The 112 days of Christmas

For those of us stocking shelves or staffing cash registers come winter, the holidays are a time we love to hate. When Halloween had just barely passed, the garlands were hung, the seasonal signage was displayed front and centre, and the endless loop of Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas” was already on the sound system. The constant barrage of ads has now brought out the crowds, and just like every year, they’re tired, broke and socially obligated to dig themselves deeper into that hole. Oh, I can feel the magic of the season now, demanding to know when the toy Little Jimmy asked for is going on sale. Just thinking about it makes me all tingly inside!

As a person who has worked every Christmas season since I was 16, I’ll try not to think you’re crazy if you willingly walk into a retail job this time of year. Maybe you’re doing it temporarily because you need to afford a trip to Cancun come reading week, or you just need to make ends meet. I understand. But while you’re busy dreaming of a big, fat paycheque, you might not realize that retail veterans began to steel themselves as soon as the Pot of Gold chocolates appeared in the stockroom. Temps, if you want to survive this holiday season, lend me your ears — that is, if the Santa Village in the mall hasn’t already made yours look like an elf’s.
First things first: remember that saying “hell is other people?” It is never truer than in December, and this is coming from someone who generally likes the fuss surrounding Christmas — just not the part that involves interacting with the public. You will be doing yourself an enormous favour if you lower your expectations of people before starting a shift, because customers can and will take their frustrations out on you if a size is out-of-stock or a price tag is wrong. Don’t take it personally. Smile and fix the problem as best you can (“Hey [manager’s name]! Just the person I was looking for!”) but save the unflattering impressions for later. A word to the wise: at least wait until the customer is out the door, or else things will get a little awkward, no matter how spot-on you are.

As sure as fruitcake is hard, your patience will shrink the closer you get to the big day, so it’s crucial that you try to keep your spirits up during your spare moments (better known as the time between line-ups). Ideally, the best way to do this is to achieve a sort of zen-like state, where you no longer hear the music or screaming children, but I realize this might be difficult for those with less experience in retail. It’s just as good to find joy in the small things, like mystery cookies left in customer service. Do you know who baked them? Does it matter? As well, if you lower your expectations of people down far enough, every customer that is actually pleasant to you will be a breath of fresh air. And if you think I’m painting the consumer population with an awfully broad brush, let me assure you that becoming this jaded took some work, but I had lots of help.

Once you’ve steered someone toward their idea of a perfect gift the hardest part of your job will be over, but you can’t let your mind wander to your own presents quite yet. I’ll set the scene: You’ve rung everything through. A lady has handed you a credit card. It’s not declined. Now comes the all important send-off, which has suddenly become a politically correct minefield. A well-intentioned “Have a Merry Christmas!” might be met with a roll of eyes if you come across someone who doesn’t celebrate, but on the other hand, a more inclusive “Happy Holidays!” could get you in trouble with people vocal about “keeping the Christ in Christmas.” Essentially, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The easiest choice is to choose none of the above, and stick to a generic “Have a good night!” instead. Unless it’s the morning. In that case you’ll look like a fool, but at least you’ll be a fool that doesn’t offend anyone.

Now that you’re prepared to earn that plane ticket, don’t despair. For everything you will have lost before Christmas (your dignity and sense of child-like wonder, to name a couple) Santa will hopefully leave one important thing under your tree: the gift of empathy! So while you’re out doing your own shopping, be sure to keep it quick, tip generously, and heed one final warning — despite all that I’ve said above, now is not the time to fear. Save that until January, Comrade, because that’s when everything will get returned. Happy New Year!