Black Friday Staffer Blues

(I’m filing this missive from the North Woods, where we’re recovering from a day of turkey, sleeping and listening to “Is mommy up yet? Can we wake her up so we can have pie?” Even more, I somehow managed to strain something directly across the middle of my back, an oddity even for my spine, and thus I can’t breathe without feeling like I’m being stepped on with golf shoes… God bless us everyone…)

The kids in my intro writing class were finishing up their articles and filing out one by one on Tuesday. I was attempting to be the professor they cursed about the least: I had assigned this to be due over Thanksgiving break, but I gave them enough class time to finish it if they came to lab on Tuesday. Most of the kids walked out with a rundown but positive look on their faces. Thanksgiving came late this year and they were ready for a break.

Say what you want to about “kids these days,” but the kids I have work their asses off. They take more credits than I did per term because everything costs so much more. They also work two or sometimes three jobs to try to hold it together. They don’t come from money, so the Mitt Romney advice of “go ask your parents” isn’t going to fly with them either. Thanksgiving was pretty much the one time they had to recharge their batteries or at least shove the shackles of work away for a couple days.

A couple kids planned to go home and sleep. One kid said hunting was probably in the mix, as he whipped out a cell phone to show me a ridiculously giant buck he nabbed a couple years back. As one of the last kids was making her way to the door, I called out, “Have a great break!”

She kind of snorted and shook her head wistfully. “Uh huh…”

It was a strange reaction, so I put on my reporter hat and pried a bit more. Turns out she worked at one of the stores in the outlet mall nearby. The schedule she was forced to work made it a really poor proposition to drive home Thursday afternoon, scarf down some dinner, drive back for the “Brown Thursday” shift and then work almost the whole rest of the weekend.

This wasn’t her first Thanksgiving shopping rodeo. She’d worked the shifts before, often having to get there at 10 p.m. to set up for the midnight deluge. She’d seen the people fighting over shit they really didn’t even want but, hey, for 80 percent off, I’m getting this! Back off!

This year, however, the store opened late on Thursday, so all hands were on deck early Thursday to prepare for the same stream of screaming idiots, who would now have even more time to bitch about everything to sales associates, who had no control over anything.

The words “holiday pay” or “good money” didn’t slip from her lips once as she explained her five days of insanity. I’d bet a dollar to a dime she’d be much happier once everyone else was done “giving thanks” for everything and she could get back to a ragged and rough school schedule.

Other kids I’ve taught have told me tales of working in places where the insanity reaches a fever pitch. One of my students worked at an Office Max, where she had to help lead the charge during Black Friday. People were nuts, she told me. They knocked over displays, damaged goods, fought with each other and made the staff members’ lives a living hell. All for a good deal on pens, toner and other “festive holiday items.” Because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like a box of printer paper…

One kid told me about a training seminar her store had for Black Friday that involved being super nice to the criminally insane. She was told the people were forced to wait in the cold all night, they were jockeying for positions in line and that supplies were limited, so it was up to the staff to make sure to not upset them any more than they already were.

There is so much wrong with that sentence it could take you a year of therapy to unpack it all. It’s not the staff’s fault that the people were out there all night. That was corporate’s decision to set things up that way and the people who decided that they should give thanks by waiting in line with strangers for a discounted iPad. Even more, the fact people started treating the line like it was the starting blocks for Death Race isn’t the staff’s fault either. Couple that with the scarcity principle, brought on by the corporate assholes, and you’ve got the breakdown of Western Civilization just waiting to happen.

In other words, “Daddy’s coming home and he’s drunk again. Don’t say anything that might upset him.”

A’s point is well taken: The shoppers and the corporate assholes do have a choice. Some places around here, like Mills Fleet Farm, made a point of not opening until 6 on Friday. They even ran ads to accentuate that point, showcasing family photos of the staff members and explaining how it’s important to have that one day off for them. When I first saw one of these commercials, I had that Chris Rock moment:“I ain’t never been to jail!” “What you want a cookie?” The more I saw of the other companies’ ads, the more I realized how outside of the norm this decision was.

However, those who don’t have a choice in this ready-bake disaster are the ones who deal with the brunt of the impacts. As the “keeping up with the Joneses” approach corporations take to this shopaggedeon curry this milieu of misery, the staffers are forced to deal with what comes out the other end.

On the whole, the people who work at these places are those without a lot of other options. They might be students in need of cash. They could be people who were “downsized” from a better-paying job or retirees whose nest eggs came up short. They might be people with families for whom these people are the only means of support. They don’t make a dime extra if they sell out the store or if the shoppers are happy.

They are, however, the people who get screamed at when a distributor understocked the new Xbox. They do restack the giant piles of sweatshirts and jeans that shopper after shopper plows through with the self-restraint of a honey badger on crystal meth. They do find themselves at the end of the day bone-tired, only to know that they didn’t make anyone happy and they aren’t getting paid enough for this shit.

My only hope is that there happens to be a threshold somewhere along the way where no matter how early they start the sales, the net profit doesn’t get any higher. We’ve gone from “Black Friday” (the color of corporate hearts) to “Brown Thursday” (the color of the shit workers have to put up with) to perhaps “Yellow Wednesday” (get pissed on before the day you were supposed to get off) all in the name of more and more sales.

If not, perhaps we can stanch the shopping bloodlust by giving the employees first crack at the sale items, plus another 10 percent off.

If the shoppers will truly do any insane-ass thing for a discount, maybe they’ll take a shift on the front lines to get the deals.

Then, they can feel the horrors they hath wrought.

4 thoughts on “Black Friday Staffer Blues

  1. maplestreet says:

    Two things bother me about this. First, the electronics (and area I know about) I saw advertised for Thursday (and for matter prior black Fridays) had a strong tendency to be items that were so stripped down as to be virtually unusable except for the merest s low-level application (I saw a video of the Moberly Wal-Mart. Folks fighting over tablets being distributed in the fresh meat aisle – location doesn’t make sense to me. Yes they were cheap, but the memory etc. contents were so low as to be outclassed by most toys). So the money spent is for a worthless paperweight.
    Second is the domino effect. Some department stores being open puts a strong economic pressure on other department stores to be open. If the stores are closed there isn’t a lot of reason for the fast food places to be open. If the stores are open, there is tremendous economic pressure for the fast food places to be open. etc.

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  2. maplestreet says:

    RE: the amount that kids work.
    When my older sister went to college, a normal classload was 15 hours. When I went to school just over 30 years ago, the college catalog for my major listed a classload of 18 to 20 hours – and that was just the minimum needed to graduate in 4 years.
    I’ve been on curricula committees since then. They inevitably found that there was no way that the students could meet a higher load so the only solution, which they didn’t dare suggest, was to make 5 years the “norm” for the degree.

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  3. idiosynchronic says:

    Agree w/ Maplestreet. Some of the stores specifically shop China or have their manufacturers make specifically cheap & poor-performing electronics just for the holiday. It’s been going on for at least a decade, and people haven’t wizened up yet.
    THIS: “. . the fact people started treating the line like it was the starting blocks for Death Race isn’t the staff’s fault either. Couple that with the scarcity principle, brought on by the corporate assholes, and you’ve got the breakdown of Western Civilization just waiting to happen.”

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  4. virgotex says:

    An acquaintance with some knowledge of retail real estate practices recently described to me the whole corporate profit and loss house of cards that drives Black Friday practices. The mall ownership groups force the companies who force the branches who force the managers who force the cannon fodder: the front line employees like your student.

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