My first year out of college, I managed a retail chain in my local mall. It gave me experience in a leadership role, taught me about the different areas of business and how they work together, from distribution chains to customer service, to run a successful business. The most consistent issue I had with retail management was trying to be the only adult in a store full of teenagers. Since our age difference wasn’t that great, I had a hard time asserting authority and being the grown-up. But a little emotional immaturity is absolutely nothing in comparison to the horror that is Black Friday. In fact, I think it’s possible that I’ll never have such an awful work experience as managing in the mall on the day after Thanksgiving. With my therapist’s permission, I’m going to relive that traumatic November day so that our readers can get a glimpse of what it’s like from the other side of the checkout aisle on the craziest shopping day of the year.
After a long day of eating and spending time with my family on Thanksgiving, I left my grandparents’ house about 9pm to drive home. It was a three-hour drive back to my house and the weather was particularly nasty for November. I can remember my mother being worried and demanding that I check-in every hour. But I drove my full tummy home, with very little hope of sleeping when I got there. After all, I would arrive until midnight and I needed to be at work at 3am.
Every store in our mall was under strict instructions to open at 5am, but my store was lucky enough to have a local morning radio team broadcasting from inside the store. I had to be at work, ready to let their crew set-up and get my store in order. As I trudged into work in the dark, I saw other managers, their faces wary but determined, making their way into their stores to prepare for the big day. Every member of our staff would be working one of two shifts. Myself and my assistant manager would be there all day long. I had plenty of food and drinks stacked in our back room, trying to thank my employees in any way possible. The radio crew was polite, if a little groggy, as they gave me a rundown of the things they would need from us.
Those first two hours felt like preparation for a war. We had a company pep talk, divided up battle stations and mentally readied ourselves for the onslaught of customers, already lining up outside of our store. We went over every deal and discount we would be running for the day, drilling the information into each employee. All in all, I felt like my store was in good shape. After all, most people who take Black Friday seriously would focus on big box chains and department stores. My little retail chain would be just fine.
5 o’clock finally hit and we opened the doors to about 40 waiting customers. They piled in, haphazardly pulling merchandise off the shelves and asking what kind of door-buster gifts we were offering. Thankfully, our store had a pretty straight-forward policy with a deeper-than-normal percentage discount for the day and a gift for the first 100 purchases. As I tried to explain the sale to one of the first women in, she cut me off and said, “40% off? That’s it? I waited in line for 40%?” She dropped the products in her hand directly onto the floor, grabbed a friend and left immediately. She was the perfect model of a Black Friday shopper. I spent the next seventeen hours helping hundreds of customers almost identical to that woman.
It’s not the quantity of people that makes Black Friday so horrible. In fact, many studies say that the Saturday before Christmas is busier in terms of number of people shopping. It’s the sense of entitlement and competition that makes this day hell for anyone working retail. Almost every shopper who walks in the store feels like they are owed a prize, simply for being there. They barter, as if they’re at a flea market, as if the price isn’t stamped right there on the tag like always. Getting the best deal seems to be the only thing that’s important at all. Every customer interaction gives the distinct impression of, “What else can you give me?”
This insane post-Thanksgiving consumption day has become a staple of the holiday season, but it seems to represent everything that sucks about the holidays. It’s about buying presents based on their price tag instead of their value to the recipient. It seems to give people a free pass to treat retail workers and their fellow shoppers like crap. Working in retail on Black Friday actually made me dislike my favorite season for the first time in my life. All those cheerful carols were drowned out by voices snapping things like, “I got that first,” and “Online it says that this is $19.99.” (By the way, every store has a computer that connects to their own website. They know what it says online.)
You want to know what it’s like to manage a retail chain on Black Friday? While it’s exhausting and stressful, as I’m sure you can guess, more than anything it’s demoralizing. It’s sad to see so many grown adults who don’t have time to be polite or even respectful to one another. Its disheartening to see a woman throw a temper tantrum like a toddler because she can’t get what she wants. It’s scary to a man get physically violent over a gift that’s supposed to be for his young daughter, a gift that’s supposed to come from love. The day after Thanksgiving is a single day in November, but working with all those shoppers can ruin the spirit of Christmas for quite a while. Next time to head out to those super-sales, try to remember that you’re all supposed to be celebrating a holiday as well.