PSA: Holidays in Retail Land

November 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Despite what the calendar says, the holidays aren’t really coming.

They’re already here.

Sure, the decorations aren’t up but the signs are, and so are a lot of the products that define how we think of the holiday shopping experience. Consumers are starting to make their lists, maybe even making a dent in them to get ahead of all the stress and hullaballoo that comes with the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Dwali, or Solstice, or any of the other winter festivals/holidays that generally imply gift giving and togetherness).

I worked for three years at an arts and crafts store. Yesterday was my fourth anniversary of working in my bookstore. I’ve worked retail for a long time, and I’ve worked a lot of holiday seasons. Does this post have anything in particular to do with books? No.

But it does have rather a lot to do with the book-buying experience, and with the buying experience in general. These are things I’ve picked up through the years- and things that should probably be remembered before plunging into the chaos of Black Friday and beyond.

1. Employees are people too.
Bizarre thought, isn’t it? That strange creatures with the uniforms or the dress code and the name badges, those zoo-things with phones and radios and keys and codes…those are people. People, just like you, with names and families and friends and a general preference for not getting yelled at by strangers. We like when our basic courtesies are returned- like replying to a hello- and sure, if you’re going from store to store, it can get irritating to constantly be saying hello, but think about our end of it: someone is there saying hello to every person who walks through our door. If we can put on a smile and a friendly tone, you can, too. It gives a much nicer start to the encounters, and basic courtesies go a long way into setting up a better experience for everyone involved.

2. Employees are only sometimes to blame for your problem.
I’m sorry if we don’t have what you’re looking for, or don’t have enough of what you’re looking for, or can’t get what you’re looking for in the time you need it. I really am. It isn’t just an altruistic thing- though I do genuinely enjoy people able to help people- but there’s a perfectly selfish explanation for it too: if you don’t find what you’re looking for, that’s one less thing that you’re buying. The fact is, there are a lot of reasons why we may not be able to satisfy your request, and the employee is barely a fraction of that. If what you want isn’t out yet? That isn’t our fault. If what you want is out of print or otherwise not being made anymore? Also not our fault. If you’re in a class and you need a book for a paper due tomorrow? Definitely not our fault- the book has been on the syllabus, you’ve had however many weeks to find it, and it’s not our fault that you and half the class all rushed out at the last minute to buy the one copy we generally keep on the shelf.
This piece is bookstore specific, but it applies in a more general way to all retail: we can’t have all the things. Trying to have even a single copy, much less multiple copies, of every book is simply impossible. There are presses that our warehouses don’t deal with, there are books that go out of print, there are books that don’t sell well in an area (a book about hunting in winter in Michigan is unlikely to be a standard in Florida at any time of the year), and there’s the simple limitation of space. We don’t have the room. Trying to have copies of every book currently in print would require the planet from Doctor Who’s Silence in the Library.
Also not the employee’s fault is you being unable to tell us what you want. Yes, it’s our job to know our products and to be able to ask leading, discerning questions, but there are limits to that skill. Book-specific again, telling me about a book you saw five years ago that had a red cover, and maybe there was a dragon on the cover or was it just a dragon in the story? Or maybe it was a dancer, it’s hard to remember but it was a table near the front of the store…if I actually try to explain all the things wrong with that statement, this would be a rant that could burn up the interwebs, but we get that constantly. We will do our absolute best to find you what you’re looking for, but you have to be able to meet us halfway. Hand in hand with that, if you ask for our suggestions on something, listen to them. Don’t shoot down every suggestion and offer us nothing in return. We can’t find you something you want if you won’t tell us at least a little of what you want.

3.People are shopping. There will be lines.
The more people there are out shopping, the more people there will be in the stores. That means you may have to wait for us to stop helping someone else before we can help you. That means you may have to wait in line before you can be checked out. We aren’t out to ruin your day, we’re not out to inconvenience you. We’re just doing our jobs, and trying to do them to the best of our ability for a lot of people. We’re there to help you, to ring you out, to answer questions, but we’re not there to help only you. We will do everything we can to assist you in a timely manner but we are human and we do have limitations, especially when we’re trying to help three other people before you even walk in the door. Be patient. If you’re in a hurry, consider calling ahead. Or coming in another time when you do have a few minutes to wait. This is a very busy time of year and there are only so many people on staff. Please, please don’t give us nasty looks, makes those loud sighs and obnoxious huffs, cut in front of others, grab us (literally) to yell your question at us, or try to talk over the person next to you. We’re here to help everyone. Everyone gets a little overwhelming.

