A Plea on Behalf of Seasonal Workers

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by Rob Colfax

You know what time of year it is. The commercials have been on TV since before Halloween, prodding you to go out and buy gifts. Now. Buy gifts, or your family, your friends, your significant other will take you for an thoughtless, unloving cheapskate.

And it’s not enough to just buy gifts. They need to be perfect. Stakes are high. Choose the right gift and win your sweetheart’s undying love. Implied, of course, is the idea that if you buy the wrong diamond or fail to secure the latest iGadget, your lover will see you for the loser you’ve always feared you might be. You will be scorned and abandoned as your erstwhile soulmate runs off to New Zealand to settle down and raise goats with a guitarist named Finn.

It’s understandable that you’ll be stressed when you venture out to the shops or the mall and begin to hunt and gather the presents.

But please: don’t take it out on the help.

Most stores employ at least one or two extra people during this time of year. You may find them slow, unhelpful and frustrating. Try to remember that they are probably just as frustrated as you are.

10 Reasons to Be Kind to the Sales Staff

1. Most seasonal staff don’t get the training or support that regular staff receive. Even regular employees often don’t get the training they need to be as helpful as you – or they – would like. Sometimes the training they do receive has to be done on their own time (i.e., they’ll never be paid for it).

2. Entry-level retail workers typically start at $7-$8 an hour before taxes. Commissions, you say? You think they make commissions on top of their base pay? Some may, but it’s probably not as much as you think. It may be 25 cents on the $100 item you’re thinking of purchasing. Or it may be conditional upon your agreement to purchase the extended warranty they’re embarrassed to ask you to buy (so no extended warranty = no commission).Losing Focus

3. They probably had to spend the equivalent of their first paycheck just to buy suitable clothes to meet the company dress code requirements.

4. They probably haven’t had a break since they came on shift. Yes, employment laws mandate regular break and lunch periods for workers. It’s a nice idea in theory but practice is often very different. When things are busy and a store is understaffed, breaks very often just don’t happen.

5. If they do get a lunch break, it’s often not possible to economize by packing a lunch to bring along (no break room, no refrigerator or microwave in many retail workplaces) which means they’re spending an hour’s worth of their pay on lunch. If they get a lunch break.

6. Often, they’re given the same ridiculous sales goals and quotas to meet as the rest of the staff, even though they’ve had no training on how to meet them and won’t be rewarded with a raise, bonus or continued employment should they somehow manage to do so. They will, however, be badgered, harassed, belittled and yelled at just like the rest of the staff if they fail to meet their goals. If you think a boot camp drill sergeant is tough, you should hear the abuse a district manager is capable of toward sales clerks who aren’t ringing up enough gift cards (or whatever the “focus” item is that week).

7. It’s highly unlikely they’ll get any days off between now and Christmas to do their own holiday shopping. Or grocery shopping, for that matter. Or laundry. For the next several weeks, they’ll be living in the same pair of khakis and subsisting on fast food, vending machine crackers, or broken candy canes from the damaged bin.

8. If they call in sick (even if they have the most contagious flu and are under doctor’s orders to stay home for a couple of days), more than likely they’ll be told not to bother coming back to work. The same applies if they have a death in the family.

9. They’re spending 8-12 weeks working in an environment where, no matter how well they do or how much their coworkers appreciate their help, they’ll be out of work again come January. A few years ago, one major retailer even shocked their associates by firing all seasonal help on Christmas Eve. (This company has since gone bankrupt and closed. Clearly the money saved on a a few days’ cheap salaries wasn’t really worth it.)

10. Most seasonal employees don’t do this type of work regularly, for good reason. DepressedMany are students, artists, writers, people who are already working another job. They’re often not “people persons,” and may be overwhelmed by all the chaos of the season. They’re stressed and exhausted. Just like you.

By now, you may be wondering if there’s any way to make this season of crass consumerism less painless for yourself. And the people in the shops who are trying to help you, of course. I’m glad you asked.

10 Tips for Less Stressful Shopping

1. Cultivate patience. If you need to ask questions of the staff, try to understand if they don’t know all the answers. Better yet, instead of going in and asking the people in the shops a dozen questions so you can then go home and buy your gift online, reverse the process: do your research online before you go shopping. Use your smartphone in the store to get information. There are much faster and less nerve-wracking ways to find out what you want to know than standing in line to grill an overworked sales associate.

2. Shop during off-peak times, if your schedule allows it. It’s less crowded, you’ll feel less stressed, and sales staff will have more time and energy to give you their attention when you need it. You’re also less likely to buy things you’ll regret later.

3. Don’t take the kids. I don’t care how much you love your children, kidsit’s much more stressful for you and everyone else (including the kids) if you take them with you. It’s too easy for them to get excited and overstimulated by all the hoopla, and too hard for you to concentrate when you’re trying to make sure they don’t break anything or get carried off by a stranger in the next aisle. Find a sitter.

4. Limit your phone conversations to your car. When you’re on the phone, your attention isn’t on your cart or your wallet. Not only are you holding up the line and being a huge annoyance to anyone within earshot, you’re a prime target for thieves.

5. Make a list. While some gifts require looking around to see what catches your eye, you’re much more likely to make bad decisions when you’re in a noisy, crowded store. Make your choices when you have some time to think, write them down, and stick to your list once you get out. This may mean that you order some things online, and that’s even less stressful; just be sure to allow enough time for shipping.

6. Let the little things go. It’s easy to become fixated on some minor inconvenience or problem when everyone’s stressed, but do your best to take a deep breath and let things go if it’s not a matter of life or death. Christmas gifts are rarely a matter of life or death. If for some reason you absolutely, positively feel you must complain about something, don’t take it out on the person who’s ringing you up. The cashier has no control over how many LEGO sets are on the shelf. Sometimes it’s just nobody’s fault, no matter how much you’d like to yell at someone.

7. Learn to accept that mistakes will be made. Anticipate it and allow room to work around it. Try to remember that a mistake isn’t a personal vendetta against you. You make mistakes too.

8. If you feel you absolutely must complain, wait until you get home to do it. You’ll sound like a much more rational person once you’ve cooled down for a few minutes, and customer service reps are much more likely to be helpful if you aren’t ranting and raving. If you have a receipt, there’s usually a number or website where you can contact someone who can actually address the issue; if you don’t have a receipt, look up the company online. You might even find that complaining doesn’t seem as necessary once you’ve gone home and had a bite to eat.

9. Be kind. Be generous. Donate to your favorite charity; it really will make you feel a little better in addition to supporting a cause you believe in. Perhaps you can even get family, friends or coworkers involved. Imagine a holiday where, rather than feeling pressured to get one another the perfect gift, you all agreed to give to a worthy charity instead.

10. Remember: everyone is doing the best they can do at any given time.

It’s that time of year again. If you venture out to the shops or the malls, be safe.

Be patient.

More importantly, be kind.

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