Fast food vs. retail

If you’re looking for a job that doesn’t require a lot of specialized skills, training, or experience, you are probably weighing fast food vs. retail. These two options have some trade offs.

Your options

If you’re under the age of 18, retail may not be much of an option for you. Some stores will hire someone under 18, but most won’t. The reason for that is because if you steal, they can’t prosecute you as an adult.

Theft certainly does happen in restaurants but the dollar value is much more limited than it can be in retail. I can think of ways an employee could lift $10,000 in merchandise from a retail store. It’s probably impossible to do that kind of monetary damage to a restaurant. I knew a guy who stole a couple thousand dollars from the safe in a restaurant. But he was in his 20s when he did it, so he spent a year behind bars. Those of us who were under 18 didn’t have access to the safe.


Speaking of money, there isn’t a great deal of money in fast food, unless you’re working one of the rare fast food restaurants that allow tips. Even then, the money is limited.

Some retail jobs pay a straight hourly wage. That wage may not be much more than a restaurant would pay. But if you’re selling something that requires a bit of knowledge, you can still do OK. I made more selling computers at retail than I made selling roast beef sandwiches.

There are retail jobs that pay a sales commission. In a healthy store with a lot of foot traffic, you can do well selling on commission. In a struggling store, you may do worse than you would do on a straight hourly rate, since you can’t get commission if nobody’s coming in the door.

Upward mobility

There is probably more upward mobility with working in retail than working fast food. A retail store, at least when it comes to large stores, need more managers than restaurants do. That means more openings.

Here’s something else to keep in mind. I worked in retail sales when I was in college. Then I worked for 20 years in corporate information technology. Then a software vendor hired me. That time I spent in stores answering people’s questions and steering them toward mid-range and high-end products that would better meet their needs suddenly became very useful.

So even though I worked a grand total of 10 months in retail, I ended up using what I learned there.

Comfort level

The main thing I remember about working fast food was coming home sweaty and greasy. No matter how cool it was in the dining room, it was well over 80 degrees in the kitchen. If I had to go in back for any reason, I almost always stepped into the walk-in freezer for a few seconds to help me cool off. It helped.

In retail you’re on your feet for hours at a time but you’re not dealing with deep fryers or grills.

Stress level

In fast food, the stakes are usually pretty low. You’d be surprised how upset a customer can get over a $3 sandwich, but in the end it’s a $3 sandwich. If you can handle any kind of conflict at all, you’ll be able to learn how to fix that situation.

In retail, people spend a lot more money, so they can get a lot more upset. But if you’ve been working in fast food for a couple of years, you can take what you learned about handling that situation and use it in retail. The skills you use when someone got the wrong sandwich are still the same skills when someone’s week-old TV broke. But it will be more stressful.

Contact with people

In a fast-food environment, if you’re not working a register, you can have as little contact with customers as you want. You’ll still have to interact with your coworkers, but at least they’re people who are familiar to you. If you’re not a people person, there’s something to be said for fast food.

In a retail environment, you’ll be working with customers all the time. If you’re not naturally outgoing, you’ll have to learn how to talk to people anyway. I’m an introvert, but since I really liked the product I was selling, I didn’t have much trouble talking about it. If I’d been selling home appliances though, I would have been in trouble.

Busy work

The thing I dreaded most about working fast food was that clipboard by the door where we walked in with additional duties listed. Everyone had a list of chores to do when they weren’t busy with customers, and you didn’t get to go home until those things were done.

But that didn’t go away in retail. Sure, I was building store displays instead of cleaning grease off countertops, but there was still a lot of tedious, uninteresting work to do. Then again, I guess there’s a bit of that in any job.


If you have fast food experience but want to transition to retail, here’s some advice on how to find the useful experience and tailor it on your resume to the retail space, and how to quit your job after you accept an offer.

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