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Black Friday’s True Toll

If you think shopping the day after Thanksgiving is hell, try standing behind the counter

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Outside of some undisclosed Target location, a blonde woman in a perfectly coiffed ponytail does sit-ups, lifts weights with baskets full of goods, and literally screams in crazed excitement at a Black Friday flyer. No, this is not real life: It’s one of Target’s bizarrely humorous ads from holiday seasons past, starring comedian Maria Bamford. And while it’s an extreme exaggeration of the planning that holiday shoppers do in order to psyche themselves up to brave the Black Friday crush, some of it is based in truth.

To find the deals you actually want, you must sift through ads, decide which store to stake out, figure out when to arrive, determine how much to bundle up…and choose whether to bring coffee to stay awake or leave it behind because of the inevitable bathroom break it would require while standing in a line that’s snaking down the block. Now that we have Amazon and countless other speedy online delivery services, lining up for Black Friday deals in frigid temps seems quaint, almost old-fashioned. But stores haven’t given up on doorbusters for the old-school tribes of deal hunters, and it’s almost a given that once those doors unlock, there will be viral videos of streams of people risking life and limb trying to get their hands on this year’s hot shit.

But if shoppers have to go through all of this just to get a few hundred bucks knocked off a TV, what about the employees? Imagine watching a stampede of people seeing little more than dollar signs and merchandise rushing at you at breakneck speeds. It’s terrifying.

I’d know. As a retail veteran, I have spent hours upon hours during holiday seasons past catering to customers’ requests: Does this scarf match this jacket? Can you check for another one in the back? Would you get this necklace for your mother? Why doesn’t this coupon work? Are you sure there’s not another one of these in the back? Can you give me another discount? Can I just go in the back and look myself?

Last week, I stopped by Macy’s Herald Square location to pick up a pair of boots. The plan was to be in, out, and on my merry way before I got sucked into the anxious headspace I operated in during my holiday shifts at Macy’s years ago. The poor sales associate who helped me was already completely overwhelmed, and it was more than a week until Black Friday.

In 2016, Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren told CNBC that an eye-popping 16,000 people entered the flagship location when it opened for Black Friday…at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving day. Countless more shoppers will queue outside of thousands of other stores around the country on Thanksgiving, too.

Those were the days when I took a deep breath in the stale popcorn stench of the break room, because I knew I’d spend the rest of the day playing catch-up. Backbreaking days of waking before dawn, pulling double shifts, and running from one end of the store to the other were ended with Icy Hot patches and exhaustion before having to go back and do it all over again. A staggering amount of emotional labor went into remaining chipper after having dealt with a difficult customer and a frazzled manager while Alvin’s pip-squeak voice drilled through my ear canals for the thousandth time. Yes, this is what employees are getting paid for, but I’d argue that they’re not getting nearly enough.

For two years, I had Victoria’s Secret managers breathing down my neck, reminding me that my job depended on asking customers — not once, or twice, but three times — if they wanted to open an Angel card and get early access to Black Friday deals. And forget about trying to keep the actual merchandise in order that day: If someone breathed wrong on the panty bar, I spent an hour refolding each thong to perfection only to look back and see it’d been picked through again. It was a Sisyphean task that made me question my sanity every time I stepped into that pink-and-black wannabe boudoir.

And it’s not just the people behind the counter working hard to make your holiday shopping experience a winter wonderland. Those who make the holiday magic happen have pulled all-nighters to make sure everything is just so. On my way out of Macy’s last week, I saw a trio of window dressers bundled up in puffer coats and woolen scarves peeking at their handiwork in progress from the sidewalk. “It works! The perspective is great!” The relief in their voices was palpable.

Now that I’m no longer in retail, there’s once again a sense of wonder, hope, and magic that fills my heart during the holiday season. Just as when I was little, my eyes grow saucer-wide when I see department store holiday displays replete with elfin animatronics, tinsel-tipped trees, and flecks of faux snow glittering under fluorescents — and it’s thanks to those people behind the scenes.

While Black Friday has historically been a good thing for companies and store owners, it’s hell for their employees. Working during the holiday season sometimes means extra hours and overtime pay, but I’d wager that there are few people who truly relish the onslaught of demanding shoppers.

So while you’re making your Black Friday game plan this year, here’s a gentle plea from someone who survived retail hell: Be nice to the people helping you find that perfect pair of gloves, the people putting extra whip on your PSL, the people helping you get to where you need to be, and the people delivering your Cyber Monday haul. Even if you’re the humbuggin’ type or you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, remember that the golden rule goes a long way for everyone — especially those in the service industry.

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