Friday, March 1, 2024

The Christmas Diaries: Changing Room Quickies, Vomit & Acts of Kindness. The Weirdest, Most Wonderful Things We Saw Working in Retail at Xmas

If you’ve ever worked in a customer-facing role, you’ll know it can be hard work – but that working in retail at Christmas? Well, it’s a whole other shit-show of insanity. We’re sharing the strangest, most hectic, hilarious and downright bizarre things we’ve ever encountered.

Welcome to the Christmas Diaries! Sure, it’s the most magical time of the year, but it’s also a time where people are at their limits. This week we’re sharing our stories from working in retail at Christmas and we’d love to hear your stories too! If your job gets weirder, more stressful, stranger or, maybe more fun at Christmas, we’d love to hear your stories! (Yes, you can stay anonymous!)

Just drop a line to [email protected] to get your story(ies) off your chest (think of it as free Christmas therapy?!?).

Alice

I was pretty lucky in that most of the random jobs I clocked up in my teen years weren’t too impacted by Christmas (but maybe one day I’ll tell my stories from Video Ezy [yes, I’m a thousand years old], modelling agencies, strange acting jobs and the years I spent transcribing journalists’ interviews before I became one myself!).

That all changed when I lived in Los Angeles for a summer (their winter, allegedly), and held down three different retail jobs in the lead-up to Christmas, at Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch and The Body Shop. And boy did I make up for lost time, working over the Thanksgiving and Christmas period (including Black Friday which I choose to not relive, ever).

It was 2001, six weeks after 9/11, the NZ Dollar was at 42 cents (a nightmare) and I quickly had to learn how to be like the overfriendly and quite persuasive Americans I was working with, in order to make commission and be able to eat. And do all that while listening to the same Christmas CD (yes, CD) over and over again. Granted, it was thankfully a different one at all three stores, and certainly at a different volume level in all three (maybe A&F is actually where my hearing problems started?!) but a test none the less.

But what was at times an even greater challenge than the music, was the people…

Here are some of my favourite, strangest interactions from working in retail at Christmas:

+ The woman who dropped two half-opened presents on the counter on Dec 26 and said wanted to return them. She’d obviously torn back a bit of the wrapping and could see the presents were wrapped directly over a Macy’s bag and not dug any further. I asked her if perhaps she wanted to at least see what the present was before I rang it up, or even know what it was? But she just glared at me while one eyebrow twitched. I don’t know what the backstory was, but in silence I processed her refund, for three Ralph Lauren cashmere jumpers. A small fortune.

+ The woman who held up the queue at Macy’s on Christmas Eve to try to return a leather coat she’d bought from the store 11, yes ELEVEN, years earlier and no longer liked.

+ The woman who tried to sneakily pour water on the floor then run back through the store and slip over it then lie on the ground, writhing around saying, “I’ve broken my back, and it’s this store’s fault”. Luckily the security cameras caught all the action and she then calmly bought a jumper as though nothing had happened.

+ The man who I was sent over to talk to – after a quick vote amongst the staff working about who should have to do it – and calmy, kindly ask him to please stop eating the fake snow at A&F.

+ In another ‘hey, that’s not food’ related incident – the woman who realised that the plastic cookie ornaments on the Christmas tree at Macy’s were not actually cookies, after she tried to take a bite out of them (whhhhyy??).

+ And then there was woman who scooped out the tester of the Vanilla Spice (my favourite of the Christmas options at The Body Shop that year) lip balm, and ate it. She then did the same to the Cranberry tester before I suggested to her that they weren’t really there to eat. She shrugged and took a scoop out of the body butter tester. That one obviously tasted worse that the other two because she immediately left.

+ The woman who discovered why you shouldn’t drink two litres of eggnog and then go late night shopping (or just ever). I drew the short straw on cleaning the eggnog vomit off the mirror in the changing room – mainly because I’d gotten out of being the one to evict the couple having sex in a cubicle half an hour earlier. (I obviously regretted this immediately and wish I’d offered to evict them).

+ The woman who ran into my section 10 minutes before closing time on Christmas Eve screaming, “I need gifts: Two twenty-something females. Three sixty-something women. One 80-year-old woman”. It was as though I was in the ER and she was an ambulance officer delivering me casualties. But thanks to her I made my commission that evening and then some.

+ The woman who was in the changing rooms, who clocked another woman who was asking for opinions on what she should wear to her new job. She said she could only afford one shirt, and was tossing up between three (they did all look great). This real life angel witnessed this, and when the other woman went back into the cubicle to change she whispered to me, “go ring up all three shirts – I’ll pay for them all.”

Emma

One of my strongest held beliefs is that everyone should have to work in retail or hospitality at least once in their lives, and definitely during the Christmas period, because when you have been on the other side of the till, you will never be a shitty customer. You will never stand in a long queue, in front of two harried retail assistants working non-stop in front of one computer, and ask, ‘How much longer are you going to keep me waiting?!’ as if you have never experienced the logistics of a queue before.

