What It’s Really Like To Work Retail On Black Friday

Photo: Alex Flynn/Bloomberg/Getty Images.
This week marks the official beginning of the holiday shopping season, punctuated by one of the biggest buying days of the year. You know we're talking about Black Friday. While you might be busy defrosting your turkey or picking out the perfect Thanksgiving wine, retail workers across the country are busy prepping their stores for the many shoppers that will be showing up this Thursday evening and Friday morning for doorbusters and special sales.
To get a glimpse into what it's really like to work retail on this major shopping holiday, we spoke to four women who have actually done it. In 2014, Becci worked her job as a part-time sales associate at Michael Kors on Black Friday from midnight to 8 a.m. Kristen was a sales associate at Old Navy from 2013 to 2017, and during her time there, she worked a total of six overnight Black Friday shifts. Allison, a sales associate at an unnamed clothing store, worked her first-ever Black Friday shift last year and plans to work two more this year. Finally, Raegan worked Black Friday as a seasonal cashier at Target in 2014 and as a sales associate at Wet Seal in 2016.
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Ahead, they share the pitfalls and perks of working Black Friday, including the one thing you should never say to a retail worker on the busiest shopping day of the year.
Were you paid extra? Do you feel you were paid fairly?
Our normal pay was $9/hr (above the minimum in Texas) plus 3 percent commission and any hours worked on Thanksgiving day were time and a half. In theory, the commission would've been great (and was for people on other shifts), but the actual mall was closed during most of my shift, with Michael Kors and Macy's being the only two stores I know for certain were open. I think that holiday pay should be extended through Black Friday, especially in stores that do not offer commission." — Becci

"You got holiday pay if you worked on Thanksgiving, but not that Friday. I personally think for the work you put in, no one was paid fairly." — Kristen

"No, we are paid the state minimum wage, which is $8.60/hour. As a sales associate, we have always made what the state minimum wage was, so this was not unusual." — Allison

"I worked at Wet Seal in the summer of 2016 as a part-time sales associate but had to leave for college that September. I couldn't keep my employee status while I was back at school so my manager offered to rehire me during winter break and Black Friday, and they would pay me $50 cash — I still had to fill out a W2 and all that jazz — for a four-hour shift." — Raegan
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Did you get any perks for working on Black Friday?
"There were not many perks other than food in the break room. There would be soda, water, chips, and sometimes pizza, depending on the manager." — Kristen 

"The perk of working Black Friday is rolling in extra hours, which is just a bigger paycheck, but there isn't 'time and a half' or anything unless you work overtime. But, the nice thing is, even if you are hired as a temporary Black Friday position, you still receive the employee discounts (up to 50 percent off)." — Allison

"Throughout the entire holiday season, Target always had little goodies and stuff in the break room, which I thought was really nice. Even though it was only for a day, Wet Seal offered all the Black Friday temp employees the employee discount which was 40 percent off of regular priced merchandise. " — Raegan
What was the best thing about working Black Friday? 
"We had an abundance of coffee in the back and breakfast pastries were catered to the store... That's about it.'' — Becci

"The best thing about working on Black Friday was having most of my coworkers with me. I definitely would not have been able to get through it without people who completely understood just how stressed and tired I was." — Kristen

"My store makes it really fun! I've always loved all my coworkers and the work atmosphere we have created over the years. My managers really know how to hire the best people, and we all get along so well — sometimes it doesn't even feel like work! We definitely bring this energy into Black Friday. We have a huge potluck (always accommodating food restrictions) where everyone brings a dish to store in the stock room, so no one has to worry about not having anything to eat during their break." — Allison

"The money. Scoping out the deals is nice too, but I never went shopping after work because I just wanted to go home. I have gone out early in the morning before work though." — Raegan
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What was the worst thing about working Black Friday?
"Our store's ownership chose to keep us open from 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day until 9 or 10 p.m. on Black Friday, despite the actual mall being closed from midnight until 6 a.m. It was awful and so, so, so boring. I think we had a total of ten people enter the store during the first five hours of my shift, with a bit more pick up as people arrived closer to the doorbusters at 4, 5, and 6 a.m. I lucked out in a sense as the only college student on the sales team — while I worked the overnight shift, I had the rest of the weekend off. A few of my coworkers who had overlapping shift times had to return to the store to either close on Friday or open on Saturday. By the time my shift was ending, things had started to get busy in the store, and I ended up working an extra hour or so while people took breaks. It is very weird being in a quiet, empty mall for hours, but our store was probably the cleanest it had ever been." — Becci

