They enforced new zoning laws recently.

“Mel, it’s 12 o’clock, you’re not allowed to be dusting. You need to be in your zone.”

Nathan, my manager, doesn’t stop walking as he tells me. Not allowed to dust? Am I robbing Cinderella of her income?

“What do you mean ‘zone’?”

“From twelve till two o’clock every day, everyone will be in their zones. Make sure you greet every customer. I’ll get you to stand by the Riedel glassware near the escalators.”

“Oh, really? Okay.”

“Thanks Mel!”

I throw the dirty cloth back into its drawer underneath the register and wander over to the Riedel fixture – black, red and white cardboard boxes of four delicate red or white wine glasses for $79.99. I scan the floor – relatively empty, no surprises. It’s a weekday. An unmemorable woman glides up the escalator and walks towards me.

“Hi, how’re you going?”

“Oh, good thank you,” she laughs awkwardly and turns the corner.

I always think most people don’t really like to be asked ‘how they are’ as they walk through a department store, but Nathan says it’s important for us to ask every customer, specifically because they don’t expect it.

Thea, a supervisor, sees me from her zone by the children’s books and walks over to me.

“How’s it going, Mel?”

“Oh, you know, having a good time. What’s with this zoning bullshit?”

“I know, darling. It’s ridiculous. We’ve got to stand here like stuffed chooks with a big smile.” With raised eyebrows she turns and walks back to her zone.

I swipe my index finger along one of the glass shelves. Dust. I use my thumb to rub it off.

Three casuals survived the last two Christmases here: Lucy, Ariana and myself. The department store had been bought by its parent company for $2.1 billion last year, securing even unstable positions like ours a little longer.

Lucy is the martyred Greek girl, who never says no to a shift and panicked when told her shifts were going to be cut, because how was she going to repay the mortgage to a house in Reservoir her parents told her to buy at the age of twenty-three?

Ariana is twenty-one, the beautiful but lazy Lebanese darling who rarely shows up on time to a shift and leaves the selling floor every now and then to inspect Country Road Home up on the next level.

Then there’s me, the jaded Serb who is reliable and efficient but works hard to keep her mouth shut. Together we’re an interesting bunch – a group of first-generation Australians. We gabble and gossip over coffee at Brother Baba Budan before the 9.30 a.m. shifts begin, but I feel a shift between us after Ariana is offered a twenty-hour part-time contract.

I look back through my text messages: “Aren’t you girls part timers!!!!!!????????” And: “They put me on part time starts in May!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” She adds too many question marks and exclamations, only emphasising what feels a lot like feigned disbelief. I resent my manager for not offering the position to me. Ariana sends through another text: “He said Lisa and Andrew looked at my status on cards and sales… I’m assuming it was cards.”

The cards, of course, seem to be the only things the merchandise manager and store manager care about. Ariana managed to sign up an average of three customers per month for store credit cards over the last year or so – a difficult task in stationery and glassware.

She did not manage this purely through exemplary sales skills. From what I heard from Lucy, she would simply walk up to unattended customers already filling out the credit card forms and process their application under her employee identification number. This of course was hearsay, but not totally unbelievable. I suppose this is why Lisa, the merchandise manager, has always greeted her by her name, and me by none.

Casual employment has increased significantly since the nineties, particularly among eighteen to twenty-five year olds. University students in particular are finding their lives becoming more deeply entwined with customer service jobs, which make up roughly half of all casual jobs. No paid annual leave; no sick leave. Phone calls at the last minute. Mel, can you come in today at all? Can you work all day tomorrow? Can you work four-til-nine tonight? As of early 2015, roughly 19 per cent of casuals work in retail, 19 per cent are in hospitality and 10 per cent work in health care and social assistance.

When striking up conversations with other students in tutorials, lectures and bars, it’s natural that we talk about work. It’s almost like asking what footy team you barrack for. We’re either retail or hospo kids. We nod at each other sympathetically.

The hospo kids have 5 a.m. wakeups. Baristas skip the traffic on their way to work and come home during the school pick-up rush smelling like coffee beans. Waiters and waitresses dress in casual tops, tight denim and fashionable Nikes, their aprons slung over their fronts. They are surrounded by hot smells, constant chatter and indecisive customers. They check their bank accounts on their phones and hope they’ve been paid on time this week. Tip jars at hipster cafes are usually pretty empty.

I always think most people don’t really like to be asked ‘how they are’ as they walk through a department store, but Nathan says it’s important for us to ask every customer, specifically because they don’t expect it.

The retail kids usually get a sleep-in. The earliest most of us start is 9 a.m. If you’re unlucky you’ll be rostered on for a 6 a.m. stocktake shift. They hand you a PDE (portable data entry) scanner and you scan every single birthday card, ribbon, bow, pen, notebook and photo frame in the store. No talking while you’re scanning either. Your eyes glaze over not only during stocktake, but during a lack of foot traffic.

You are left to pace around the floor in your corporate black attire, searching for something to do. Dusting, straightening displays, Windexing the glass shelves. A customer will ask for a product that’s barely in stock and you’ll go on a never-ending hunt to find the missing glass, corresponding box or matching photo frame. You’ll find yourself humming the music playing over the speakers.

For some reason, department stores like to play a lot of Rüfüs, slotted between the occasional eighties inspirational aerobic track, which is one of the small things you begin to notice and look forward to.

As a casual you are always the department store’s last hope. I recall working the Thursday and Friday night four-til-nine shifts every week for roughly four months. There would be two of us rostered on, usually myself and either Lucy or Ariana. Sometimes Ariana didn’t show up and didn’t bother calling to let the manager know. For this period of time, our department did not have an employed manager and often didn’t even have a supervisor working late nights.

