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How I Get By: One Weekend at the Mall During an Eerily Quiet Holiday Season

"Maybe if you're worried about social distancing, you shouldn't be out shopping at the mall."
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
December 16, 2020, 1:00pm
A person carries a shopping bag inside The Mall at the Hudson Yards in New York City.
Photo by Noam Galai via Getty Images
The inside line on life on the job.

For retail workers, Black Friday and the weekend that follows are synonymous with long hours, packed stores, and frantic customers. But this year, with COVID-19 cases spiking across the country and local and federal government officials asking everyone to pwease say home for Thanksgiving days before the holiday, Danielle*, a manager at a children’s apparel store in central California whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, expected things to look a little different. 

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What she ended up seeing, however, was almost like a retail ghost town. “It was very weird,” Danielle told VICE. She said she even found herself nostalgic for the rush (and sales spikes) from Black Fridays past. “I've worked for this company seven years now, and I've never seen a Black Friday or Black Friday weekend look like this.”

According to an ABC News report, Black Friday sales hit a new record high this year—online. Danielle said she’s been thinking recently about whether the future of retail might not look like the brick and mortar store where she works. “I’ve been talking with my friends and family because I wonder if, whenever we do go back to that ‘new normal,’ if a lot of our jobs or a lot of the processes we do as retail workers will be obsolete or if the company will start to think, ‘Oh, we don't really we don't really need to do this,’” she said. 

Nonetheless, there were also major pros to a light workload on the formerly busiest weekend of the year, and she’s counting her blessings, too. Here’s what she said made her COVID Black Friday weekend stick out among the rest.

DAY ONE

In previous years it's been crazy: Clothes all over the floor, us trying to push product out from the back to meet demand, store packed. But this year, it was pretty subdued for a couple of reasons. 

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, California’s governor Gavin Newsom instituted a curfew, so non-essential workers need to be home from 10pm to 5am. That meant our company had to amend our hours on Black Friday, too, so we closed at 9:00 p.m. instead of our typical 11:00 p.m. or midnight, and everyone on staff had to be able to get out by 10:00 p.m. and get home just to obey the curfew. And in California right now, store occupancy is set at 25 percent capacity for COVID safety reasons. So in my store, our capacity is 61 people generally, but due to restrictions, only 15 people can come in our store at one time, just to be as safe as we can and to ensure social social distancing.

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I went into work at 8:00 a.m. In previous years, we've had a line to the back of our store, with all three registers going non-stop, all day long. Now, when I came in, we probably had four or five associates already there, and we were all kind of standing around looking at each other, because there were a handful of customers coming in and out, but not what we're used to. 

That being said, the mall itself was pretty packed—you saw lines outside of every store, because stores are limiting capacity inside, which means people had to wait elsewhere. At one point during the day, we probably had five to ten sales associates working on the floor—and since the associates working do count as part of our capacity, I had to find odd jobs for girls to do in the back just to get them off the sales floor so we can get a higher customer count in. Also, being a baby store, people don't typically shop alone. More often than not, they come as a husband and wife with their handful of kids. So we would only have two or three families in the store at once before we hit capacity. 

All of the waiting caused a lot of angry customers who eventually left the line or were snappy by the time they made it into the store. Towards the end of the day, one woman came in when we were at capacity, and we were helping her out. I’m not sure what set her off, but she started complaining about “Why aren't we social distancing?” It was near the end of my shift and I just like, “Look, our capacity is limited to 15 people in our store. We're following the state's rules. Maybe if you're worried about social distancing, you shouldn't be out shopping at the mall on Black Friday.”

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She didn’t like that comment very much—but a handful of other customers agreed with me, and this woman ended up storming out. But we always have a handful of those people. You can't make them all happy.

The volume overall that we ended up doing was half of what we did the previous year: This year, we did almost $16,000 in sales, but last year on Black Friday, we did $30,000. I wasn’t too upset though, because it’s all relative. Traffic was down 50 percent, but all of our other key product indicators, the metrics we use to measure performance, were good. We haven't been receiving any product from our distribution center, so we're super light right now—everything is out on the floor. But if we don’t have something in stock, we find it for them in the warehouse, and we ship it to them for free. So that helped out a lot. 

All of our girls had a great time. I mean, it's always fun, everyone gets an eight-hour shift. But it just wasn’t the same, and I actually felt some nostalgia for the way things were in past years. There were definitely positives, though. Being able to close earlier and having to get out took pressure off of us to have to stay out after closing time. Customers realize this is a statewide curfew, so they have to respect our limits. It was really nice to be able to get back home at a decent time and be with our families. 

DAY TWO

On Saturday, the day following Black Friday, I came in at 9:00 a.m. I had a handful of the staff come in with me at 9:00 p.m., and the store opened at 10:00 a.m. Before we officially opened, they just recovered the floor, cleans, mopped, did all the things the closing crew couldn't really accomplish because we all had to make it home before the 10:00 p.m. curfew. By the time we opened, I had four girls in the morning on a Saturday, which should have been good. But I think people are still really hating the COVID and the curfew thing, so we ended up being way overstaffed all day. 

Our Saturdays are typically really busy. In the previous Saturdays leading up to Black Friday, we'd done $12,000 or $13,000 in sales. We were expecting to do like $15,000 or $16,000 today but that wasn't the case. Traffic was way down. I want to say we ended our day at  $11,000, which wasn’t bad, but not great either.

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I was sending girls home early all day, cutting shifts short. The ones who did say spent most of the day doing little cleaning and rearranging tasks just to make the store look a little better. It felt weird—there were some points where we were all standing around, just staring at each other! We started hanging up items from our messy clearance table, so we started to filter that merchandise into the wall. We organized our stockroom a little. We scrubbed our floors; We were doing things that we have never done during business hours, because we've been too busy. But since I had the manpower there, I thought why not just get it done! 

There were little bouts of rushes, when people that came in. But I feel like by now, customers that have been in have realized we're light on product, so a lot of them have switched to online shopping. The company stopped sending us stuff from local distribution centers, but the warehouse in Atlanta has a ton of stuff, so we’re really shopping for people online at this point. We tell customers, “Hey, if you want it, you need to order it online. That’s the best way to snag that sale,” etc. Our company delivers packages to our store that customers can pick up from shopping online, so we've kind of blown out with that. A lot of our customer support on Saturday was grabbing packages from the back and fulfilling orders for customers. 

Before I left for the day, I spoke with my management team and we discussed our whole December business trend and what we anticipate for business and people coming in. It looks like it's really going to be a different year. But it's nice to know people are shopping online and there are other avenues for us to help them. And know I'm safe in my job—people will continue to have babies, so I know this retailer is not going out of business anytime soon. It's just changing the way our customers shop and changing the way we have to help them out. 

I want to say I got off maybe an hour early, around 9:00 p.m. We cut hours because we were so slow, there was no point in having people standing around. I just can't justify wasting payroll. But it was a good day all in all. It was almost... relaxing. We weren't staying three hours after close time to recover the store and set everything up for tomorrow. We weren't dealing with crazy long lines and girls stressed out. It was nice to have a little breather this year. 

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.