What It's REALLY Like To Work Retail During The Holidays

Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
If you think waiting in line for hours to purchase gifts is demoralizing, take a second and think about what kind of day the person on the other side of the counter is having. While plenty of retail employees love the holiday season for the heftier commissions it brings, there still can be some downsides in the form of rude customers, strict schedules, and a demanding workload.
We reached out to readers who have done it to hear their thoughts on the biggest negatives to working retail during what's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year. We can say one thing: All of these individuals definitely earned an extra commission check from their experiences.
Click through to hear their horror stories. More importantly, smile at the next clerk you come across this month — chances are, they're also in the middle of dealing with this BS, too, and will appreciate a friendly face to offset the demanding, rude, or just downright absurd customers they have to deal with on the regular.
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Sweater-Folding
"Here's the thing: I love folding sweaters. Even at home, I get a weird feeling of satisfaction from folding my sweaters and seeing them lined up. But that sense of satisfaction is ruined when people immediately dive into piles looking for their size. I especially hate when I'm standing right there and offer to find someone's size. Trust me, after an hour spent folding, I know where the mediums are — and you're nowhere close." — Ellie, 24, worked at a chain clothing retailer
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The "Sick" Coworkers
"I worked at a busy store during the holidays where the manager was really strict about not taking days off or switching shifts in the run up to the holidays — like, the calendar was set in stone by Thanksgiving. The only exception was a medical emergency. So I had one coworker who would pull the most dramatic sick excuses, ever. She would start sniffling days before the day she wanted to take off. It became a joke — except we would still have to cover for her. And then, when she came back, she would cite things like 'exhaustion' and 'needing to call her doctor' as excuses — even though I would look at her Instagram and see that she had definitely been out on the day in question — not in the ER." — Abby, 22, worked at an independent boutique
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Enforced Holiday Cheer
"I remember one customer ask to speak to my manager after I had rung her up in the bookstore where I worked. Why? I hadn't said 'Happy Holidays.' Sorry, I was dealing with a line 10-people deep and was more concerned with getting you out the door and on with your life." — Jenna, 25, worked at a big box electronics store
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Overdramatic Customers
"I worked at a woman's clothing boutique. One time, a woman came in and I greeted her by saying something like, 'Hi, ma'am' — I'm from the South. Well, she freaked out. She insisted that only old or ugly people were called 'ma'am.' I had to apologize and she stormed out of the store and then sent a tweet blasting our store's customer service skills. And worse: I got reamed out by the owner of the store. Now, I get it: Don't say ma'am to anyone." — Monica 38, worked at an independent boutique
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Snackers
"I worked at a store that was a combination of speciality foods, cookbooks, and upscale items for chefs and home cooks. We sometimes had samples out if we had a specific product promotion, but there were always some customers — some of whom came multiple times a week — who seemed to think that everything was okay to sample. I seriously had to bust one woman who was eating these gourmet marshmallows who said she assumed we had a 'try before you buy' policy. Nope!" — Rachel, 32, worked at a chain culinary store
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Chatters
"I sometimes had customers who came in because they were really lonely. I loved some of them — especially if they were honest that they were truly just looking. But the ones I couldn't stand were the ones who came in, asked to try on everything, and made a big show of considering a purchase — and then would leave without buying anything. I'm not saying you need to buy something every time you come into a store, but I definitely had repeat offenders — and hated always having to put on this show when we both knew they were going to walk out empty-handed." — Donna, 29, worked at an independent boutique
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Gift-Card Spenders
"I love gift cards. What I don't love when I have a million people in line? Someone who waits to the front of the line to search every single crevice of their bag and wallet for every single gift card they might possibly own. I have had to ring up a purchase paid for with no fewer than five gift cards. It takes forever. Then, the next person in line hates me. Happy holidays!" — Lara, 32, worked at a big box store
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Family Meltdowns
"I worked in a toy store, which should have been happy, right? Wrong. Parents would bring their kids mid-meltdown and then ask me to play referee by getting me involved and scripting my lines for me. I once had a parent stage-whisper to me to tell their child that I was going to send an email to Santa telling him not to bother picking up presents, because she'd been a bad girl. And the worst thing? I did it. I still regret it, but I needed my paycheck." — Bronwyn, 28, worked at an upscale children's toy chain
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Latte-Drippers
"Our clothing store has a no 'food or drinks' policy, but it's rarely enforced, since the few times it was, people got super-angry. And it's usually not a big deal when the store is relatively empty. But when there's a ton of people, accidents seem to happen. Clothes would regularly be ruined and we would always find half-empty cups of coffee kicked over in the dressing room. And that's so annoying — if you make a mess, tell us! We won't force you to clean it." — Kristen, 30, worked at a chain clothing retailer
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Bad Music Choices
"Okay, so it's bad enough listening to holiday muzak on repeat during a shift. But the worst was closing. I felt like I would always get stuck with someone who had the worst taste in music and would insist on controlling Spotify. The last thing I want to do after an intense shift is listen to your 'motivational workout dance tracks' playlist!"' — Ana, 28, worked at a big box athletics store
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The Facial Exhaustion
"I worked for a beauty brand and got commissions — so I was always smiling as hard as I could to every single customer, even the ones who screamed at me 'not to spray them.' (We didn't sell perfume.) At the end of a shift, my face would literally ache." — Laurie, 32, worked for a beauty line at a department store
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Sugar Rush
"I worked at a chocolate store where we were always allowed to eat any broken or otherwise unsellable candy. That got old after the first week. But the scent of chocolate would just be all-consuming and really distracting. I used to love the scent, but after three weeks of working there, I began feeling sick to my stomach as soon as I smelled it. And the worst thing? People actually gave me chocolate for the holidays that year. Why would you do that?" — Kim, 22, worked for a chain chocolate and candy company
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Weird Coworker Connections
"I worked at a very cool — at the time — teen clothing store where we were all told in our initial new-hire meeting how lucky we were to be there. It felt like we'd been accepted to an Ivy League college, not been hired to sell flannel shirts. Anyway, because of that attitude, we became an exclusive clique. We all knew who had crushes on who, who was flirting with who, and who had hooked up. It was sort of fun — but looking back, it was also seriously uncomfortable and an added interpersonal stress during an already exhausting time." — Lauren, 32, worked at a chain clothing retailer
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Illustrated by Bella DiMarzio
The Not-So-Merry Hours
"My first teenage job was at my local mall for the holidays. I had been so happy to get it — hello, independent income — but I remember getting increasingly depressed, especially when i missed major meals at home, like Christmas Eve dinner. I remember eating my sad plate of warmed-up leftovers and realized that I'd gotten so caught up in my job that I'd missed what I had always loved about the holidays." — Blake, 30, worked at a chain clothing store
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The Paycheck Lag
"I hated how you'd watch people spend so much money — people would drop more than I would make in an entire pay period in just one shopping trip — and you wouldn't get your own paycheck until two weeks later. Not seeing the money for so long made it harder for me to remember why I was really doing this in the first place." — Lyla, 28, worked at a chain electronics retailer
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