A retail workers’ guide to holiday shopping etiquette

click to enlarge A retail workers’ guide to holiday shopping etiquette
CP Illustration: Lucy Chen

When Bex Tasker used to work holiday shifts at Sheetz, they’d hear a common refrain from customers trying and failing to be polite.

“‘Wow, I can’t believe you’re working here!’” Tasker says. “And it’s like, yeah, you’re here to get gas! Who did you think was gonna do that? And people would stand there and hold up the busy line and lament and lament about, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have to work on the holiday!’”

Retail workers constantly put up with mistreatment from customers all year round, but during holidays, it’s ramped up to Santa Claus-sized proportions. Pittsburgh City Paper spoke with folks who have holiday retail and food service experience to help our readers avoid acting like a jagoff.

The holiday rush is an inevitable phenomenon that shows no signs of stopping. After a dip the last two years due to the pandemic, Americans plan on spending an average of $932 on holiday gifts this year, about the same as in 2019, according to an October Gallup poll.

I asked a friend of mine who worked at Best Buy for years what advice he’d give for customers looking to be courteous to retail workers over the holidays, and he said “don’t come.” God bless him, but I’m not sure that advice will stick the landing.

Take White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield as an example. It has a pretty chill atmosphere for the majority of the year, with staff able to comfortably chat among themselves and customers, according to owner Jill Yeomans. However, come November, that changes.

“When the holidays get going, everyone is very busy all of the time,” Yeomans says. “There is always something to do. Either we’re fulfilling orders or managing the line or managing the door or asking people to mask, or we’re in the back shipping orders, receiving lots of boxes. It’s just very busy for all of us.”

Michelle Obama’s first book, Becoming, provided an early holiday season challenge for the independent book store when it released in November 2018. White Whale sold out immediately and constantly heard from customers trying to get a copy that season. Now, White Whale overbuys, according to Yeomans, so the store typically meets demand for holiday new releases, including the former first lady’s new book, The Light We Carry.

Simple enough, Yeomans’ biggest recommendation is to recognize that retail workers are human beings.

“Not everyone is a robot and is there to immediately fulfill your needs,” Yeomans says. “And what that means is that often we have staff… that have only been there for a few months, or they started when it was a slower time and they’re really not used to a busy store and people who need something very quickly.”

Despite the stress and fast pace of the holiday season, it’s not uncommon for online orders to come with messages like, “Appreciate you guys!” which Yeomans says goes a long way.

“It really does make a difference to us, especially when you’re in the slog of fulfilling order after order or you have a bad interaction with one customer,” Yeomans says. “It’s just really nice to have the reminder that most of our customers are lovely people that value our store.”

Gayle McGarril, who has worked in coffee shops since 2017 and in retail before that, currently owns and operates The Garden Cafe in the Northside. It seems to her that she got more crap from customers as a young high school and college student, but she figures she may just be better at handling it now. After having children, she says dealing with a teenager at home takes the edge off placating obnoxious customers.

McGarril urges against cold, rude behavior and to watch out for holding up the line because your face is buried in your phone. She also says it’s best not to draw undue attention to understaffing issues a business might have, which she’s seen when visiting other businesses.

“People will be like, ‘Are you the only one here? Don’t you have anyone helping you?’ That just makes things so much more stressful,” McGarril says.

Tasker has worked in various retail and food service jobs since they were 16. Their recommendations for holiday shoppers looking to show courtesy mostly boil down to being patient and getting your shopping done as early as possible.

The 26-year-old Greenfield resident recently started The Hop Along Cafe, a bunny and cat cafe that has shown up at pop-up locations leading up to its soon-coming permanent launch in Downtown Pittsburgh. So they’ll be transitioning from being a worker during the holiday rush to a manager during the holiday rush.

“I want to really prioritize the mental health and well-being of my staff,” Tasker says. “We’re a very, very small staff, since we’re just starting out, but I really want to make sure that nobody gets too overwhelmed or is working too many hours and also has time to spend time with their family this holiday season.”