I loved working Black Fridays

There's a lot to hate about being a retail employee -- but the biggest shopping day of the year isn't one of them

By Angela Harmon

Published November 29, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

   (<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=790133'>fotofrog</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(fotofrog via iStock/Salon)

Lately, I’ve read quite a few essays on the topic of Black Friday and the burgeoning “Gray Thursday,” a charming term for stores open on Thanksgiving. All these essays share a disdain for the biggest shopping day of the year. If the authors aren’t wagging their fingers at how commercial the holiday season has become (as if that’s anything new), then they’re offering righteous indignation on behalf of retail workers who can’t spend the holiday with their families. These writers appear to be rushing to the aid of the Black Friday workforce, and yet I wonder how many of them have actually held these jobs. As someone who did work the front lines of Black Friday, I have to admit: I actually liked it.

If you’ve ever worked a job in retail, you know there’s a lot about it that just plain sucks. The exhausting 11-hour shifts. The entitled customer yelling at you over the return policy. That pile of sweaters you spent half an hour folding that’s destroyed once you turn your back. (We’re not even going to talk about working odd hours and weekends.) In general, retail is an inconvenient, irritating, even infuriating way to make a living. One thing that doesn’t suck, however, is working on Black Friday.

For two years, I worked the midnight shift on Black Friday at the largest mall in southern New Jersey. What’s more, I requested those shifts. One simple reason is the pay. At the women’s clothing retailer where I worked, employees were paid double-time for hours worked on Thanksgiving and every hour until 5 a.m. This isn’t always the case, but it’s also not unique. Like many retail employees, I was living paycheck to paycheck -- a theater major grad with $130,000 in student loans -- and I was in favor of anything that put one more gift under the tree and allowed me to pay a bill.

But there was another reason I volunteered: Black Friday is fun.

Yes, I said it. Black Friday is fun. There’s no other day like it in the world of retail. Just being in a mall in the middle of the night is bizarre. (Good parking.) But I loved the camaraderie that built up among the staff in those electric hours, as we hustled around and tried to accommodate the hoards of shoppers. The number of people in the mall is tremendous. Just this blur moving through the corridors -- people sprinting from sale to sale, trying to balance their bulky shopping bags and their Starbucks. It’s hilarious. There should be an Olympic medal for ability to spend disposable income.

Afterward, it was always a mess in the store. A crazy mess. And I think that’s another reason I liked it. It was more extreme, more intense than any other workday. It kept me alive and alert. One shift, we had a half-off sale, and I was at the register alone with a line 30 people deep by 12:20 a.m. For the next four hours, I became a machine: Scanning and folding items, opening shopping bags for the next customer while the current customer was swiping their credit card. I was worried that people would get impatient and frustrated. But I found the opposite was true. People were so nice. "You're doing a great job! Keep it up!"

It would be great if retail workers didn’t have to work during a holiday. (It would be great if no one had to work retail, ever, or pay back $130,000 in student loans.) But given economic realities, and given that we’re in a still-fragile economy where stores need these kinds of gigantic sales days, I find the argument against Black Friday and Gray Thursday a little arbitrary. Don’t forget that people have long worked on Thanksgiving, at supermarkets and convenience stores and 24-hour diners. I guess I always saw holiday work shifts as a necessary reality of the retail job I had chosen. In the same way that you’re expected to tidy up a fitting room after a customer has tried on 20 items and not put any of them back. Every job has setbacks. But like I said, this one didn’t come without rewards.

I appreciate these columnists wanting to raise a “call to arms” on behalf of retail workers. But it seems to me that a more effective argument would be to champion for fair, appropriate wages for those working on Thanksgiving who are not making more than their regular hourly rate. That’s where we do need change: If you’re going to make your employees work on a holiday, make it worth their while.

But my time in retail taught me that the holiday spirit is all about your attitude. Yes, the season has become very commercialized, and expensive. You can be a curmudgeon about that. You can add to the chorus of people who groan about this or that aspect of the holidays. You can be the person standing in line, groaning about how much you’re spending on Aunt Mildred’s sweater. Or you can accept certain inevitabilities about the busy holiday season. Smile at the person ringing you up in that long line. Try your best to fight the temptation to be rude. Find the good in what you have. And if you don’t want to shop on Black Friday, by all means: Stay home.

Angela Harmon

Angela Harmon is a writer from New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter @h0bb1tf33t.

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