I worked at the department store Smith and Caughey’s in Auckland’s CBD, which has to be one of the best retail experiences – the store was beautiful, the customers were mostly lovely and my best friend worked one floor below me. The dream! And if you’ve been one of the thousands of people who go along to see the Christmas windows and then meet Santa, you’ll know that it’s a store that does Christmas WELL.

In the lead-up to Christmas, the store would always run a 9am-9pm sale which was the closest thing I can imagine to the big sales overseas – equal parts festive and frantic. Any time I hear Carol of the Bells, that manic little tune takes me right back to the corner till in the kitchenware section, watching escalator after escalator of cheery, slightly crazy-eyed customers spilling onto the floor.

Working in retail teaches you many things – crisis management, politeness under pressure, how to sugarcoat the truth (‘I’m so sorry, we don’t have any more out the back’), how to make small talk with everyone, how to deal with the people who inexplicably ask for extra discounts just because they are the most, most special of them all.

But the greatest thing I ever learned was how to gift-wrap presents EXTREMELY WELL. At some point in my years working at S&C, I was moved off the floor and into the bridal department; specifically the gift-wrapping section. It was a narrow, over-stuffed corridor turned into a makeshift workroom where thousands and thousands worth of bridal gifts were wrapped.

Because people tend to lose their damn minds around weddings, the rules were extreme: everything had to be wrapped in the same thick, glossy cream paper, with chic gold ribbon. The most important instruction was that absolutely no sellotape could be visible, so you had to use double-sided tape. The corners of that paper had to be folded so tightly and sharply, like we were in the military. And everything had to be wrapped – EVERYTHING. I was once asked to gift-wrap an entire armchair. I LOVED IT. Even now, wrapping presents is one of my great joys and I can only credit the fastidious nature of this job for training me, a naturally sloppy person, into one of the all-time great present wrappers.

Anytime I see big shops do crazy retail hours around Christmas – Kmart being open for 24 hours??? – I spare a thought for the exhausted retail staff having to wrangle the manic shoppers of yore. Please, be nice to the staff – they are doing their best, they are standing on their feet for 12 hours a day, they are having to be every Christmas role in one: the cleaner, the organiser, the wrapper, the negotiator, the festive spirit. They’re the real angels of the Christmas season.

Kelly

Working in retail at Christmas is kind of like the worst parts of waiting for a flight at the airport. Time doesn’t matter. Normal rules of societal harmony are suspended. Desperation, expectation and delusion reign supreme. The only difference is that there’s no flight out at the end, not even on Santa’s god-damned sleigh.

It was at Christmastime in 2010 that I found hell. Turns out it’s draped in tinsel, sounds like Glee Christmas soundtrack and is located in a suburban East Auckland Glassons. There’s nothing like a mum from the suburbs frantically shopping on Christmas Eve, with no idea of her 15-year-old-daughter’s taste (“she’s going through an ’emo’ phase!? But how about that magenta and teal halter top?”) to illustrate to your the stress that is Christmas shopping.

I alternated between trying to be helpful – “Hmmm, that’s a really cute halter but if she’s in a bit of an emo phase, how about this black T-shirt instead?” – and simply trying to survive everything that East Auckland could throw at me (a lot) by standing in a corner and simply observing the chaos around me like Regina George in Mean Girls after throwing the pages of the Burn Book everywhere.

It was only just after the GFC so our targets were insane and completely unachievable, so I had instead turned my attention to catching shoplifters because we got a $100 each time, and thankfully there were no shortage of 13-year-old kids who decided to give it a go without much skill and aplomb. One time me and a co-worker chased one up to the roof before we saw our school’s cross country champion, who promptly caught up to her, tackled her and sat on her until the mall security came (how 2010 of us).

Christmas somehow empowered people to throw any decorum they possessed out the window, and it was often us who bore the brunt as we tried our best to keep the store stocked, the fitting room manned and the tills staffed, all while keeping one eye on upcoming worst day of them all – Boxing Day – whose sale we had to somehow set up during the craziness of Christmas Eve. We churned through muscle backs and maxi dresses and novelty plastic wine glasses with coloured liquid inside them and inflatable pool toys. We helped the nice people and actively got in the way of rude ones – (again, a lot of “oh sorry there’s none out the back”) and tried our best to get through the one Christmas CD we were allowed to play, all while earning minimum wage (or, when you were managing a shift, a whole 50 cents more).

And then someone took a shit in the fitting room.

There it was – just sitting there in the middle of a changing room, apparently left there by a woman who’d tried on three pencil skirts and then bolted, leaving us a special little Christmas present of our own to clean up. We tried to decide to do it. Eventually the only mum on the staff did it (was nominated!?) and was treated to McDonalds for lunch by our store manager. It was then I realised the depravity of the Christmas spirit, and vowed to never again to work in retail over Christmas – and I haven’t since.

Please, for the love of God, be nice to retail staff this holiday season. Trust me, they’re barely hanging on by a thread.

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