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Terror in the Aisles

Nine rules for making shopping bearable, from someone on the inside

By Sara Bir

PRESENTS. The whole idea of holiday gift-giving is about generosity and love and sharing, but somehow, every year, the arrival of December fills millions of Americans with dread and loathing. Shopping for gifts shouldn't be a pain, but sometimes it is.

I know, because as a retail sales associate, I see it at my store every day that I work. A lot of the frustration that customers feel comes from unrealistic expectations they place on themselves and on the people helping them, but it does not have to be that way. If shopping is a giant drag to you but you're not ready to go giftless this season, here are some helpful tips from behind the counter to keep your mad dashes of consumerism running stress-free.

1. Shop local. You'll deal with fewer crowds and infinitely better background music if you stick mainly to locally owned businesses.

2. Don't get indignant.

If it's busy in a store, sometimes you have to wait. That's life. Remember that everyone else in line is waiting, just like you are. If the staff is competent, they are doing their best to keep things moving at a good clip, so just think of the time you spend waiting as your own little minibreather: enjoy the opportunity to space out for a minute or two.

3. Gift wrap isn't a right.

Customers request gift wrap because they either don't want to be bothered with it or they are doing very last-minute shopping and need to show up at a destination a.s.a.p. with a pretty present in tow. But if you're buying something big, heavy or oddly shaped, it may take a while for the staff to wrap it in a manner that won't resemble a 5-year-old's aborted papier-mâché project. In other words, there's no instant wrapping machine.

If the staff wraps your purchases in plain sight, make conversation, but don't hover—it's rude. They're not putting on a little wrapping show for you.

And, if you're dropping serious cash at the store, why should you have to pay for gift wrap in the first place? Because every second a sales associate spends off the sales floor is a lost opportunity for making additional sales. If paying extra for gift wrap is the store's policy and you're not down with it, state your case in calm manner—you may get that wrapping for free after all.

4. Rude customers get made fun of.

The main source of a sales associate's glee is not the incessant bleat of cheery Christmas Muzak or the misbehaving of young scamps as they systematically destroy carefully constructed displays. Nope, it's obnoxious customers. Every second an associate spends away from customers' earshot is devoted to bilious venting ("that Cuisinart lady sucks") and the feverish recounting of bad customer horror stories ("She made me call three other stores to ask if they had the Wilton giant cupcake pan, when I told her over and over that it's sold out nationwide and the only place to get it is eBay."). The underpaid and undervalued must derive merriment where they can, and oftentimes it is in mythologizing the assholery of unreasonable customers. If you are OK with being the person who the staff creates a derogatory nickname for and recounts the tale of your childish shopping behavior for weeks on end, then go for it.

5. Kids are cute, until they are not.

Negligent parents, know this: every time your back is turned and your slobbery child inserts store merchandise into her bratty maw, little daggers emerge from our eyes, and they are aimed at you. The things we sell are not teething rings, and they are especially not trial teething rings. If your kid uses half the store as her pacifier, then have the decency to buy what she destroyed with her gross germy kid saliva.

6. Seasonal staffers sometimes are crazy.

At a larger store, up to half of the sales associates may be seasonal—only working at the store during the holiday period, after which they will resume their studies, parenting, art career, drug habit or what-have-you. They may not know where everything is, or have the answers to ridiculously detailed questions about store merchandise. But they should be able to locate an associate who does know.

Every batch of seasonal staff has its rotten apples—people who don't work full-time permanent jobs because no sane employer wants to have them around that long. Just hope they don't wind up helping you.

7. Jesus Christ, it's just stuff, and we're not indentured servants.

If you have a lot of disposable income and you love to be waited on and shop mainly for the experience of dominating another person's time with pointless questions and contrarian blather, then go ahead and spend your money on stuff you won't use. It pays my bills, but guess what? I don't respect you or your brand-new $3,500 automatic coffee center. Somewhere out there there's a customer who's normal and pleasant and will spend just as much money as you do, and I'd rather be helping them.

8. Your money is your power.

Bad customer service exists. When you walk into a store—especially one that sells expensive items—you should be greeted within two minutes, if not immediately. If you ask for help, you should get it in a timely manner. If you have to wait longer than you'd like, an associate should politely and patiently check in with you and explain what the holdup is.

If your needs as a customer are not being met, then don't spend your money at that store—is anyone making you? Is a holiday present worth being ignored or sneered at by surly staff? Shopping should be fun at best and tolerable at worst. It shouldn't be torture, and it shouldn't be a stand-in for things in life that give actual enrichment and gratification, like hikes in the woods or quality time with friends and family.

9. Let's all be human.

If you're in a bad mood, dump it. If you treat the store staff nicely, odds are they will be kind to you in turn. It's Christmas, after all.

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