Black Friday, 2008, started the holiday season off with more casualties than cheer. A stampede at a Long Island Walmart killed an employee, and two men shot each other to death in a Toys R Us after a dispute. With long waits, hostile attitudes, and meager discounts, one can’t help but wonder if this traditional shopping day is really worth all the risks.
But what about those people who have no choice? Retail workers are required to be at the store to open before the sun is even up and deal with hordes of stressed and potentially dangerous shoppers that flood the malls all day.
Shoppers press themselves against glass and caged doors hours before opening with crazed looks in their eyes.
“Dawn of the Dead–that’s what it reminded me of,” says Dylan Young, who worked as a customer service expert at Sears for almost two years. Shoppers were like the hungry undead waiting to prey on the living retail workers.
“As soon as you open those doors, people are screaming and running into your store,” says Laura Miller, store manager of the American Eagle Outfitters in Johnson City, NY. Miller has worked in retail for 11 years at companies such as Express, Bath and Bodyworks, and Best Buy.
A shopper’s mind set changes drastically during the holiday season. The immense stress transforms a normally rational shopper into a frantic mess.
People will do almost anything to score the best deals. “When I worked at Best Buy,” Miller says, “[shoppers] were there at 7 PM the night before. People camped out.”
Miller says the store had to have security police the crowd over night and in the morning to make sure disputes didn’t break out over line placement and items on each wish list. Miller had to be in at 3 AM that morning to open.
Opening the store with that many people crowded around the outside all wanting to get in requires certain tact.
“I had to cut through a crowd of people and make sure to latch the door behind me so they couldn’t try to sneak in and buy something,” Young explains. He assures that they do indeed try to do so.
Stress levels skyrocket during the holidays. There is so much pressure to get everyone the right thing and not leave anyone out. There are also many more social obligations to be met and the image of holiday cheer to uphold. Not to mention the financial stress this can put on a family. The pressure to be happy is enormous.
Some people who only visit the mall maybe once or twice a year come out to do shopping, and dealing with their confusion about policies and products becomes the sales associate’s job.
“You deal with everyone,” says Elizabeth Haddock, a sales associate at Bath and Bodyworks. “I deal with guys shopping for their women who wouldn’t normally come into the store.”
Haddock has had good experiences with novice shoppers. Their anxiety over getting the right gift will make them more apt to blindly follow advice from associates.
“It was a week before Christmas,” says Haddock, “and a boy came in and bought everything I suggested.”
People who work retail during the holidays often times are the unintentional outlet of some shoppers’ stress. Sales associates notice a drastic shift in the attitudes of their customers.
“People seem more anxious and rushed,” Miller says. “They feel like they need to get the perfect thing, which adds to the pressure.”
Haddock recalls her impression of customers during her first Black Friday shift last year.
“They’re mean and impatient,” says Haddock. “They get mad at sales associates when they don’t have what they want.”
“The most difficult thing I’ve found is when you’re selling an item, people come from a distance, and you’re sold out of [that] product and then dealing with their anger,” Young says.
Young once had a print off of a product profile literally thrown at him after telling a customer Sears did not carry that exact brand in the store.
If information about Black Friday deals leak, then some shoppers will go out Thanksgiving Day and purchase the item at full price, only to return and re-buy it on Black Friday with the discount. This strategy ensures the customer the item so they won’t worry about it selling out. Young says that some products, such as TVs, will be sold out nationwide before 7 AM.
This is not always allowed within different companies’ policies, but customers fight these policies until the associates give in to their demands just to make them leave. “The customers are normally wrong,” says Young with no hesitation.
Many times, the sales aren’t even worth the effort. “It’s usually not even the best stuff that the deals are on,” says Miller. “It’s the run of the mill off brands.”
Those who work in retail learn little tricks and keep track of details that allow them to be smart shoppers all year round. Things like buying in the off season, and knowing what day of the week different companies do their markdowns helps save money day to day. Knowing the traffic patterns of other shoppers helps to cut down the time spent in stores and waiting in line.
Haddock understands what it feels like to be harassed by customers, so she avoids talking to sales associates in general. “I just do my own shopping,” Haddock says. “I go in with a plan, get what I need and leave.”
Young, like most retail workers, knows that Black Friday is not the be-all end-all of sale opportunities. “There will be another phenomenal sale that won’t have people lined up around the block.”
One thing is for sure: any self respecting retail worker will never go out on a Black Friday unless they’re getting paid to. Maybe we should all take the hint and stay in for our own safety!