It started looking a lot like Christmas at stores far too long ago, but now we've hit the deafening crescendo no-holds-barred Holiday Shopping As Sport, drowning out all good sense, leaving a path of hard-working, underpaid retail workers in its wake.
Shopping for the holidays loses a bit of its sparkle when you’ve been on the other side of the cash register, being told off by someone who just really needs boxes for two dozen warm cinnamon mini candles two days before Christmas, when free boxes — and workers’ patience — are mostly gone.
Believe me, I've been there. I've listened to the same 12 Christmas songs 27 times in a shift. I’ve removed price tags from all of your presents while my tissue paper wrapping skills were critiqued. I once accidentally destroyed a Christmas tree’s worth of glass ornaments trying to redo the holiday display so it felt more festive. I sold housewares hungover on New Year’s Day.
I’ve got stories.
And like anyone who has worked in any kind of retail job, more than a few involve being humiliated by an angry patron. It’s a truly terrible thing to have someone take out all of their worldly anger on you while you’re selling them a rug.
My worst experience was during college when, for three shifts each week in between classes and a student journalism job, I sold obnoxiously scented candles and throw pillows. Not bad work if you didn’t mind spending an entire day on your feet arguing with someone about whether the floor model table had a scratch and should be discounted.
This first retail job required me to work a cash register, which is a skill best acquired through much practice. After a too short training, I was thrown to the wolves on a busy Saturday when everyone in Baton Rouge desired candles. Lines snaked from the checkout counter as a woman presented me with an item that needed to be returned.
Returns are an advanced cash register technique, and I went through the steps deliberately, making conversation as I fed a carbon paper form through the machine to create a merchandise credit. (It was the late 1990s.) I presented it to her proudly — “Here is your store credit. Please present it the next time you come shopping.”
She was furious. She had wanted the purchase credited back to her credit card, and in my concern over the steps in the cash register, I’d neglected to realize this. I apologized and tried to get a manager over to help us fix the error. The angry shopper would have none of it. She snarled at me, caused a small scene and made me feel about 3 feet tall before storming out of the store.
I felt badly for my mistake, but my manager said I’d done all that I could and reminded me to be more attentive in the future. I fought back tears as I continued checking people out.
Thousands of transactions later, I was working through my line of shoppers when a woman placed her items on the counter and handed me a mangled merchandise credit.
“I haven’t seen one of these in awhile,” I said, cheerfully making conversation as I forced the form through the printer, trying to recall how to process this old-school transaction. “We use gift cards now.”
She was eerily silent. I looked up.
“You wouldn’t be seeing it now if you’d actually rung my return up correctly a year ago,” she spat back through clenched teeth.
We made eye contact. It was her, the woman with the return I’d bungled my first shift on the cash register. She gave me a pointed stare to let me know I was the worst person in the world for having committed the crime of Creating A Merchandise Credit.
Flush with fresh shame, I stammered another apology as she again stormed out of the store.
If I met that woman today, I’d probably tell her that I’m sorry she held that anger over her merchandise credit inside of her for a year, and I hoped making me feel like dirt was worth it.
No one is perfect. I myself have been too short with retail workers more often than I care to admit (Trust me when I tell you I am ashamed). While we shouldn’t need a reminder to treat each other with respect, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Be nice to the person checking you out this holiday season. Not only are they a human being worthy of kindness and compassion, this week, they’ve probably heard a too earnest version of “White Christmas” more than anyone deserves to.
Christina Stephens is a Baton Rouge native who tweets often, usually about LSU, her dog and south Louisiana. Follow her on Twitter, @CEStephens.