stories to share?

Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of

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