The day after Thanksgiving – from the inside

Tennis and spending four hours visiting my friend’s 5-month old skipped Day 4 of Shopping Week until this morning, but let’s see if I can squeeze two posts in today to get back “on track”.  After you…

The biggest shopping day each year is no surprise to anyone, the day after Thanksgiving, where everyone usually gets a day off (except for those in retail) and some eye-popping sales of infinitesimal quantities are dangled to holiday-keyed buyers.

My perspective on this day operates a little differently from a lot of people, owing to my years working for the (at the time) soon-to-become largest toy retail chain in the world.  Since that time, they have fallen on tougher times, as many “largest” stores do (and how head shaking is it that none of these “largest” ever learn from the errors of the previous “largest”?).

Oops, straying off target.  As I mentioned, my perspective of that extraordinary day is enlightened somewhat by my experiences in retail during that hectic (but fun) time.  Indeed, I think those could be the most enjoyable working days of my life, though some of that could be attributed to my age and lack of wisdom (by now, I’ve got the age part down, at least).

Working in a toy store at the height of toy buying time was an amazing adventure.  Setting up the aisles and shelves with the “featured” goods for that holiday was both a race against time and an opportunity to have all-out fun.  Somehow, the running cartons back and forth from truck bays or stockrooms, tearing open the boxes and whipping the toys onto the shelf (based on specific guidelines…have to make every store look the same, doncha know), that was exciting, not tiring.

With a good crew of managers and employees (at that time of the year, the only distinction between the two is the nominal difference in pay and the longer hours of the former), the whole process became a game.  Sometimes, we would “race” to see who could get their endcap set up first.  Other times we would see how quickly we could throw down the boxes from the top of the racking in the stockroom.  Those boxes usually contained the excess holiday toys and decorations from the previous year.  Have you ever thought just how old that candy cane was that you were sucking on?  I believe that after a nuclear war, only roaches and candy canes will survive…which should make the roaches very happy.

Sometimes we would “compete” against other stores, checking to see if they had their “seasonal” section up (the area filled with the holiday-only stuff).  I can proudly say we one more than our share of those informal comparisons.

During my “era”, stores didn’t have the 5 am “doorbuster” sales.  That didn’t stop the people from lining up in front of the entrance doors.  As with many stores, no doubt, the crowd would occasionally be leaning on the door and you could actually see those bug glass doors bend inward.  Yikes!

As soon as the unlucky store employee who got the short straw opened those doors, his or her first responsibility was to run for their life, as the bustling crowd took no mind of any impediment in their way to whatever special toy “junior” had asked for.  Send in the clowns!

Which, of course, was entirely appropriate for a toy store.  The fun began as soon as the jostling started.  Some shrewd purchasers eschewed a shopping cart, knowing that would only slow them down and ran (literally) to the area they believed the “hot” toy was located.  I even had a couple customers, so focused on obtaining the object of desire that they came in weeks prior to the holiday and asked which aisle said toy would be located once it arrived this year.  Talk about planning ahead!

I probably had the most fun when I was able to help some Mom or Dad locate the specific item they were looking for, either on the shelf, or by uncovering a “lost” box in the storeroom.  We had rules, of course, more instituted by ourselves, not the company.  We made sure that, in order to be fair, no manager or employee would search boxes to help a customer find that rare Star Wars figure or other unique items (the toy companies seeded with such scarcity as to force some customers to buy extras off the shelf just to get a new box brought out).  This policy turned out to be a safety net when the Cabbage Patch craze came to the store.  That tale could take up an entire post, so I’ll leave that for another day.

Of course, not every purchase was a toy.  Bikes, playhouses board games (just how many Candy Land have been sold since it was created?) and other staples of holiday gift giving became precious commodities at that time of year.  The extra need for bike assemblers had managers at all stores scrambling.

Despite common misconception, most shoppers tended to be polite and considerate, even on the most precious of items.  More than once, I hear a shopper say in a disappointed but genuine tone, “Congratulations” as a shopper next to them picked up the last “hot” toy or lucked into that rare action figure.  Often times, customers would help others find what they were looking for, feeling the bond of shared desire to make their kids happy.

Perhaps that’s why I look back at those times as some of my happiest working days.  Despite the bustle, the urgency and the potential despair, there also seemed to be a great camaraderie and sense of humor in the nearly fatalistic attempts to find that “one thing” that was at the top of so many kids shopping lists that year.  I’ve always enjoyed helping people and when kids are involved, the happiness quotient ratchets up even higher, both of the helper and the helped.

I’ll let you in on a little secret.  The day after Thanksgiving was never really the “worst” day for those of us in retail.  That day was actually the day after Christmas, when those same entrance doors buckled under the combined wait of hundreds of parents trying to return unwanted or duplicated gifts.  That, too, is a story for another day!

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