If there’s one thing I’ve been most thankful of this Christmas, it’s the peaceful sound of not hearing any Christmas music while I’m working. Last year was a different story. After taking first retail temp job during the festive season, I quickly came to appreciate the singular joy of not having Ariana Grande’s “Santa Baby” blasted on repeat while I hurried in circles around the shop floor, clearing the destruction the customers left in their wake. These months are the least wonderful time of the year for those on short-term retail contracts.
Every Christmas, large retailers hire hundreds of new and untrained staff to boost their numbers during their busiest season. These inexperienced employees are placed on the frontline to deal with complaints from customers who are oblivious that the person they are talking to at the till is a temporary employee who does not represent the organisation and knows very little about it. It’s a tinderbox.
With rising demand from customers in the run up to Christmas, rising demand for, and from, employees is inevitable. Christmas is one of the few times of year when jobs are readily available. Jobseekers are forced to accept unstable contracts, too often zero hours, in the hope of a long-term contract in the New Year. Eager to secure a permanent job, they agree at interview to work Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. It is the season of overwork too, with stores shutting as late as 10pm during the pre-Christmas rush. The sloping workers’ toilet has been a long time coming; at work last year, my manager would hammer on the door after any employee spent more than one minute in the bathroom.
Yet despite all this, a Christmas temp’s first (and perhaps last) few weeks are likely to be characterised by some of the worst abuse retail staff will ever have to deal with. Home Office figures show that incidents of threat and assault against retail employees doubled between 2016 and 2018, and continue to rise. The kinds of abuse retail staff experience ranges from simply being patronised to being held up at knife-point.
Among Christmas customers, the season of goodwill to all retailers seems to evaporate. The ticket to all such misbehaviour is found in the common business mantra that “the customer is always right”, even when they are quite clearly wrong. However unreasonable a demand, sales advisors must grit their teeth and give them want they want. Those who are hunting for discounts are encouraged to fuss, knowing full well that sales staff are advised to oblige (a policy that takes a heavy toll on small retail businesses).
These are extreme examples, but be honest: most of us are guilty of behaving badly in shops – dodging with suspicion employees who approach us with “can I help?”; snatching free samples then ducking out of the shop to avoid the sales talk; making a mess of stores by picking up items and replacing them elsewhere; expressing our frustration, and talking down to staff.
When stores are understaffed and employees inexperienced, this kind of behaviour makes seasonal employment in retail a truly miserable time for temporary staff. So when you are queueing outside in the rain before opening time on Boxing Day, or approaching someone on the shop floor with a question or complaint, remember that is a human behind the till and not a machine. And person you are talking will most likely be out of a job within a fortnight.