"I think the worst thing about Black Friday was the preparation leading up to it. Often times, I had worked about five or six overnight shifts before that actual day. I would open shipments that were 9,000 units and anywhere from 300 to 400 boxes, trying to finish it all and put that product out in one shift. There is so much pressure on everyone to have everything stocked and have the store perfect beforehand. The managers are stressed out, thus taking it out on the employees and giving them unrealistic expectations. There were never enough people. By the time Black Friday actually came around, I was often so mentally and physically exhausted, that I didn't have much energy left in me. Personally, the exhaustion was the worst part of working on Black Friday, but overall, it was never as bad as the actual weeks prior." — Kristen

"The long, long shifts. Our Black Friday shifts usually run about seven to nine hours, and, during the year, sales associates usually average four- to five-hour shifts. My first Black Friday was before I worked as a manager, so I was not used to long shifts. Especially during the slow periods, just standing at the fitting rooms, I was pretty tired. I'm not looking forward to working the graveyard shift this year. I can already taste the energy drinks." — Allison 

"The customers. I was fortunate enough to never witness a fight or anything serious, but like any other day, I've had to deal with rude customers. As a cashier at Target, I never really knew what was going on on the sales floor, and 75 percent of the time, sale prices wouldn't ring in so I would have to flag down a manager or someone else who worked on the floor for a price verification and an override. That made a lot of people get angry with me." — Raegan
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Did you have any special preparation rituals to get ready for Black Friday?
"I would try to get as much sleep as I could possibly get." — Kristen

"Not really. It felt like any other day at work for me. It gets busy, but I've seen random days be just as bad sometimes, especially before the holidays. If anything, I listen to some upbeat music to psych myself up." — Raegan
Did working Black Friday interfere with your Thanksgiving celebrations?
"Yes! Fortunately, my brother and I were both living in Austin attending university together so our parents were fine with postponing Thanksgiving dinner a day." — Becci

"I often had to leave Thanksgiving early if I wanted to get any sort of sleep before my overnight shift. I was lucky enough to be able to have Thanksgiving at all and not be scheduled that day, but I definitely didn’t have the full celebration with my family." — Kristen

"Although I volunteered to work Thanksgiving evening this year, once I got my scheduled hours, my family moved our Thanksgiving dinner up a few hours so I could have time to eat and socialize without feeling rushed before having to go to work. Luckily, even though my mall opens on Thanksgiving Day, a 6 p.m. opening time is late enough that whoever is opening could potentially see their family earlier in the day if desired." — Allison

"No, because I was fortunate enough not to work Thanksgiving day or early Black Friday Morning. Something I was definitely thankful for." — Raegan
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Did you ever witness a fight? If so, what was it about? Were you ever truly scared on the job?
"I was never actually scared of the customers. A lot of them were rude and complained about having to wait in line, but you get used to it because it was no different from how they treated me on a daily basis. Managers were probably the worst part for me. I remember one Black Friday, we had a manager who left early during her overnight shift and called us all losers on her way out. She left the other manager who had worked 16 hours prior there by herself so she was unable to leave the store until someone else came in. This was the only Black Friday in my six working there that I can remember we actually had the store cleaned early. We were each assigned specific sections of the store to clean, and I remember when I finished I walked to another section to help out a coworker. I was screamed at for leaving my section and was told that I was unable to move from that area. So for six hours, I had to stay in a section that was already clean, unable to leave or help others. I remember feeling so anxious and trapped that day." — Kristen

"I never witnessed a fight. By the time Target shoppers got to the register, they were pretty much just done. On occasion, one might have been rude to me but never physical toward me or other customers at that point. As for Wet Seal, Black Friday of that year was about two months before they announced they filed for bankruptcy and began closing their stores, so the foot traffic wasn't very high. We were probably the only store in the mall that wasn't nonstop busy." — Raegan
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Overall, were customers nice to you?
"Being somewhat of a higher-end retailer, we had a lot of customers come into the store hoping for huge markdowns and a lot of disappointed people leaving when they found out the only discounts were on sale items. Specifically, we had a lot of people asking if the monogram totes were on sale or wanting us to match a sale on a department store flyer." — Becci

"They were not any ruder or meaner than they were on a normal day so it was nothing completely out of the ordinary. Actually, sometimes I felt they were a bit more cheerful." — Kristen

