I began my retail career in October of 1986. I started working at Macy’s like hundreds of other employees, as a “Christmas hire”- temporary, part-time. Little did I know how much of my life was about to change!
The first surprise for this country girl was the training class. I thought I was pretty smart, but the cash register and the paper work and the procedures for everything kept me challenged. And I found out that there was a lot more to “customer service” than just pointing people to the right aisle! I guess at that point I hadn’t had a lot of shopping experience in the “better stores”. But I must have done something right because my first night “on the floor” I passed the most rigorous test imaginable. One of my first customers was the store manager!
I guess all of the regulars knew the manager made her rounds during the first weeks after the new hires started work. They just didn’t bother to tell the unsuspecting new hires! We had met at least a dozen executives during our training classes. Why didn’t I remember what the manager looked like?? I suppose because I was too overwhelmed. Anyway, my first assignment was the men’s department and a very nice woman asked me to help her find some shirts for her husband. About thirty minutes and three shirt purchases later, she thanked me and left. The next day my immediate supervisor told me I’d made a “very good impression”. Funny, I just remember trying to survive my first night!
That first Christmas I only worked 20 hours a week from October 25th to December 27th. It was an exhausting whirlwind of late nights and sore feet, but I found that I loved it! I worked in several different departments. I met lots of people. I got to drool over the amazing array of gifts and decorations. It was a wonderful experience. Perhaps that’s why I made the coveted “rehire” list. On January 17th I went back to work as a “flyer”.
I spent the next five years at Macy’s. As a flyer I worked odd hours and was “on call” for any emergency. If someone got sick, went on vacation, or just needed a lunch break I worked their area. If a department lost an employee or was having a sale I worked that department until things were stable again. During the time period I was there, I was the only flyer to work every single department in the store, including the loading dock, personnel office, customer service, cookies, and electronics. I even worked as the store secretary for a few months! I trained employees. I ran the switchboard. And each year I spent the week before Christmas in gift wrap!
Gift wrapping in a department store is a generally thankless task. People expect gift wrapping. They expect it to be beautiful. They expect it to done quickly and expertly. And they expect it to be free. They also expect miracles! I remember the challenge of wrapping televisions and statues and fragile china. I once wrapped 32 boxes of candy for a woman who carefully watched the entire procedure. Customers love to make suggestions, or demand that a crease be a little sharper, the bow a little straighter. The woman who worked next to me was once slapped on the hand by a dissatisfied customer! I was right there with my mouth hanging open when it happened!
Christmas shopping doesn’t always bring out the best in people. We’re generally frustrated, exhausted, and on the brink of financial ruin. We’re at our wit’s end trying to figure out what to buy for people we barely know, or how to impress the people we care about the most. The week before Christmas the stores stay open later and later. The shoppers get more and more desperate. I always hated to help a man who was shopping at eleven o’clock on December 23rd! I hate to see a grown man cry!
The loading dock was always an interesting assignment during the holidays. Just ask my husband. He was a Christmas hire a couple of times. The staff was kept hopping, not only with new merchandise for the departments, but with customer purchases. Spur-of-the-moment shoppers would take advantage of a sale on televisions and then drive around to the dock in a Volkswagen bug. Oops! Or they’d make so many purchases, they’d have to call a friend to bring a second car.
The best thing about working at a major retail store during the holidays has to be the decorations. The number of people who work behind the scenes to design, build, buy, and put up the decorations is astounding. And the result is always phenomenal. Macy’s had a whole forest of Christmas trees decorated in different themes. Each department had swags and bells and ribbons and glitter. Harp music floated down from the upper floors. I loved going to work!
People often asked me if I envied wealthy customers, or found myself coveting pricey items in the store. I really didn’t. I spent so much time at the store that it actually felt like my second home. I gazed at the pretty china every day. I spent lunch hours looking at expensive jewelry. I felt the fur coats and soft silks. The merchandise was around me all the time. I didn’t need to wear it or take it home or own it. Plus I had the added bonus of not having to pay for it. I just enjoyed it!
Working at Macy’s taught me some hard lessons about people. I had to smile and give my best “customer service” to people who annoyed, repulsed, or even frightened me. I was shocked by the shoplifting and vandalism that took place year-round, but especially during the holidays. I was disgusted by people who abused the return system in order to wear a fancy dress and jewelry for an evening. I was embarrassed by the things people did in the dressing rooms! I was outraged by a manager who stole money from her own register. But I also met some truly wonderful people on both sides of the counter. I worked with some women who are still friends today. I worked long enough to have some regular customers who were a joy to help. I met people from different cultures and careers who added to my knowledge and experience in ways that can’t be measured.
Even though I loved my job, it took a toll on my health, and I eventually grew tired of the hours and demands of retail. I worked the last year in the personnel office and took that experience with me to another personnel job in a hospital. But I have never regretted my time at Macy’s. I still love the store and I try to visit when I get the chance.
To all of you who work in retail, I wish you a Merry Christmas! I have a profound respect for you. Hang in there, it will be over soon!