Attention, Holiday Shoppers

A view of Christmas from behind the cash register.

There’s an adage among retail workers that everyone should have to work retail for at least a couple of weeks before they’re allowed to utter the phrase “lousy customer service.” I’d like to second that, with one small amendment: Everyone should have to work retail during the couple of weeks before and after Christmas. Then they’ll have the right to complain—but somehow, I doubt they will.

I got my first taste of holiday rage back when I was 17, working at a Hallmark store in Sugar Land, Texas, a placid Houston suburb where the major source of social unrest is the quest for a shady place to park your SUV, where the men commute an hour into the city while the housewives spend their days shopping for Precious Moments figurines at Lou-Ann’s Fine Gifts. That year, in the space of two weeks, I had my holiday spirit tested in ways I could never have predicted:

A gaggle of well-dressed ladies tried to “bargain” with me over a pile of $20 Hallmark collectible ornaments, reasoning that they’d soon be on sale anyway.

A harried housewife threw a pile of Barney wrapping paper, tissue, ribbons, and bows in my general direction because I refused to deduct another 10 percent off the existing 75 percent discount.

A husband in search of the perfect last-minute gift slammed the door so hard a shelf full of Russian crystal came crashing to the floor because the lines—three days before Christmas—were “too long” and he didn’t want to wait for the salesgirls to finish wrapping other people’s presents.

Countless customers put things back in the wrong place, damaged the merchandise, and did everything they could to make sure I didn’t forget that the real meaning of the holidays wasn’t peace but procrastination.

Years of Christmases spent working in galleries, gift shops, and bookstores confirmed my suspicions: Something scary happens to nice, ordinary, well-mannered people around Christmas Eve. They bang on the locked doors of jewelry stores at 8 p.m., asserting their God-given right to spend that last $100 in their charge account. They blame others for their own lack of foresight and demand to speak to the manager when salesgirls aren’t snappy enough with a suggestion or sincere enough with a smile. One older gentleman who would drop thousands at a gallery where I used to work even expected the girls behind the counter to remember which woman was his mistress and which one was his wife—and recommend gifts accordingly. Others have expected me to clean up their discarded coffee cups, baby-sit their screaming children, and reopen the store so they could go on a personal shopping spree.

Some of these things, I know, are hazards of the occupation. For every customer that has yelled at me, tossed a crumpled pile of bills on the counter, or walked out because I wouldn’t meet their un- reasonable demands, there’s been another that’s been generous with sympathy, Christmas cookies, or a smile. Still, I’m convinced it’s the holidays, even more than the low pay, crappy hours, and ugly, ill-fitting uniforms, that make people flee the retail industry faster than you can say, “Cash, check, or charge?”

A woman I used to work with wore a button on her uniform around the holidays that said, “Lack of preparation on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” If only all last-minute shoppers could remember that. While they’re rushing about, spending and fretting, and stacking packages in the back of the Saab, others are on their feet 10 hours a day, wrapping their gifts, helping them with their selections, and maybe even summoning a smile. Be grateful for those people. After all, we know who your mistress is.