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Things You Learn Working Retail During the Holidays

Christmastime turns an already-awful job into an actual nightmare.
December 15, 2015, 7:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Frankie Leon

I'm no stranger to poor decisions, but even I should have known better than to apply for employment at a well-known toy store, just in time for the winter holidays. Seasonal employment in the retail and service industries happens most around this time of year—it starts a little before the holiest holiday of them all, Black Friday, and ends not long after New Year's. Sometimes, the temporary hires turn into permanent employees, but there's no guarantee, and companies usually just want extra staff to handle the obnoxiously large holiday shopping crowd. It's probably easier to get hired as a seasonal employee, but that doesn't mean the job itself is easy.

There are lots of horrible things about the holidays, and they all seem to converge at the mall. As an employee, this can make an already-awful job an actual nightmare. The winter season brings with it more customers, more complaints, more despondent coworkers, more pressure from the boss, and even more shitty music, playing on loop throughout your shift. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans plan to spend an average of $830 on Christmas gifts this year—almost $100 more than last year, and higher than any year since 2007—and those customers will shred every bit of your sanity in order to conduct this holiday shopping.


Other than the few obvious pluses—like, you know, getting a paycheck—working retail through the holiday season is torture. Here's why.

There is No War on Christmas, But There Should Be

If you're a complete asshole, this might seem controversial, but it's true. In America, Christmas will always be king. Growing up Jewish, my family didn't celebrate Christmas, so I never had the opportunity to truly experience the kind of extreme consumerism Christmas shopping entails, as we wisely avoided shopping around this time of year. So my first true experience in a mall at Christmastime was during my first holiday job, at a toy store inside a giant mall in a suburbs of Los Angeles.

Everything inside the store was decorated wall-to-wall with Christmas flourishes. Even if nothing explicitly said "Merry Christmas," the message was still there, and the attempts at making people of other faiths feel included were dismal. For instance, branding a small toy as a "holiday" stocking stuffer, as if the tradition of hanging long socks by the fireplace is used for anything other than Christmas, does not count as inclusion. Occasionally, customers and employees would wish me a "Happy Hanukkah," obviously with no clue that Hanukkah had come and gone weeks prior.

Even if you are a person who celebrates Christmas, it's nearly impossible to withstand the holiday spirit for long. Every store in the mall plays horrifically infectious Christmas songs nonstop, on a loop, throughout each shift. Think of it this way: If you're a person who does give a damn about Christmas and even you get sick of hearing those cheesy tunes about sleigh bells, jingle bells, and whatever other kinds of bells involved in this holiday, imagine being someone who doesn't celebrate Christmas. By the end of January, I was ready to confess to crimes I had never even committed.


Related: Ten Songs Ruined By Retail Playlists

Photo by Flickr user Susam Pal

The Customers Will Not Be Jolly

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but the holidays make people more stressed out than usual, mainly because we are forced to spend time with our families, those horrible people who love us most. By extension, this stress turns customers into trolls.

I experienced this most while working at a Starbucks inside a Macy's, in the heart of San Francisco's downtown shopping district. Heaps of stressed-out customers came in demanding peppermint mochas and pumpkin spice lattes with extra shots of espresso, frustrated by how long they'd been shopping in the mall, and even more frustrated over how long they had to wait in a line that is obviously going to be long because it was almost Christmas, and they were in a goddamn department store like everybody else.

The idea that Christmastime brings people peace and joy is bullshit as far as I'm concerned. While working at the toy store, I once watched a grown woman take a plush doll away from another woman's child because it was the last one of that kind in stock. It wasn't the last plush doll, mind you, it was simply the last one of that particular cartoon character in this particular store. The cries and screams that ensued from that incident seemed to signal that the end was near. Not the end of the season, but the end of humanity.

Related: Photos of Christmas Decorations in Depressing Places

You Will Start to Hate Children

There is no better way to convince teenage girls not to get pregnant than to make them work at a toy store, particularly during the holidays, when children are worst of all. This job taught me a lot about children. Primarily, that they are ridiculous noise machines capable of exuding a plethora of high-pitched slobbery screams, knowing their supposed masters will succumb to any demand in order to make it stop. I was amazed at the audacity some of these young children had ordering their parents around. The only plus side to all the screaming was that it often drowned out the sounds of overly-repetitive Christmas music.


Because seasonal employees are just temporary, companies usually don't invest as much time training them. During my stint at both the toy store and the Starbucks, my training was shorter and less one-on-one than it had been for other employees. That said, you're still expected to know how to do nearly everything, even after working just a few shifts.

In both retail and service jobs, there is a right way and a wrong way to do every single thing—to fold clothing, wear your uniform, stock products, put milk in a refrigerator, and so on. As a barista-in-training at Starbucks, I was the only new hire who was never able to pass the certification test required of me to be allowed to make drinks unsupervised. I knew how to make every beverage, because they are all nearly identical (yes, you are paying over $5 for what is mostly a cup of hot milk), but I could never get the order of when to put the espresso, when to pump the syrup, and when to pour the milk. The order of these things was of utmost importance to management, even though every coworker who had managed to pass this test before me admitted that the order really doesn't matter as long as you get it all in the cup.


And while training is intense, it doesn't help that there's an unspoken hierarchy among full-time employees and the new seasonal hires. Our purpose is to help make things easier, but it always felt to me like we just made things worse. The regular hires become responsible for us in a way, like we were baby ducks pathetically following them around, begging for help and guidance. Not only were most of us annoying, but the reality is that there wasn't much desire to bond (on both sides) when everyone know the likelihood of having to work with one another much longer is slim.


Seasonal employees really get the shit end of the employment stick this time of year. Temporary hires don't have the luxury regular employees get when it comes to asking for certain shifts to be changed or covered, even when you request specific time off. You'll also be working 34 hours every week, which is just one hour shy to be considered a "full-time" employee. This means you get to work a minimum-wage job you hate without being entitled to any sort of insurance, paid time off, or other benefits from being an employee. Also, I hope you're cool with working overtime, which you will be asked to do all the time but will somehow still not make you eligible for full-time employment.

You Will Have to Work on Christmas

Obviously I didn't give a crap about that, but it wasn't like only the Jews were required to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. For my co-workers of the Santa faith who had to work alongside me on both those days, it felt like a sad scene in a Lifetime movie. I could see their sorrowful eyes gazing in the distance, wishing they were eating the Christmas ham and singing carols by the grand piano with Michael Bublé. I simply longed for my bed, TV, and some pizza, which I believe is just as joyful as Christmas. But I'm no expert.


You know how most sane people avoid malls like the plague on Black Friday, or the week before Christmas? As a retail employee, these are basically your moments of bravery and humility. Time to zip up your Hazmat suit and jump in.

The absolute most terrifying instance during my holiday seasonal employment was working Black Friday. My shift started at midnight, and I remember very clearly getting off the subway at around 11:00 on the night of Thanksgiving, walking in the direction of where I was to spend the next eight hours, and already feeling suffocated by the people camped outside of Urban Outfitters waiting for the clock to strike midnight so they could trample one another for a 20-percent-off sweater. The way in which all those bodies polluted the sidewalks made me feel a deep despair for humanity.

Every year I worked Black Friday, I witnessed the same thing: Grown-ass men and women, many of whom had more money than I will ever have in my lifetime, fighting each other for worthless products. That's when I learned that there really is no justice, only sales.

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