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

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