What it’s like to work retail during the holidays

This holiday season will be my first in eight that I am not working retail. That means this is the first holiday season in a long while that I will not be experiencing extended store hours, the mental chess game of trying to figure out if I could get time off on prized days like the Friday after Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve, and the general chaos of increased foot traffic and harried customers trying to check gifts off their growing lists.

I am the type of person who gets a little spring in her step just listening to Christmas music in the summer, so when I say I love Christmas time, I mean it in a way where my heart swells three sizes too big during the end of the year. Yet, when stores transition into their holiday selling mode the minute Halloween passes, my body immediately begins experiencing one of many feels I associate with the roller coaster of emotions felt while working retail during the holidays. Here were the general stages I would go through every year

Flashbacks to last year’s crazy crowds

Everyone knows the minute Christmas cards show up on the sales floor, the holidays are coming up quickly in retail world, and every year, this seems to occur earlier and earlier. The endless holiday-related advertising also doesn’t help quell the anxiety felt knowing that malls will soon be flooded with people. Previous years at the bookstore where I worked would have lines snaking around the store with every register occupied. I would have flashbacks to finding whole shelves emptied and being flanked by so many customers that only at the end of the night would we realize how the whole place had fallen into disarray. The holidays are a busy and chaotic time. This was a reality that you just had to accept.

Mentally preparing for the winter rush

There are small things you can do to try to anticipate all the pitfalls of the winter rush. I would take an Airborne to help shield myself from other people’s winter ailments. I would put in my time off requests early if I dared to take time off between Halloween and New Years. I would start writing up my Christmas shopping list early, since wandering around stores loses its luster when you’re on the other side of the counter. I would also make sure I had comfortable shoes– make sure I had comfortable clothes in general. It was not uncommon for me to blindly grab the softest thing in my wardrobe and some tights on the way out the door in the morning.

Just setting your brain on you-can-do-this mode

If you’ve prepared and come to accept that the holidays are going to be crazy, you can sort of settle into autopilot, especially if you’ve been working retail for a while. While the influx of people can be a lot to take in, the nice thing about the holidays is that people often just want to get in, buy their item, and get out. It’s a lot more quick answers and errands than drawn out searches for the perfect thing. I used to liken moving across the sales floor like carrying the ball in a football game—your goal is clear, and all you have to do is dodge the obstacles to get there. Having manned a gift-wrapping station by myself at the busiest time of year, I also now possess the ability to wrap books at lightning speed. The quicker and more decisive you are, the easier it is to navigate large crowds.

Working through everyday frustrations

No matter how much you turn your brain off and try to just focus on the work, sometimes the work itself can be incredibly frustrating. Customers are cranky, inventory gets low, and the store will always be a mess come closing time. When I worked at the mall in California, we used to have to park at the nearby university for our shifts and be shuttled to the mall parking lot, since parking was so hard to come by the month leading up to Christmas. This made long days feel even longer, standing out in the cold. I’ve also gotten yelled at by customers for not having the items they wanted and have found myself trying to re-erect towers of toy kits while stragglers lingered at the registers long after the store was supposed to have closed. It’s hard not to be envious of customers sometimes, that they get to spend money on the weekends, instead of working long shifts for small paychecks.

Blowing off steam

Often, to cope with the frustration, solace during the holiday season means blowing off steam in many ways. Sometimes grabbing a drink after work was just essential for winding down and feeling like a regular person again. I remember getting a generous tip once for helping wrap a customer’s large purchase, only to immediately spend it on a round of drinks for my friends and me as soon as our shift ended. Especially when I would close the store, I would often find myself watching television late into the night, needing some time to really relax before going to bed. I even remember one day I was particularly stressed and I ordered a McRib from McDonald’s, a mistake I realized the minute I took my first bite.

Bonding with your co-workers to make it through

McRibs and whisky might offer temporary solace, but the thing that really gets you through the holidays is your coworkers. There is comfort in knowing that every time you find yourself dealing with difficult customers or feeling the weight of the holiday blues, there is someone else working alongside you, feeling the same way. My coworkers have made even the most unbearable times not only tolerable but reassuring. We’ve bonded during the holiday season over epic Secret Santas and Christmas parties spent together. Already close relationships have been cemented over re-shelving carts of merchandise at the end of the night. New friendships have been forged quickly as everyone pitched in when we got inundated. Still, nothing will help make the holidays more joyous than…

Collapsing into delicious sleep

Sweet, sweet sleep. Whether it’s passing out when you get home or finally getting Christmas day off, rest will come eventually. I remember walking home one Christmas Eve night with some of my coworkers, trudging through the snow and realizing how quiet everything was. The snowflakes kind of hung in the air and everything was still. That’s how I knew I was going to get a good night’s sleep and that the next day would be some well-deserved relaxing. Eventually, it would be back to the grind. But in that moment, all was peaceful and bright.

[Image via Universal Pictures]

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