Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Black Friday Part II

For obvious reasons, the actual morning part was unpleasant. Since doors opened at 5 a.m. we had to get there at least by 4:30 a.m. to set up, and have another quick pep talk. As a cashier, there wasn't much to set up besides making sure that the register was ready to go and that enough bags were on hand. The other departments might have had to do more, and the managers definitely had to get there earlier. At any rate, the 3 a.m. - 4 a.m. zone is around when it's debatable whether you're better off trying to get a short night's sleep in or just staying up all night. I opted for the short sleep.

On the way to the store, I drove past one of our competitors. This gave me a false sense of security since the crowd in front was nothing more than a half hour's amount of work do deal with.

Then I got to my store. Without exaggeration, I can tell you that the line was at least two football fields long. I admit, I mildly felt like some kind of rock star or celebrity as I walked in. There was a notable rise in the customers' excitement level, since they knew that once the grunts arrived, the show would soon start.

I didn't feel tired. It just felt like I wasn't capable of performing any advanced mental functions. I could do my job well enough, just not any advanced mathematical calculations.

The guard stood at the door, watching the clock for the official countdown of when to open the door. When the time came to do so, I can tell he did so with a bit of hesitation. If it's not a customer who gets trampled to death on black friday, it's usually the employee who opens the door.

The door opened and the customers started flowing in. First they just speed walked, maybe so as not to embarrassingly eager. This lasted long enough for them to get past the security desk, then the full-on ran.

From there, it was like watching that scene from Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant and the kids are in the valley watching the flock of gallimimuses run past before suddenly taking a sharp turn and running in their direction. We had about three minutes from when they walked into the door to when they made it to the registers merchandise in hand.

We were well prepared. All lanes were open. The line was properly corralled. Our managers were on hand at all times to deal with everything from problem customers, to computer errors to just plain running low on change. We only needed to turn around, give a motion and the'd be at hand.

We even had employees whose sole duty was to wait in the wings until one of us had to take a bathroom break or something. We'd make the gesture and be swapped out. It was also the one time we were allowed to keep a coat under our register so that we wouldn't stand out as employees if we had to run to the back. They didn't want us having to deal with the dilemma of having to either brush a customer off onto another employee (which was bad) or not making it back to the register promptly (which was also bad).

The onslaught didn't stop for three hours. Three hours of repetitively making the same gestures of swiping and bagging and trying to sell the same extended warranties on the same products. Thankfully, those practically sold themselves. With computers and video game systems, everybody had heard enough horror stories that they almost expected them to fail but bought them anyway, with the warranty. Cameras and TVs were another story, but nobody got bent out of shape on us not selling warranties those.

Things slowed down around 8am, which was enough time for us to take our breaks. The early morning rush crowd had gone home, so we had some downtime until the second wave. The veterans told us that usually around 10-ish we'd get hit by another mass of customers who wanted to take part in the Black Friday frenzy without the part where they camp out in front of a store all night. This was the group that wanted to enjoy the sale, but didn't care for the ridiculously marked down merchandise.

Sure enough, when ten o'clock hit the crowd surged again. Once again, it was a never-ending stream of people coming through, just as strong as the early morning crowd. This rush only lasted for about two hours. It might have gone on a bit longer than that, but at noon my shift ended and I was able to go home and sleep, slightly perplexed by how I managed to do a full day's work before noon.

The sad part is that it still didn't stop me from going back to the store later that day to take in the sales myself...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Black Friday from Employee Perspective

Part I: Training

So Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) is almost upon us again. It's the day that many retailers bet on turning a profit for the year. It is also arguably the most apeshit insane day in retail year upon year.

This is a day where people forgo spending a quiet night in with the family to camp out in front of a store all night in the hopes of obtaining cheap electronics. (I should also point out that it's the one night of the year specifically reserved for spending time with family, regardless of religious affiliation.) This is also a day where people have historically died on numerous occasions, often trampled to death by the horde of ravenous shoppers trying to snag a cheap laptop.

So what's it like to actually to work on a Black Friday? I suppose if you work at a store that doesn't sell expensive electronics, it's just a busier than average day. Back in 2004, I worked at a big box retailer over the holidays, and that is ground zero for shopping mayhem.

The first thing I was told when I started the job was that I would be working the Black Friday shift. This wasn't offered as a question. This was made clear as day. If you work here over the holidays, you're working Black Friday. You are not going to grandma's house if she lives out of town. You are not weaseling out of this later. Unless you could definitively produce plane tickets purchased prior to your employment, you were going to be at the store.

To train us for the big day every saturday in November, we had to come in for meetings at 7 or 8 in the morning. First we'd be shown a video to get us hyped up about Black Friday. By hyped up, I mean try to get you to not loathe the fact you might have to get up at 4 a.m. the day after thanksgiving.

On a subtler level, they remind you that when the company makes a big profit, they can afford to keep giving you paychecks.

Eventually, we started doing simulations during the meetings. One department at a time was supposed to assume their normal roles while the rest of us represented the throng of customers demanding cheap merchandise. Ideally, it was to make sure that everybody knew what the sale items were, how to deal with irate customers forty at a time and so on. The side benefit was that we got to therapeutically act out as our worst customers so that we wouldn't snap at them when the real time came.

We'd pretend to be the guy who'd complain that we didn't have any half priced laptops left even though he got there an hour after we opened our doors. The guy who just grabbed random merchandise and just ran for the register. The one who tries to beat an old lady senseless to wrench a digital camera out of her hands. The one insist we're trying to scam him by not honoring a sale price when in reality he grabbed a completely different item than what was listed in the flyer.

I didn't have to be on the other side of the simulations since I was a cashier. My responsibilities for the day amounted to a bit of a trade off. On the one hand, it would be a never ending onslaught of people. On the other hand, I wouldn't be expected to sell all of the extended warranties, loyalty program memberships, magazine subscriptions that they usually expected to hammer the customer with at a time when they weren't prepared to spend any more money than they already were. At most we'd only have to mention an extended warranty once, per customer, and only if it was for something in the video game console price range or above.

At any rate, it wasn't worth anybody's time for the employees to line up and pretend to be a never-ending slew of fake customers making fake purchases. So, they just reminded us not to mess up.

Of course no amount of training can really get you excited for having to wake up at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend.

Next: Part II - The actual day