Saturday, December 10, 2011

How To Survive Christmas Shopping - Tips From Someone in the Trenches

The Etsy shop isn't the only job I have.  I've been in retail a long time.  A. LONG. TIME.  Most of the time, I love what I do.  It's fun, I'm not stuck behind a desk all day, I get to help some amazing customers, and I get 50% off on my own purchases.  It's a sweet deal.  But every November and December I spend a vast, vast majority of my time questioning why the hell I put up with it... Holiday in retail.  It's hell.

In the interest of the good will and cheer of the season, I'd like to pass on some tips to you - call it insider information if you will - on how to make the dreaded Christmas shopping excursions as easy as possible.  Why bother you ask?  Because grumpy, irritable customers drive us sales clerks crazy. CRAZY. And everything would go so much smoother if we all just got along, and it's that what Christmas is really about?

#1 - Don't go to the mall on Saturday
Just don't.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that the mall on a weekend in December is a bad idea.  But if you want any sort of selection/attention from the sales staff then Saturday/Sunday afternoons are the WORST time to go.  If you must go to the mall on weekends, be there early.  If the mall opens at 9 A.M., be there at 9 A.M. - if for no other reason than because at least the staff is fresh and eager to help you.  By 2 P.M. we're miserable and exhausted and if we hear one more complaint we're liable to claw someones eyes out.  You'll get better selection and better service if you avoid weekends altogether!  Trust me.  Sneak some time off work if you have to, but try the mall on Monday morning or Wednesday afternoon - you'll be surprised at the difference in traffic!  If your local mall has extended hours for the holidays (and most do) then use them - we're open earlier in the morning and later at night and those early/late hours are usually the slowest.

#2 - Educate Yourself
Every store has different policies regarding returns and exchanges.  Believe it or not, it's the customer's responsibility to educate themselves as to what those policies are.  Legally (at least in Canada and the United States), stores are required to have their policy posted for the customer to read and usually it's by the cash register.  Any employee in any store should be able to tell you what the policy is though, if you ask, so please, please ask.  And here's the difficult part of this tip: the company's exchange policy is not the employee's fault.  If the policy is not to do cash returns, then the policy is not to do cash returns.  These policies are put in to place to protect the company and it's investors from fraud and loss and to keep our prices as low as possible, they are not just to piss you off.  Moreover, the sales clerk has no control over the policies and can't just pick and choose when to abide by them, so STOP ASKING US TO.  Take the store credit and smile -- because if you didn't read the fine print before you bought the ugly sweater for your cousin Julie then that's your fault, not the person behind the counter's. 

And please, please stop using the phrases "but it's my money" and "the customer is always right" because here's the truth - once you've bought that sweater, it's not YOUR money any more, it's the store's money now - that's how consumerism works.  It's our money and your sweater.  I wouldn't march up to your house, knock on the door, and demand my sweater back.  And policies are policies which means the customer ISN'T always right.  In fact, most of the time the customer is dead wrong and arguing with the sales clerk usually just makes us mad.  If you absolutely have to have something which goes against a store's official policy (like your money back or making a return on Boxing Day) here's the best tip for making that happen: BE NICE ABOUT IT.  Be polite.  Be understanding.  The person behind the counter is just as flustered as you are, and yelling at them for something beyond their control achieves nothing - in fact, the ruder the customer is, the less likely I am to help them (how's that for a confession?)  If you're polite to me though, I'll probably try to bend the rules, at least a little, if I can.

#3 - Your sales clerk is not a psychiatrist
Believe it or not, but in almost a decade in retail sales I've heard way more personal information than any one person who is not a practicing member of the psychiatric community should.  I've heard about weight gain and break-ups, about problems at work and trouble with the kids, it's like the second the fitting room door opens, the person inside seems to spew out every little issue they've ever had.  Most of the time I really don't mind.  I like people.  I like getting to know people.  I'm usually fairly patient with doling out the advice and then helping you find the little black dress which makes you feel like a million bucks.  That's actually my favourite part of the job.  Until December.  Then customers start bitching about how busy they are and how stressful the holidays are and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... and every single time I want to punch them in the eye because they have no freaking idea. 

Do you have a nine-to-five job?  A Monday-to-Friday job?  Do you get time off over Christmas?  If the answer is yes to any of those questions, here's a little suggestion for making everyone else's Christmas a little brighter - shut up and enjoy that.  Stop and think of those of us working over Christmas. We have shopping to do too, and the same family obligations that you do.  Our houses need to be just as clean before the mother-in-law arrives.  We have the same social occasions to stress over, the same meals to plan.  So if you're not one of the people who works over Christmas, please be considerate of those of us who are.  Stop and think about it from our point of view, if only for five minutes.

