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12.19.07

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Phaedra

Clerks: Mantra: It's just stuff, and they're not servants.

Shop Talk

Holiday retail shopping survival guide

By Sara Bir


The whole idea of holiday gift-giving is about generosity and love and sharing, but somehow, every year, the arrival of December fills millions of Americans with dread and loathing. Shopping for gifts shouldn't be a pain, but sometimes it is.

I know, because I'm a retail sales associate. A lot of the frustration that customers feel comes from unrealistic expectations they place on themselves and on the people helping them. But it does not have to be that way. Here are some helpful tips from behind the counter to keep your mad dashes of consumerism running stress-free.

Rude customers get made fun of The main source of a sales associate's glee is not the incessant bleat of cheery Christmas Muzak or the misbehaving of young scamps as they systematically destroy carefully constructed displays. Nope, it's obnoxious customers. Every second an associate spends away from customers' earshot is devoted to bilious venting ("That Cuisinart lady sucks" ) and the feverish recounting of bad customer horror stories ("She made me call three other stores to ask if they had the Wilton giant cupcake pan when I told her over and over that it's sold-out nationwide and the only place to get it is eBay").

The underpaid and undervalued must derive merriment where they can, and often it is in mythologizing the assholery of unreasonable customers. If you are OK with being the person about whom the staff creates a derogatory nickname, then go for it. Be a dick.

Kids are cute, until they are not Negligent parents, know this: Every time your back is turned and your slobbery child inserts store merchandise into her bratty maw, little daggers emerge from our eyes, and they are aimed at you. The things we sell are not teething rings, and they are especially not trial teething rings. If your kid uses half the store as her pacifier, then have the decency to buy what she destroyed with her gross germy kid saliva.

Seasonal staffers are sometimes crazy At a larger store, up to half of the sales associates may be seasonal, only working at the store during the holiday period, after which they will resume their studies, parenting, art career, drug habit, what-have-you. They may not know where everything is or have the answers to ridiculously detailed questions about store merchandise. But they should be able to locate an associate who does know.

Every batch of seasonal staff has its rotten apples—people who don't work full-time, permanent jobs because no sane employer wants to have them around that long. Just hope they don't wind up helping you.

It's just stuff, and we're not indentured servants If you have a lot of disposable income and you love to be waited on and shop mainly for the experience of dominating another person's time with pointless questions and contrarian blather, then go ahead and spend your money on stuff you won't use. It pays my bills, but guess what? I don't respect you or your brand-new $3,500 automatic coffee center. Somewhere out there is a customer who's normal and pleasant and will spend just as much money as you do, and I'd rather be helping her.

Your money is your power Bad customer service exists. When you walk into a store—especially one that sells expensive items—you should be greeted within two minutes, if not immediately. If you ask for help, you should get it in a timely manner. If you have to wait longer than you'd like, an associate should politely and patiently check in with you and explain what the holdup is.

If your needs as a customer are not being met, then don't spend your money at that store. Is a holiday present worth being ignored or sneered at by surly staff? Shopping should be fun at best and tolerable at worst. It shouldn't be torture, and it shouldn't be a stand-in for things in life that give actual enrichment and gratification.

Let's all be human If you're in a bad mood, dump it. If you treat the store staff nicely, odds are they will be kind to you in turn. It is Christmas, after all.


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