"They try to be, but many are as frustrated as we are. We still have to enforce our rules and store policies even when it's busy. If anything, it's even more important to be strict about the rules. For instance, I'm usually zoned in on fitting rooms, and I have to repeatedly tell customers five items maximum and only one person in a room at a time. They try to negotiate with me or try to get around the rules, but I'm firm and don't budge. Sometimes they get an attitude when I'm enforcing the rules, but as long as I stay firm and know I'm doing the right thing, no customer has ever gone too far with me." — Allison
Did you ever witness people camping out beforehand to try and get the best deals?
"Personally, I did not because my shifts were never when the store opened. For Black Friday deals, we opened at 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving, and I usually came later that night. But I do know from my coworkers that there were always people lined up outside and when we had special deals that only started at exactly midnight, there were some who waited until then to get in the checkout line with those items." — Kristen
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Did you ever hide items you wanted to buy for yourself?
"Employees usually just grabbed whatever we wanted to buy and put it up by the registers. Then when there was no line, we had someone check us out. But for the most part, the deal was the same as our employee discount so it was never anything special for us." — Kristen

"Our store policy is we're not allowed to stash things for ourselves and keep them on hold for long periods of time. But if you pull something aside, tell everyone not to put it back, and buy it at the end of your shift, it's not a big issue. However, if you leave without buying it, we'll just put it back on the salesfloor." — Allison

"No, because I never wanted to shop after work. If I'd had the energy to, I probably would have." — Raegan
Are there secret deals people always miss because they're too distracted with the big-ticket items?
"Actually the opposite. People got so into the hype of Black Friday that I think they sometimes forgot that they were actually getting a deal that happened quite often. We always offered 50 percent off the entire store, which Old Navy does a few times a year. And usually, it was extended until Saturday so there was never any need to come overnight. It wasn’t that great or special of a deal when you think about how often we actually did that sale throughout the year. The last two years, they started doing $1 cozy socks, but in all honesty, as in got closer to Christmas, we would do that sale again, and they were usually around $2 otherwise. So it wasn't a huge deal." — Kristen

"Honestly, these kinds of big retail days are scams. I can guarantee we will hang up signs on Saturday with our continued 'Black Friday' deals, that just say 'Extended to this weekend!.' It happens with any major retail shopping day. The sales are always dragged on for a few more days to catch the stragglers. So here's my secret: just go shopping a few days later. The deals will be relatively the same without all of the mess of the Black Friday crowd." — Allison

"Not necessarily exact deals, but I think unless you want a very specific item that you know is going to be in-demand, it's not worth it to go out first thing in the morning or Thursday night. Where I live, there is Target, Walmart, and Best Buy very close to each other, and the towns 20 minutes away have the same stores so if you can't find what you're looking for in one place, you'll definitely find it somewhere else. Also, compare the deals to what's offered on a normal day because sometimes they aren't that different, and it's not worth the trouble." — Raegan
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What do you wish people knew about working retail on Black Friday?
"If you are heading into a store on Friday at any time, odds are the person helping you has either been there overnight, on their second full shift in 24 hours, or missing a family event that they probably wanted to attend but weren't able to because Thanksgiving to New Years are vacation blackout dates. Be nice! And if you have a friend working retail on Black Friday, bring them snacks!" — Becci

"I wish people knew that telling me 'It sucks you have to work' doesn’t really make it better. Especially when they would say that to my coworkers working on Thanksgiving. If you really cared, you'd stop shopping on Thanksgiving that way stores could close and retail workers could spend time with their families. I also wish people understood just how exhausted we are, and that we are actually human beings. Often times I felt I wasn't treated like an actual person, and I know that's the same for a lot of others. I once went to Best Buy before my shift with my cousin, brother, and best friend just to grab a pair of headphones, and I remember the worker started crying because she said we were being so nice to her. In reality, we really just said 'please' and 'thank you.'" — Kristen

"Please, dear God, just be nice to the retail employees. Sure, we volunteered and applied to work on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, but it's a very stressful, overwhelming experience. The customers are the ones who willingly chose to shop on the busiest retail day of the year, and we are only there to help make things as smooth as possible. If you cannot handle long lines, messy stores, and employees only trying to do their best, do not shop Black Friday. You chose to go out shopping, along with the rest of America, so of course, there will be lines of 20+ people at a time, there will be lines for the fitting room, and not every pair of jeans will be neatly folded. Also, if you are shopping, please do not say, 'I'm so sorry / I feel so bad you have to work on Thanksgiving / Black Friday,' because you, the customer, are the reason we are working these days." — Allison

"Please please please be kind to the employees!!! The majority of them are temporary employees and only started a few weeks before at the very most so they barely know whats going on, how to fix a register malfunction, or are able to answer your questions thoroughly. They aren't trained too carefully either because of how busy the holiday season is. So be kind, make conversation with them, and don't mention anything about not being with their families or not having the day off. Even if you mean well, it's just a sucky reminder. Despite the snacks and the extra perks we get, it's never enough to deal with some people's B.S." — Raegan
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