Sunday, November 25, 2007

Black to Green

Our economy may be in for tough times. The growing number of labor strikes, unexpected bank write-offs, mortgage defaults, and mounting debt are enough to make us think the sky may actually be falling. No where is this worry more alive than in retail during the holiday season. The sheer dollar amount of holiday spending is an indicator of consumer confidence, highly scrutinized by every analyst with airtime.

I was thinking about this at 4am on Friday as I took the subway down to Times Square to help our store staff on the day that kicks off the holiday shopping season. Black Friday, or Green Friday as we call it, is a day a lot of people look forward to. It's a tradition for families and friends to stand on-line outside the stores they think will have the best deals.

I am not one those people - I have never been inside a retail store on the Friday after Thanksgiving. I completely avoid them until about the second week of December. Better yet, I get onto my computer and never have to contend with retail check-out lines and disgruntled shoppers who grapple with out-of-stocks and too-long wish lists from their families and friends.

This year, though I would be on the front lines in arguably the craziest retail center in the world. I arrived at 4:15, half an hour early so I could familiarize myself with which product categories were on which floors. This was a handy list to have. I felt glad to be able to help guests get those special items they had been looking forward to purchasing and gifting. There was a rush of people for a few hours and then the traffic calmed down to a reasonable level. Stocking shelves, showing guests to items they couldn't find on their own, checking prices, clearing aisles, restocking shelves. All in a day's work. By far the greatest contribution I could make was to say hello, smile, wish shoppers a happy holiday, and ask them to visit our .com site if we were out of stock on the items they wanted. They seemed generally appreciative to pause for a moment and answer the questions, "how are you today?"

The thing about being a retailer is that you learn to be a better customer. You read circulars cover to cover, you look for department directories, you utilize price checking machines, and match item numbers from shelf tags to packages. By being a retailer, even for a short period of time, you become a retailer's dream guest.

That said, many people at the store 5am have never been retailers. They were crazed. "Where can I find Dora?" "Where are your video games?" "What about dance mats?" "Do you carry Barnyardigans?" (Huh??? - what exactly is a Barnyardigan? I soon found out it's a licensed property from Nickelodeon.) And the number of bags - some people dragging around 5 large bags behind them filled to the brim with boxes. There were a few grumps - when I didn't know the price of an electronic keyboard off-hand, one women wished me "A merry f*****g Christmas." I smiled and wanted to say, "Same to you" but I stopped short after the smile and helped her to a price checking machine just across the aisle. 'Tis the season to be nicer than you would be other times of the year!

When I was in the middle of helping one guest, 3 others would ask me for help. This was a good sign to be this busy. Maybe the economy isn't crumbling as quickly as we may have thought. I remembered how many times I've done that when I need help in the store. I should have been a more patient guest.

Once the crowd died down, I headed out to take look at other retailers. My favorite experience by far was the the Apple Store on 5th Avenue and 59th Street. Judging by the crowd, a lot of people shared my view. They have designed a way to anchor floor models so you can try out every item they sell in store. You can make a one hour appointment with a MAC personal shopper to help you pick the perfect holiday gifts. And the store is strikingly clean, airy, and open for a small space, so a bit of that holiday stress has room to dissipate.

Another brightly spot in service was Old Navy. Knowledgeable staff, great deals, and mesh bags galore. Not bad for a store that has to content with an association with the ever-more-boring The Gap and Banana Republic.

The shopping frenzy is continuing this weekend. I am watching it intently for signs of hope. Tomorrow is another big shopping day - Cyber Monday. The day when working folks decide Christmas shopping on-line is time better spent than on work. I love it. Shoppers have aligned so tightly on this that they created another holiday tradition of their own. It's so strong that a boss can't complain about shopping during the workday tomorrow. After all, they're only helping the economy.

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