4. Be nice.
Growing up in my house, Thumper’s mother was paraphrased more along the lines of “If you can’t say something nice, shut the hell up” but there’s still truth to the original. As retail employees, we are under a huge amount of stress this time of year. Please be nice to us. I’m not saying bake us cookies or ask after our mothers, but being patient, being courteous, these go a long way into making things better for all of us. I’m not just an employee, I’m also a consumer, so I understand the frustration with long lines, with complications at the registers, with employees who don’t seem to be able to find anything. And I’m certainly not saying that there are no idiots working in retail. There are. Oh, dear God, there are some idiots working in retail. But they’re fairly few and they don’t generally last long. What’s more frequently the case is that they were just hired on for seasonal help and they’re barely into their training yet. If you’re mean and snippy to us, we will still do our job. But if you are polite and courteous and understanding, we will bend over backwards to try and find a way to get you what you need. And we’ll do it with a smile because you are making our day.

5.Online stores and physical stores? Not the same things.
That holds true even when they’re the same company. Websites are usually a separate division, a completely different part of the company run by different people under different expectations and processes. Items online and in store will almost never have the same price. Telling us that it’s cheaper online will not change anything. We know it’s cheaper online. We also know why it’s cheaper online.
Online retail works through massive warehouses and significantly different overheads. When you shop through a website, you’re often being compensated for the fact that you won’t have the item immediately in your hand. You have to wait for that, they understand that people don’t like waiting, so they knock a few bucks off the price. There’s also the fact that a warehouse buys in bulk- bulk generally means discount which means, per book (or other item) the warehouse is paying less than a store is, because we deal from single copies up to multiple cases for a big release. Still nowhere near the amounts being purchased for the online division. We don’t get the super bulk discounts.
Whether you buy in store or online, you’re still contributing to the company’s overall success. BUT. When you shop in a physical store, you can see the people you’re helping. When you buy a book in my store, you are helping me pay rent. You’re contributing to my location’s numbers, helping us pay our overhead, helping us cover the costs of rent and utilities and the excellent help we give you. The passionate hand-selling we do is a perk of being in a store, where you can talk to people who know and love their products and are excited to share that knowledge with others. You have experienced employees who can sometimes achieve the impossible by finding a book from negligible information.
When you come into a store and ask our help, use our time to find the books or series for you, tell you about, answer questions about it, that time has a cost. It sucks but it’s true. For every minute an employee is in the building, we have to earn back a certain amount to be in the black. When you then turn around and buy that book online, you are literally taking money out of my rent check. Online is convenient. It’s often a little cheaper. But if you have the time to work ahead, if you have a local store you can support, please give some thought to doing it. We deal with people all the time who complain about stores closing and people losing their jobs and the state of the economy, but well over half the time, these same people are the ones who don’t make a purchase with us because they can get it two dollars cheaper online if they’re willing to wait a week or two. OR, they spend two bucks less on the book in order to pay eight bucks more on the shipping to get it faster, when they could have walked out of our store with it already in their hand. Please, please, support your local stores if you can. This isn’t just a hobby for us, this is how we pay our bills, and the more business shifts to online retailers, even if we’re in the same company, the less likely it is that our stores will be able to remain open.

6. Tis the Season for Giving. Don’t bite our heads off when we ask about charities.
A lot of companies and stores host charitable works through the season. They’re asking for money or items, asking you to take a little extra time or a couple extra bucks. Money is tight for a lot of people, and trust me, we get that. But at least let us ask, let us tell you the reason we’re asking, before you tell us no. If you don’t want to contribute, or if you’re contributing elsewhere and to other organizations, that’s fine. But let us tell you about our cause. My location partners with an amazing organization for our holiday book drive. I make the initial question “Would you like to donate a book to [insert name here]?” simple, because chances are, I’ve already asked you a lot of questions through the transaction. If you give me even the slightest sign of interest, I will tell you all about this amazing program, and none of that passion is faked. None of that excitement is about trying to get you to spend more money. It’s about an amazing program that has amazing results, that works to something I believe in a great deal, and it’s something I want to share, something I want to contribute to. I know I’m one of a million people asking you for something everywhere you go, but I’m asking for a reason. Let me tell you what that reason is. Then, if you want to tell me no, I’m not going to ask the reason. I’m not going to call you a cheapskate or a Scrooge, I’m not going to give you a nasty look. I’m simply going to say okay and press the total button. It’s not just my job, it’s my privilege to ask. It’s your right to say no. That doesn’t make me a scumbag for asking.

