Christmas shopping for people we love ought to fill us with joy, and when things go smoothly, it often does. For those of us who put it off until the last minute, the prospect can end up filling us with dread rather than joy.
Regardless of whether you are a jolly shopper or more of a grinch when it comes to festive retail, Christmas shopping has taken on extra strain this year.
Non-essential retail has been closed in England for four weeks, meaning that two months of pre-Christmas rush will effectively be concentrated into just over three weeks. This, alongside masks, social distancing and hand sanitiser, may turn what is already a stressful experience into a complete nightmare.
I know firsthand just how pressured Christmas shopping can make people feel. When I was a student, I would work Christmases in a clothes shop to supplement my income. I would often feel sorry for shoppers who were clearly rushed off their feet and trying to fit shopping into a packed schedule. However, I had zero sympathy for those who would take their frustrations out on staff.
I would often wonder where the Christmas spirit among shoppers had gone. Customers often seemed to hold me personally accountable when things went wrong. They would blame my colleagues and me when things they wanted were out of stock, as if retail assistants at a large chain had any control over that sort of thing. Smiles and pleasantries while I scanned through customers’ purchases would often be returned with stony silences or scowls.
The worst treatment I ever experienced at the hands of a shopper was during my very first year working in retail. My managers were kind but busy, and I had been given very limited training before being thrown in at the deep end of Christmas retail. I remember being asked to place an order with another store, something which I had not been taught how to do yet. I tried desperately to flag down another colleague, while the customer berated me for wasting her time. “You should know how to do your job,” she told me. The situation was eventually resolved, but she gave me such a firm telling-off I had to go up to the staffroom for a brief cry.
I have two degrees, a bachelor’s and a master’s, but I can honestly say working in Christmas retail was more draining than either of those things. It was such a busy time of year, and most staff I worked with did shifts on both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day. I remember a colleague telling me how upset she was that she was going to miss putting her child to bed on Christmas Eve.
Now that Christmas is again approaching, I keep thinking of all the people I worked with last year and how difficult this festive season will be for them. Not only will they have to contend with masks and social distancing all day when they are working, but many retail staff will also be worried about their jobs.
With retail giant the Arcadia Group, which includes brands like Topshop, collapsing into administration, those working in retail will be watching with anxiety, concerned that their employers might meet the same fate.
When I worked in retail, a customer asking me how my day was could really brighten up a stressful shift. No one can be at their most cheerful all the time, especially not when dashing around busy shops, but a simple “thank you” is not difficult.
In the middle of December, when the seasonal rush is at its height, it’s easy to forget that we buy people presents to show that we care and are thinking about them. It’s time that people remember this spirit and extend it to the retail staff working hard to ensure people can get their gifts this Christmas.