I think it was the desire to take a nice long sun-drenched holiday with my husband in February instead of slogging through the snow worrying about paying Christmas bills. I know it wasn't because I love malls, shoppers or selling. In fact, I had never sold a thing other than a used car or an antique that I had decided to replace.
Whatever possessed me, there I was submitting my application at a local retail store two years ago, eager to become a Christmas salesperson.
The plan was simple. I would use the extra money I made moonlighting to pay for Christmas presents, all of which would be cheaper because of the discount I would receive as a salesperson. With the money saved, I would be Bahama-bound. It was a foolproof plan and only a fool would believe it could work.
I did and that is how I found myself in training to become what retailers fondly refer to as "seasonal help." In the fine jewelry department.
First, I had to learn to be friendly. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm already a pleasant person. But could I hold up under the invasion of eager and anxious holiday shoppers? What about the post-Christmas bargain hunters? First, we learned that the customer is always right. We were to accept any returned merchandise, regardless of the condition, irrespective of whether the garment still had tags, just as long as there was the slightest possibility the store had once carried such an item. In addition, we were to smile during the entire transaction.
This was information I regretted not learning years ago as I recalled countless bad purchases that now clutter my closet.
The second lesson in friendliness was equally simple. Not only was the customer always right, he was also to get his way at all times. If our store didn't have an item, we were to call every branch store in the tri-state area to find it.
The next subject was employee shoplifting. This lesson was drummed home by a bellicose store manager whose talent as a drill sergeant was being wasted in sales. He warned what would happen if we even thought of shoplifting -- we would be locked in a room with him. Enough said.
To cut down on employee theft -- apparently an unconquerable problem in retail stores -- we were required to always use the employee entrance, and our handbags and parcels were searched coming in and going out. This made sense until I learned we had to use the employee entrance at each branch of the store regardless of whether we were working or out shopping with family and friends. Failure to comply was automatic termination. I couldn't figure out how this could be enforced. Could there be a magic machine programmed to spot me on sight? Obviously not, because I confess I violated this rule on my off-duty forays to the mall. Bells did not go off and I wasn't fired.
Most of my training involved learning to run a cash register, no easy feat in this computerized, automated world of punching in one code for this and another code for that. I also learned a whole new lingo. Now there were general sales checks, voids, voids after and terminal closings. I was a college graduate completely intimidated by the world of retail.
My first sale was a disaster. I was a bumbling idiot starting to ring up a purchase before I knew if it was cash or charge and then I stamped the charge plate and forgot to give it back. But the customer couldn't have been nicer, and soon I was gaily ringing up sales with the greatest of ease. And being oh so friendly about it.
Soon after the first hour, though, my legs starting killing me. By the second hour, the pain had moved up into my back and I couldn't figure out how anyone could stand the agony of working an eight-hour shift. After my first night, I wasn't sure I would ever walk again, let alone work again.
I did, of course, and my body adjusted, my mind adjusted and I confess that I started to enjoy selling. It was a challenge with unexpected rewards. I met some terrific people: a nice young woman who cut children's hair; a wonderful man who sold furniture wholesale and would take care of my needs at less than retail price; and a couple who ran a theater group who could use my journalistic abilities. Then there were the couples choosing engagement and wedding rings and other people picking out special gifts for someone they adored. I began getting mushy and misty-eyed.
But did the plan work? No. It turned out that most of my holiday pay didn't arrive until after Christmas. The 20 percent discount mostly applied to things I didn't want and those items I did want fell into the 15.625 percent discount category. In addition, the discount could only be obtained when purchasing the item with cash or the store's charge card. Luckily for our family we had the limit on my husband's store charge raised skyward, and later we used my holiday pay to reduce the bill to where it had been originally.
Getting your discount if you used cash was very confusing. The money was not taken off at the register. Instead, employees paid the same as anyone else and then filled out a slip, gave it to the accounting department, and waited for the certain day at the certain time when it was permissible to pick up discount money. Even if you met all the conditions, sometimes the paperwork just wasn't done on time. In fact, I still hadn't collected all my discount money a year later.
The biggest heartbreak was that there is a ceiling on how much merchandise you can purchase and still receive a discount. But again, we were lucky. A few days before Christmas, the ceiling was suspended for two days. The store referred to those shopping days as "bonus days" and employees received an extra discount on purchases. So my husband and I who never give each other anything for Christmas bought a camcorder.
We spent more on Christmas that year than ever before -- all at discounted prices -- and there was no vacation in February or even in July. Was it worth it? Yes. I learned more about people, almost all of it good, and I felt better about myself. I learned I could talk people into buying things and that gave me a sense of power I never had before. In fact, I became a big seller, actually topping my boss on one occasion.
I learned some shopping tips that have helped me since. First, I will never again keep merchandise I don't want. I now know there is some store out there where I can get a refund. Second, I now take back gifts I don't want if I can find a store where the merchandise is carried. Last, I will never again wait till the last minute to shop for Christmas presents. The best sales are at least two weeks before the big day.
Finally, here are some suggestions for those of you who might be considering working a holiday season. Stores are reluctant to give any information over the phone, but it pays to shop around. Discount policies vary from store to store and from year to year.
There is also the matter of commission. My store had only a few departments where employees earned a salary and received a commission on what they sold. I was selling in one of those departments. The salespeople across the aisle, working their fingers to the bone ringing up hosiery purchases, weren't.
One day, a hosiery salesgirl just walked off the floor and suddenly my counter was besieged by people willing to buy rings if I would just ring up a pair of hose.
Apply to several stores, find out as much as you can in the interview and then get ready for a few weeks of action-packed adventure.
Vicki Warren is an associate editor/research at Time-Life Books.