7. Ask for a gift receipt.
I know not every place does them, but most do. Even if you are 100% sure that Little Timmy wants that specific video game, get a gift receipt. Chances are, others may also know that Little Timmy wants that specific video game. Without a receipt, there is very little most places can do. We try to be lenient after the holidays but there are company rules that we can only bend so far. Gift receipts are free, they take almost zero effort, and they make everything a lot easier during the massive return deluge of January. It also reduces the chances that the person you bought the thing for will stuck with a duplicate or with something they genuinely don’t want. It’s the thought that counts- so give that extra second’s thought and ask for a gift receipt, and everyone ends up happy.

If this sounds like I’m begging you? I am. I’m not too proud to admit it. This time of year is unbelievably hectic for me. I work about forty hours a week in an increasingly stressful atmosphere, and at the end of the day, I still have to do my own holiday shopping. I make an effort to treat people the way I want to be treated, both as a consumer and as an employee. Yes, as a shopper, I get frustrated with employees who are genuinely incompetent. I get irritated by inexplicable delays. Want to know a real shocker? I HATE being greeted when I walk into a store. It makes me feel singled out, and is also a holdover from the days when I’d go hungry rather than call in for pizza because I just plain refused to talk to a stranger. I hate being greeted when I walk into a store. But, because part of my job is greeting people when they walk into our store, I respond politely to the employees who greet me when I walk into their stores. I don’t like it. But I do it.

And when it comes down to it, taking away all the other possible reasons, I have to be honest and say that the most basic reason I ask these things is because I want to enjoy Christmas. I used to love Christmas. I looked forward to it all year, not just because of the gifts, but because of the season. It was the music and the decorations and the cooking (and the cookies!) and the smells and everything about it. Three years at the arts adn crafts store made me genuinely hate Christmas for a little while. Not the day itself, but everything connected to it. I’d heard so much bad Christmas and holiday music that I couldn’t even stand to hold out for the good stuff- which meant singing with my mother, as much as I love it, became a chore because the Christmas music made me skin crawl. The smells? Anyone who’s ever worked with scented candles and cinnamon pine cones will probably tell you to shove those smells someplace very uncomfortable. The decorations were a nightmare and they came in earlier and earlier every year, and just seeing how incredibly stressful (and mean!) people got about it depressed me. I came to genuinely hate Christmas.

I’ve gradually gotten back to the point where I’m loving it again. The stuff still comes too soon and the attitudes start too early and come across too strong, but I actually unpacked my Christmas CDs and our Christmas movie marathon will have some of the classics back on it this year, rather than just Bad Santa, Die Hard, and Lilo and Stitch. My roommate will put her tree up the day after Thanksgiving, maybe even Thanksgiving night, and a week or two later, I’ll put up my little one. I’ll sing carols and hymns and pop songs through the apartment when my roommates aren’t home, and I’ll sing them with my mom, because that’s always been the single best thing about Christmas.

I don’t want to come home growling because of another day like yesterday. I have no idea what it was, if there was something in the water or if there was just a sort of general hopelessness for our college’s chance of winning its game, but people were MEAN. Cutting us off before we could ask anything, snapping at us, ranting at us, calling us stupid and incompetent for things entirely beyond our control, actually being insulting, even being rude to each other. We were baffled by it! We expect the occasional mean customer but this was a serious concentration and we were all on the wrong end of the barrels. After the third straight hour of this, I shared a look with one of the other employees and we said, at the same time, “And the holidays really are here!”. And there’s something profoundly wrong with that being true.

Maybe this is less of a Public Service Announcement than it is a Plea for Seasonal Amity, but as the retail holiday season starts hitting its stride, please remember the people behind the uniforms, the people on the other end of the phone calls, and take a moment to think about the experience you would want if you were in our shoes.

Until next time~

P.S.- This is probably a good time to post another disclaimer. I work in a bookstore but the opinions expressed, in this post in particular and the blog in general, are not the opinions of the company I work for, and should in no way be taken as a reflection of its official views. This is a personal opinion in a public forum, but it is the opinion of the person, not the employee, and certainly not the organization.

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