Surviving Holiday Shopping:
Lessons From a Shopgirl

For over a decade now, I've been a shopgirl. I've worked in flower shops, coffee shops, home goods and gift shops, a major organic grocery store, and the world's prettiest candy shop, and I've picked up a few holiday shopping lessons over the years…First, I want to express how much I love being a shopgirl. I love working with the public, and am genuinely delighted to see each new customer. I love helping people find the perfect thing, no matter their budget, and I love holding their hand as they deal with stresses and insecurities: Will this gift be well received? Will it express how I feel about the recipient? Will I be proud of my home/party/pie? I've taken all my service industry jobs very seriously, and wear the title shopgirl as a badge of honor. (I know there might be people who take issue with that term, especially the 'girl' part, but what can I say? I don't feel demeaned in the least by it, and still thought of myself as a shopgirl even when I was also the manager, buyer, floral designer, marketing director, etc). Here are some of my best holiday shopping tips:

Weekday mornings are your friend. If you can swing it, taking a Monday morning off in December can be a lifesaver. And if you have off-weekends like so many of us do, you're all set. These last two winters I've made my way to downtown San Francisco at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and there were no lines anywhere. The stores were fully stocked, the post office was empty, and I got about 6 hours' worth of holiday errands done in 2. Just try to be out of there by noon when things start to get busy.

Arrive right when the store opens. For all the reasons mentioned above and more, it's the best. The employees are fresh, you'll probably be one of the only customers, and the shops will still be perfectly organized, making it easier for employees to help you. All is calm — and you will be, too.

But not a moment before. Pre-opening and post-closing are times when there's work to be done in a business but no money is being made. Therefore, this time is kept as short as possible and employees have to seriously hustle to get everything ready for the public. I cannot tell you all the times customers have banged on the window, yelled, and called, demanding to know why we weren't open 5, 10, even 30 minutes before the posted opening time. And if I went out to explain it to each one, the money would never get counted and the cakes would never get frosted! The 5 minutes just before opening are especially precious: it's when we run to the restroom, grab a glass of water, put on music, pull on an apron, and a million other tiny things that make the day run infinitely more smoothly. (All this being said, if it is significantly later than the opening time — like 5 or 10 minutes, not just 1 minute according to your watch — feel free to knock, of course. This happened to me last year at a business that had 2 entrances — they forgot to unlock one. I've also had customers come in the shop and lock the door behind them!)

Same goes for closing times. I'm sure this one is self-explanatory, but you would not believe the amount of times I've been yelled at for not being open 10 or more minutes past the posted closing time. I've been reported to my boss (who, of course, set the closing time in the first place), yelled at on the street as I took the trash out on Christmas eve… business hours are what they are. Also, most of the people I currently work with have other jobs, so when our shift finishes at one place we often have to rush to another.

If you do sweet talk an employee into letting you come in after hours, uphold the agreement. If it's Christmas Eve and you've pleaded with a shopgirl to come in 10 minutes after closing to grab a specific box of chocolate and that's it, don't then ask her to make you a dozen $2 party favors, and oh, can I sample all the kinds of licorice, too? The agreement was for one item and one item only. The sympathetic shopgirl helping you is probably doing so off-the-clock, so respect her time.

Call ahead. Seriously. A two minute call can save you a long bus ride and a fruitless battle with the crowds. You can find out if what you're looking for is available, and there's potential that an employee can set all your items aside for you, all nice and neat with your name on them, and maybe even ring you up over the phone!

But be prepared when you call. In an ideal world, every business would have a bank of phone-answerers, like in old-timey movies, but in reality, the person answering the phone is probably also facing down a long line of customers. For the greater good, be as well-prepared as possible before you call. Ordering flowers? Have the recipient's name (double-check the spelling!), address, phone number, and of course your credit card information. No matter what you're ordering or requesting, try to have a few back-ups ready in case your No.1 choice is not available.

Leave a message! Leaving a message may feel frustrating, but it can often be great. It allows employees to call you back when they can give you their full attention, rather than when they have a dozen customers in line. It also gives them a chance to gather all the information needed before they call you back, so you'll spend a much shorter amount of time on the phone (no waiting on hold!). Just remember not to get upset if you haven't gotten a call back right after the business opens: there are probably a lot of messages to check, and a lot of calls to return.

Count the degrees of separation. There are some businesses that have infuriating policies — believe me, I know. It can be incredibly stressful to be faced with what you consider to be an unfair return policy, for example. But before you have it out with the person helping you, try to ascertain how many degrees of separation she is from the person who created, and enforces, the policy. Is the owner or general manager helping you? Great! She's the perfect person to discuss the issue with, being mindful of all the people behind you in line, of course. Or is the shopgirl assisting you 30 rungs below the decision-maker in the company hierarchy? Will she ever even meet the person who made that policy? If so, the best thing to do is get the contact information for someone who has some leverage, and remember that the shopgirl in question could very likely lose her job if she doesn't uphold the company's policies.

Breathe, and maybe even have fun. Holiday shopping is generally as exhausting for employees as it is for shoppers — I have worked a lot of 12-hour shifts over the years — but for some of us, it's also thrilling. I love working in a shop during the winter holidays: everything's so pretty and sparkly and festive, and there's so much excitement in the air. Even when I've been on my feet for 8 hours without a break or a snack, I love it. I may be hungry and beat, but I'm also having fun. And I hope you are, too.

(Image: OiMax on Flickr, licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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