Sunday, October 24, 2010

Shopping Season

It's a little early yet, but I want to go ahead & give a shout out for all those working retail. Shopping season is already starting & the big day, Black Friday, is about a month away.

I worked retail for 8 years. 3 at a big chain toy store & 5 at a big chain book store. Both places had wonderful things & terrible things. The wonderful things generally had to do with the work. Merchandising creatively, arranging things, putting up the big cool store displays, the swag, & helping nice people find what they were looking for.

The bad parts were nasty people, constant worry about job cuts, restructuring, benefits cuts, nasty co-workers & plan-o-grams.

The really bad parts were no vacation, really hateful people, people that ignore you completely, & people that would look down on you or say really nasty things about the fact that you work in retail.

Now, many of you might not know this, but most people that work in retail have at least a B.A. in something. No, really, a Bachelor's Degree. They have spent 4 years in college to find out that to get a job in this economy & this market, they need a Master's. Thus the reason you see them working retail. That was what happened to me. I sent off letter after letter, only to get back a few telling me how great they thought I was, but that I needed this, that & the other to have the skills they require to get my foot in the door. I didn't have the money to go back to school. I was a little scared to take out $40,000 in loan money on the hopes that with a Master's I might get in somewhere once I was done. So, I went to work for a toy store.

While working at the toy store I learned things about our society & the way we treat each other. I learned many really awful things. In my time at the toy store I was cursed at, poked, screamed at, called names, completely ignored like I was a robot or something & eventually forced out of my job by a theft ring of my own co-workers & third manager. They were eventually all arrested by a swat team hired by the company, but not before putting me through hell in the form of nightly pat downs & switching my schedule to a graveyard shift & paying me for 8 hrs when I was actually working 9 or 10. Not to mention the harassment & swearing at me I had to put up with on a daily basis.

I started that job fresh out of college at a pay rate of $6.00 an hour. They would only give me a part time seasonal job to start, so I was working around 30 hrs. By only allowing me part time, they didn't have to offer me benefits or 401K. I made a 45 min. drive from my little one bedroom duplex 5 days a week to collect my $6.00 an hr. The first year of that job was awesome. I got to merchandise action figures & opening boxes was like Christmas everyday. I had an amazing manager who understood the importance of a rewards based system for employees & he gave me a very nice $1.00 raise within the first 6 months of working there as well as raising me to full-time which was 40 hrs. He always complimented something first before explaining that maybe there was a better way to do something or letting me know I needed to stop being 5 or 10 minutes late. He made me want to be the best I could be. Then the restructure happened & the new manager came in. It all changed. That wouldn't happen until my second to third year in though.

The first Shopping Season, or just Season, as retail workers call it, was amazing & terrible. The work was fast, but mostly enjoyable. The amount of theft by customers was flabbergasting. We weren't only responsible for helping customers, but shelving as fast as possible, answering phones, and policing the store that was full of hundreds of people all cramming their way into every available space & all wanting "Tickle Me Elmo". Yep, I worked "Tickle Me Elmo" Christmas at a large chain toy store. On Christmas Eve, I had a lady come in & ask for one. I apologized & told her that we had been out since the last week of November. She was irate! She swore at me & went on a rant about how freaking stupid it was that we didn't have any. She mentioned it was the most popular toy of the year & that we somehow should have known this & been able to predict that this particular toy would be the one thing everyone wanted. Her actual words were, "Great. What the hell am I supposed to do now? My kid asked Santa for a G*ddamn Tickle Me Elmo. Am I supposed to go home & tell him he wasn't good enough? This is f*cking ridiculous". Of course, my jaw dropped & I was shocked. The woman had clearly been drinking, she reeked of it, and had waited until an hour before we closed on Christmas Eve & thought that she would be able to get the #1 wanted toy of the season? I explained to her that even the factory in China was out. No one had any inclination that THIS toy was going to be the one thing everyone wanted. How could we? She continued to swear at me. My manager came over & tried to calm her down, but she just continued to throw expletives around in a toy store. Eventually he had her removed.

Now, part of the point of my story there is that I want all of you to realize that NO one has any idea what is going to be the #1 thing that everyone wants. NO ONE. Retail chains & retail workers do NOT have a magic crystal ball nor are they psychic. If you want something, I suggest you go get it now. If you know your children, nephews, nieces, etc. want something & they have already told you what it is, go get it RIGHT NOW. Get it well before the TV stations start telling everyone what the thing to get is & you risk it being the thing that someone wanted. The supply is not endless. They made MILLIONS of those Tickle Me Elmos, but more people wanted them than anyone could have ever guessed. Those poor underpaid Chinese workers, were forced to work overtime in the factories to try & get more out for a rabid American public. Think about that. While millions of Americans sat full of Christmas meals, opening gifts & being overjoyed with all the material possessions they had just acquired, halfway around the world children, women & men were being forced to produce more Tickle Me Elmos with no break in sight, in deplorable conditions, hungry & tired, so that we might be able to get some by mid January to satiate those who didn't get one for Christmas.

Pretty Disgusting.

As a retail worker, I got to see a very dark disturbing side to the holidays that I had never witnessed before. A hollow, meaningless, sacrilegious side. Christmas didn't have anything to do with faith or belief. It was about one upping your neighbor or your in-laws. It was about getting the most stuff you could. People were mean, hateful, & treated us like scum no matter how friendly or helpful we tried to be. Nothing we did was good enough. That was true of 98% of the customers we dealt with. Every once & a while you get someone who truly got it. They were so nice. They treated you like another human being. They said Thank You.

So, when you go out to shop this season, remember all of this. These are people. Just like you & me. Most have degrees & are educated, smart individuals. They have bills & families to feed, just like you. They are making min. wage, which I believe is now $7.25 an hr. Most are employed as part time so that they can not get benefits through their company or a 401K. Most are renters & have a car that is 10 years old. They have enough stress in their life without you coming in & treating them like they are about as worthy as a piece of gum on the bottom of your shoe. They are not proud of their situation. Working retail was not what they had planned to do with their life. They had dreams & goals just like you, but they had to make money somehow. They got a job, the one they could, and they deserve to be treated with respect & dignity just like anyone else. If they don't have anymore Tickle Me Elmos, swearing at them won't help. It isn't their fault. In fact, it isn't really anyone's fault. If it were it would be the rabid follower consumer's fault. Sure, sometimes you come across a bad retail clerk, but don't let that make you into an asshole who treats every retail worker the same. Generally speaking, they want to help you. They want to sell you anything you want. They do not hide stuff in the back. There is not some secret little place they've stashed the last 5 Tickle Me Elmos & they just won't let YOU have one. Stop being hateful & paranoid, America. Treat people like you would want to be treated. Or as some guy whose birthday falls on Dec. 25th said, Do Unto Others As You Would Have Done To You.

I'll write more on this as we get closer to Season & share some of the other insane things that have happened to me in my retail experience. For now cheers, & all my love to those who have to make it through another season. Good luck. You're gonna need it.

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