#4 - The Post Christmas Rush - aka. stay home on Boxing Day
Here's the deal.  Stay home on Boxing Day.  Please.  If you're lucky enough not to be working then please, please stay home with your family.  Because all those Boxing Day deals that people trample each other to death for?  They're really not worth standing in line for 8 hours overnight.  Do you know what Boxing Day is for retailers?  It's the chance to clear out all the old crap that no one wants.  The ugly-ass sweaters that didn't sell before Christmas.  The dregs of the backroom stock that never would move any other day of the year.  I could slap a 45% off sticker on a hairball my cat's thrown up and someone would buy it.  It's ridiculous.  All this hype has been manufactured by retailers to fool you in to purchasing things you really, really don't need any way.  So do the world a favour and stay home.  Enjoy your day off with the people who love you.  Enjoy the gifts you've ALREADY gotten instead of greedily going out and buying more.  All those gift cards that you got from Great Aunt Mildred might be burning a hole in your pocket, but you're better off saving them for pretty much any other time of the year... why?  Because generally retailers don't get stock shipments in the days leading up to Christmas, which means there's nothing new in the stores until after the new year.  Sizes are picked over, selection is poor, and often sales made during the week after Christmas are final - so if you later regret buying that 62" television there's nothing you can do about it.  So please wait.  Traffic dies off so drastically in January that any sales clerk would jump at the chance to help you then.

#5 - Treat the sales staff like people
Here's an idea - say please and thank you.  Yes, it's my job to help you, that's what I'm being paid for but that doesn't mean you can't be nice to me while I do it.  You'd be surprised how much better the service can be if you actually are pleasant to the people providing it.  I dread the bitchy customers and if you want me to be honest, I'm probably not as helpful to them as I should be.  But if you smile at me and are polite, I will move heaven and earth to get you what you want - even on the busiest days of the year.  Too often customers forget that the people behind the counter are PEOPLE.  We're not machines, we're not invisible.  We have feelings.  We have families.  We've worked long hours and we're probably more tired than you are.  We'd really, really like to enjoy our Christmas too, if only we could.  So try a smile.  Try asking us how we're doing.   Try a little sympathy.  I wouldn't go in to your work place and be rude to you, so I really hope you won't do the same to me, no matter what day of the year it is.

#6 - Smile, dammit!
The holiday season is suppose to be about cheer.  About spreading joy and good will... so smile, wouldya?  That's the first thing I tell me staff, even on the busiest days.  Because a smile and a 'thank you' is contagious.  If I smile at my customers and make their shopping experience a little more pleasant, then perhaps they'll go home and smile at their spouse and their kids... I've always thought that if I injected just a little niceness into every interaction then I was doing my best as a person, and never is this attitude more important than at the holidays.  But it's tough to be that upbeat when the person you're smiling at has an attitude to rival Ebenezer Scrooge.  So smile, dammit.  Acknowledge that we all share in the hectic and demanding pace that December brings to our lives.  You're not the only one having a long day.  You're not the only one worrying about the cost, the mess, the mother-in-law.  We all have those issues!  It really won't kill you to be polite and smile.  And perhaps, by doing that, you'll make some sales clerk's day.  Perhaps he or she will go home with a smile of their own.  Perhaps you'll make the holiday season a little nicer for someone who needs it.

#7 - You do realize Christmas is always on December 25th, right?
I'm always amazed at the last minute gift buying rush... I mean, of all the holidays all year round, Christmas is the easiest to remember.  It's always on December 25, every year, so why are so many people caught off guard by that??  If you do your shopping early then you won't have to brave the mall on the last Saturday before Christmas, instead you can do what I wish I was doing, which is to stay home and spend time with the people I love.  It's not like you don't know Christmas is coming!

In summary... enjoy your holidays every one.  Embrace the season for the crazy, hectic time that it is. Smile about that, joke about it.  Extend a little kindness to the people who work through it, who don't have the time off that you do.  There are people who work on Christmas and if you're not one of them, be thankful.  Take the time you've been given to be with your family, because trust me - if I could have that option, I would take it, gladly.

P.S. - if you're looking for me on Boxing Day, I'll be at the store at 5 A.M.  Yippee.


  1. hee hee hee. I worked retail for a stint. Seasonal help. Its crrrazy.
    Good Luck, you won't see me at a mall.

  2. here here!! I too work in retail and up until last year work for a company who's sale started at 5am meaning I had to get there for 4.30...last year I started working for a company who's sale trading hours are the same as a normal day so I'm not going to complain :) Wishing you and yours a very merry Christmas :) xx

  3. I do not miss working in retail At. All.

  4. Great post! Thanks for reminding us what we all should treat people with basic respect & dignity. It's been more than 20 years since I worked retail & I have to admit, I probably needed the reminder myself :) Hope you find time to enjoy the holiday. Merry Christmas!

  5. Oh my goodness, I love this so much!

  6. Just now seeing this...

    Number three. Oh good heavens above, number three. I work in a pharmacy so I am TRAPPED and a (small) part of their medical team and apparently I give off the impression that I really really care and you can tell me everything. I, too, have heard it all and didn't want to hear any of it. Even politics, healthcare stuff especially. Just... no, people. Since when is politics of any sort an acceptable topic of conversation with a virtual stranger??

    On the other hand, being able to see the meds they're on as I sell them to them has sometimes gone a LONG way to understanding why they are the way they are...