Thea was our acting manager: a bubbly, confident Greek woman who did not work by the retail overlord’s rule book and understood that most of her younger staff weren’t building a career in retail. She spoke to us like adults and pretended not to notice if any of us took an extra five or ten minutes coming back from our breaks. She always made sure we were okay.

Although she was a well-liked supervisor who worked hard to keep our crippled department together, for some reason she was never offered the role of manager, and so her one-year stint as acting manager was a hard slog with no pay rise and little pay off.

She transferred departments once Nathan, a man roughly twenty years her junior, was employed as manager, and left to work with accessories and jewellery in bitter resignation.

“I want to cry, Mel,” she told me on her last day in our beloved department 9800. “I’m so bored, I want to cry.”

There’s a chilled electronic track playing over the speakers, but it’s muffled by an obnoxious holiday song blaring from a tiny stereo under a bejewelled Christmas tree. Several passers-by take a recess by either the novels or cookbooks – they poise with books like statues. Now and then one of them sidles to the register with a few books in hand.

I ask the more well-dressed customers if they have a store credit card. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. I ask them if they would be interested in signing up for one – there is only a small annual fee that is very easily compensated in rewards points. Most of the time they say no thank you.

I walk to the tiny stereo in a huff and flick the switch off. I look left and right before dodging the foot traffic in the main walkway. Mothers push their children in prams, couples stop to toy with the music boxes and a queue of customers with wrapping paper rolls wait to be attended.

A toddler does what it’s programmed to do and knocks a bauble off a tree, leading to a loud smash and a few desperate apologies from its mother. “It’s all right,” I say. “Accidents happen.” She thanks me and walks away, scolding her child. I grab the dustpan and sweep up the mess.

Despite the chaos on the selling floor around Christmas time, in 2015 the department store boasted just over 12 per cent sales growth nationwide in the first few weeks of the financial year. What exactly had they done to beat their rival? They had introduced new, fashionable clothing brands to the store and used flashier marketing that often featured models and celebrities. Their catalogues looked better each year – the paper seemed thicker, the pages glossier. They also reportedly increased their service levels, though that didn’t seem true to me and several others in the Bourke Street store.

Ree, a supervisor, scuttles over to me. “Mel! Make sure you put the barcode for that one in the tin that says ‘broken on floor’ rather than ‘broken in transit’.” She hands me the relevant tin and I pop the barcode in. The ‘broken in transit’ tin is almost empty.

I miss a call from my manager and ring him back a few minutes later. I can hear him putting on his retail voice as he answers, unaware who’s calling. The voice is one I feel he saves for customers and perhaps pets; one I feel he has cultivated in the last six years of working at the same store back in Perth.

“Hey Nathan, just returning your call,” I say.

“Oh yes, hello Melanie, how are you?’

Well I’m fine but neither of us cares right now, I think, so just tell me when you want me to come in for my shift.

“Yeah not too bad, thanks, how about you?”

“Oh very well thank you.”

He asks if I can come in later this afternoon for a five-hour shift. I tell him I can’t, I’m at uni all day.

“Well that’s just not good enough,” he jests, though pathetically. I mutter something about it all being such a shame and he laughs his facetious laugh and thanks me again and we hang up.

I’m wandering around the books area when Nathan strolls towards me, tiny squares of paper in his hands.

“Has Lucy explained this to you?”

“Yeah, a little.”

“And what do you think of it?”

“Seems a little pedantic… bureaucratic.”

He looks like a deer caught in headlights. I’ve found his weakness – he doesn’t know how to deal with negative feedback. He brushes his free hand with the tiny squares as if in preparation for the monologue he is about to deliver.

He tells me that at the end of every day, we need to check the POS (point of sale) and write down our AUS (actual unit sales), SPH (sales per hour), and two other things I forget as soon as I hear them. He asks me what AUS stands for. I mutter something about average unit sales. He goes on to explain these are all KPIs, and asks if I know what it stands for. Shit. I know this one.

“I know what it is, but I’ve forgotten the actual words,” I blunder. I know what it is but I don’t care enough to make the effort to recall.

He grimaces. “Key performance indicators.”

He goes on, pacing the floor as I trail behind. He stops in front of the Montblanc pen cabinet and turns to face me, still talking. Something about helping us improve on our sales. Nathan has to end everything he says on a positive note.

I understand that he is a manager and that is a part of his job, but I can’t help feeling that managers often use consumer behaviour psychology on their staff as well. One of the key factors of successful consumer behaviour psychology is creating emotional connections between consumers and the brand.

Managers try to fix smiles on our faces too, but people like Nathan don’t make me want to smile. In this moment I tune out and notice that he looks like a clean-shaven Mr. Potato Head.

Closing time and it’s a ghost town. Tina, one of the representatives from a Danish silverware brand, stops by the books area to chat to me. We always chat when I reset her register at the end of a shift. She asks if I get enough work. I tell her they’ve been cutting.

I think once again about the sales growth at the store in the last financial year, and how the retail overlords reported increased service levels across stores. They only seem to increase service levels for clearance sales and stocktake. Otherwise, they cut.

Tina tells me her colleagues at their Block Arcade store need a casual staff member. I thank her for letting me know and say I will hand in my resume tomorrow. She looks me in the eye. “I’ll be checking.”

I am obedient and speak to the Block Arcade manager the following day. She schedules an interview with me later during the week. I meet her for coffee and we chat. She hires me on the spot and I’m relieved and excited to work at a niche, higher-end store.

On the surface it seems that I’ve taken a step forward. But when I really think about it, I feel I’ve taken a step to the side.

Melanie Basta is a writer and founder of Mala Maza. Find her work in Urban Walkabout, Meanjin, Farrago and Girlfriend.