Why I don't miss working as 'holiday help'

By all reports, the roaring economy has made retail stores desperate for seasonal workers, or what used to be called “Christmas help.” This brings back memories of my own adventures working in retail during the holiday season.

The first was in the 1980s, when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. I took a job at an east coast chain department store called Caldor, which I don’t think is even around anymore, located where else, inside a mall. I think minimum wage back then was $3.50 an hour. I was living at home so I didn’t need to support myself. This was in the days before the Targets and Kohl’s, when each department had its own sales clerks. I was put in the Gifts department with the picture frames and whatnot.

Does anybody remember Muzak? Muzak rolled on a constant loop over the store’s sound system, interrupted by the occasional: “Mrs. Furtado, please report to Housewares”. I remember one customer saying to another, “Let’s get out of here, I can’t take this music anymore.” But I couldn't get away from it.

Muzak is not missed.

I hardly remember what I even did there. It probably involved slapping price stickers on stuff with that price-gun thing and ringing up customers and answering their questions. It was incredibly boring and the hours dragged. I filled in at the front cash registers a couple of times. This was long before barcodes and scanners, when you had to punch in every product’s code number into the register, and if it wasn’t on the item you had to ask someone or look it up. You also had to calculate how much change to give back to the customer in your head because the register didn’t do that, and process card payments (which were less common then than now) on these antiquated swipey gizmos. God it seems like the Stone Age. I often wonder if today’s cashiers realize how good they have it.

The only thing I recall with any clarity is that I really, really didn’t get along with the other 17-year-old girl assigned to the Gifts department, who was rather a little bully. Before it could escalate into knickknacks and other projectiles sailing through the air and getting smashed, I walked out on this airhead one night before my shift was over and got fired for it by the manager. My ex-coworker later called me at home and pleaded in vain for me to come back and help her.

Cut to almost two decades later, and I was a displaced thirty-something professional thinking it would be fun to work at Marshall Field’s over the holiday season. I started shortly before Thanksgiving at the former Field’s at Water Tower Place, in one of the women’s wear departments. It was a good thing I did it more for amusement than money, because I didn’t make any. The sales commission was six percent of whatever you rang up, but it was six percent of significantly marked-down merchandise, so it worked out to basically minimum wage. One of my coworkers said she couldn’t believe how small her paychecks were. The best perk was the employee merchandise discount. I know quite a few people work in retail for that alone.

Muzak was long gone, but that didn’t make the music loop any less torturous. I adore Paul McCartney, but if I had to listen to him warble “SIM-ply HAV-ing a wonderful Christmas-TIME!” any more I would have blown my brains out. And unlike the customers, you couldn’t escape.

But the worst part was the dressing rooms. I had never worked in clothing retail before, so I never knew just what pigs people were. I also had never realized that I am not a typical clothing shopper. I take clothes into a dressing room, try them on, and if I decide not to buy them I put them neatly back on their hanger and try to return them to the rack where I got them, or at the very least the rack outside the dressing room. I don’t leave them bunched up in a pile on the floor, pants turned inside-out and whatever. Apparently, these shoppers confused sales staff with their mother or their maid.

Then there were the stressed-out cranky shoppers. Oh, most people were probably perfectly nice, but those aren’t the ones that stand out in your mind years later. The ones who snap at you like you’re their personal servant do. You’d think the experience would have made me try to be extra pleasant and patient as a customer myself, but sorry to say, it really didn’t. Because shopping in a large store, especially around the holidays, is just aggravating and stressful. But I like to think I don’t snap at underpaid sales clerks.

I wasn’t sorry to see the season end. Long hours on your feet, undercompensated to the point of almost exploited, I could never do it today. I don’t know, maybe it might be nice to work in a book store (what few are left) or record store or some specialty boutique. Maybe I’ll check it out, just for fun.

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