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What It’s Really Like to Work Retail on Black Friday

Topics: Work Culture
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The retail industry has suffered in recent years, but you wouldn’t know it from sales forecasts during the holiday season. According to the National Retail Foundation, 66 million Americans shopped online or in stores on Black Friday 2017, and this year’s numbers are expected to be even higher.

That’s good news for retail companies and for shoppers hoping to score some deals. But it’s not-so-great news for retail workers, who have to be at their stations long before doors open and long after the lines have dwindled.

What’s it really like to work in retail on one of the busiest shopping days of the year?

The Build-Up Can Be Worse Than the Day Itself

“The month building up to Black Friday is pure anticipation from the management end,” wrote Ken Miyamoto, a former Best Buy manager, at Quora. “The week before is even worse. The night before is hell.”

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Then, the day of:

Employees wait, ready for battle. They’ve been stared at for hours during the prep by those strange creatures who have been lurking outside the glass doors. And now those creatures are about to be unleashed in the small confines of a retail stores packed with product.

The doors open and in less than a minute the store is filled to capacity (and sometimes beyond).

It’s ridiculous. It really is. It’s probably one of the biggest moments of shame for the human race, displaying such consumerism. Now, I can get past the human need for luxuries in life. That’s who we are. But the biggest moment of shame for this race is how a majority of people treat each other.

However, Miyamoto notes, Black Friday itself isn’t necessarily “busy” in terms of what employees have to do: “The waves crash in, create havoc beyond control, and then recede out with force, followed by stillness and silence.”

OK, But How Bad Are the Customers?

Pretty bad. For an example, see this story from Shannon S., published in Insider:

I started working retail in 2007 at Circuit City. My first Black Friday was unbelievable. We were supposed to open at 4 a.m. We all stood at the front doors to watch people come in. I stepped out a little too far and my manager literally had to grab me by the back of the shirt and pull me back before I got stampeded.

Once everyone was in the building, I started to make my way over to my register. As I walked over, I saw two women fighting over a printer. Before I had the chance to ask if they needed help, one woman hit the other with her purse, shoved her and ran towards the camera department. I will never forget that as long as I live.

An Extra Discount (With a Possible Catch)

There are upsides to working on Black Friday. A few workers mentioned free pizza, and some stores give extra employee discounts.

“Walmart employees are free to take advantage of the store’s deals on Black Friday,” wrote Áine Cain at Business Insider. “But the shopping must be done when they’re on break or taking lunch or on their own time.”

In practice, that can make using the discount on breaks pretty hard, as Black Friday lines are longer than most retail workers’ breaks. But if they can work out the timing, the savings might be worth it – especially with a reported 25 percent Black Friday employee discount. (Compared to their usual 10 percent.)

Clever Coping Mechanisms

Eventually, even the most dedicated associate reaches their limit. When that happens, sometimes they get crafty about finding ways to take a break (or at least “a break”) in plain sight.

“One year, a friend and I were so tired of talking to customers that we took off our headsets and decided to intricately fold and refold tables full of shirts,” wrote former retail worker Anne T. Donahue at 29 Secrets. “And because it looked like that was our only job, nobody talked to us. So it was heaven: we didn’t have to interact with the public, our manager assumed we were being very productive, and only when the store was overrun with customers did we have to answer for doing the most pointless job in the world. And do you know what? It was so worth it.”

Even Shopping Online Won’t Spare Workers

You’re probably aware that there’s a human being on the other end of your speedily delivered online purchase. But you might not have stopped to think about how the holiday shopping rush affects workers in fulfillment centers just as surely as it does those in your local big box store.

At Vox, a former Amazon warehouse employee shared his story of working during the Black Friday crush. From his interview:

Once they got to their stations, the chaos began. You’re just trying to make things stay as stable as possible. The volume of orders on Black Friday is like what happens when Amazon opens the floodgates; we were at full capacity, and we just never stopped. I remember looking at the backlog and watching the orders go from 10,000 to 300,000, and just thinking that we’d never be out of it. The backlog was even higher on Cyber Monday, because Cyber Monday is actually busier for Amazon than Black Friday.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever worked retail on Black Friday? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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