A think-piece on working the holiday season, from a retail veteran.
Written by Campbell Pratt
Unlock the front door.
Flip the lights on.
Slide the gates.
Count the cash drawer.
Connect the Bluetooth speaker.
Lean against the counter, take a deep breath and ignore the phone ringing off the hook.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the vast majority of part-time students and more than a third of full-time students are in the workforce. From what it sounds like, we’ve all been there. Nothing is worse than going from the stress of final papers and course evaluations to the rush of the holidays. Unfortunately, more of us than not know the struggle.
Hell is real, and Hell sounds like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” (1994). The stress of the holiday season bleeds into our everyday interactions. This is doubly so for the people who work in the service industry, whether that be serving hot coffee, waiting tables or selling t-shirts.
This is my fourth holiday season in retail; I consider myself one of the luckier retail workers. I’ve been working in the same company for four years — so, since I started college. The company culture fosters collaboration among the staff and care for mental health. The owners are hands-on with the company, and the upper management has always been supportive when something needs to be adjusted to benefit the well-being of their workers.
We’re locally owned and print in the area. Being close to our print shop minimizes the shipment time to the stores, and it’s convenient for the consumer to pick up from the online shop’s warehouse if they don’t want to wait for the postal service’s turn-around time. This helps when it comes to the logistics of the holiday rush. Sometimes the company underestimates the popularity of a new release, leading us to run out the week before Christmas. Even in a tried-and-true system, there’s a certain amount of guesswork to be made. The day is never guaranteed to go exactly how you plan it.
"Lean against the counter, take a deep breath and ignore the phone ringing off the hook."
In a day, what can go wrong?
Let’s pick up where we left off.
You stayed out late last night. You’re already in a mood.
You came to work right on time; that means you’re working a long shift without coffee.
It’s a Saturday. There’s no time to take your break to sit down, let alone grab a latte. You work the store by yourself for part of your shift, and your mid-shift coworker takes ten-minute smoke breaks in the middle of rushes.
You open the store.
Your first customer is a woman demanding to return her order without proof of purchase. For all you know, she could have grabbed it off the shelf as she walked in and demanded to be compensated for her troubles (walking two feet into the store). If you try to explain that to her, that you need some sort of proof of purchase — a receipt or card, something — you’ll have to steel yourself and be prepared for some sort of backlash. Maybe she’ll raise her voice at you, or maybe she’ll passive-aggressively ask for a manager (and it’ll only get worse when you tell her, by the way, you are the manager).
Your next customer wants twelve of the same shirt, seven in the same size. Your location only receives five of every size. You offer him a free shipping code for the online store, but then he gets annoyed and tells you he needs it by Tuesday, so can’t you do something? It’s not his fault he waited till the last minute. You have to organize this man’s trip to two other locations, give him a discount, and he doesn’t even say thank you.
Nobody restocked the front side of the store, despite that being on the to-do list. One of your more popular designs is low on the floor, with an abundance in the storage closet you call your backroom; you run back and forth grabbing sizes for customers while trying to figure out what you need to restock on the floor.
More people scold you for things out of your control. Some people make themselves bigger to startle you into a submission they think they have to scare out of you; it grates on you more and more. Even if you had it in you to argue, you can’t. Being written up leads to a long conversation with Human Resources about being softer, making yourself small, providing a service regardless of the dignity (or lack of) being taken away from you every time this happens.
Your feet ache, even in your more comfortable shoes. Your hands shake from the nerves, or maybe it was from skipping your unpaid break. You barely had time to use the restroom, let alone a second to get water and a snack from the backroom-slash-storage closet. You didn’t think too hard about it during your shift — it was all a blur. Now that you’re staring down the clock-out app, it all catches up to you. By the time your shift ends, you’re exhausted.
It’s worse after Black Friday. More people, more questions, more aches and pains and responsibilities. In the two weeks where work is consistently at its busiest, you have preparations for finals. As somebody with graduation in the very-near future, there’s the added stress of coordinating graduation, finishing capstone requirements, looking for full-time work in your field and possibly applying for graduate schools.
The nature of customer service demands that you turn your brain off, disassociate from yourself and everything hanging over you, for wages that won’t even cover your rent. As a visibly queer person, the only times I’ve been called slurs at work have been in the two or three months following the 2020 lockdown (by people who refused to follow the mask policy my employers enforced) and during the holiday season.
Customer service can be fun. I like talking to people. I like my regulars, and I like being able to brighten somebody’s day. I don’t like the conditions we work under. I don’t like how the stress of the holidays makes people lash out at me, at my coworkers, at other customer service workers. I don’t like having to people-please customers that see me as an extension of a product, not a person who is just trying to pay their bills.
It’s been rough the past couple years, with class disparities becoming increasingly obvious and politics becoming prioritized over politeness. Check in on your working-class friends during the holiday season. They might need somebody they can talk to; remind them you care. At the end of the day, all we have is each other — and support goes a long way.