Calum McMillan has worked during Black Friday at a major UK retailer. He describes the reality of life on the frontline during the year’s most intense day of shopping.
Retail life can be exhausting.
Shifts aren’t your friend – they hate you and your social life. And customers probably don’t like you very much, either.
Most of the time though, that relationship is a kind of friendly antagonism.
Except on Black Friday. Black Friday is the worst parts of the Christmas shopping rush condensed into a mere smattering of hours, and without the good manners and amusing jumpers.
As a shop assistant, Black Friday can seem appealing when it’s first put to you by a manager. They mention the extra money. You convince yourself it will be over quickly because it will be busy. But it isn’t. Over quickly, that is. It is certainly busy.
‘You can’t look at the queue. You’ll lose your mind’
Time seems to slow down as a horde of bargain-hungry shoppers do their best to lift the latest TVs over their heads and out of the reach of their fellow scavengers.
For safety’s sake, you and your colleagues huddle behind the till. But the idea that there is safety in numbers is an illusion.
The security guards have already given up, their frantic requests that everyone be patient falling on deaf ears. And they don’t get paid enough to get more involved than this.
Your managers are trying their best, but ultimately they prefer to observe from afar, and phone each other than actually engage with the maddening crowd.
In a brief period of respite while a customer wrestles their bargains onto the counter, you catch a glimpse of the clock.
You’re only 30 minutes into your nine-hour shift. You can’t look at the queue. You’ll lose your mind. It’s an endless sea of jostling and increasingly angry customers clutching onto their shopping for dear life.
Then an hour has gone by, and you’re in the swing of things. Scan, bag, take the money. Repeat. It’s all a blur but you’re starting to get there. The mad rush will end soon.
‘No one will give you a medal’
After that, a customer is asked to leave by management after sitting on the counter and swearing at a member of staff, because the ex-display TV reduced by 50 per cent doesn’t have two remotes.
The watching crowd are split between disapproving tuts, a show of solidarity for their angry comrade, and mounting impatience.
One man is so tired of waiting he tries to shove by the person in front of him, dropping the boxed TV he was carrying with an alarming crash.
After a manager’s intervention, which includes an explanation of the concept of queuing, he exits through the doors with his TV in triumph, leaving the wasteland of the store behind.
As for us shop assistants, we are beginning to realise just how exhausted we are, as the throng begins to thin and the rampant surge of bargain-hunters gives way to the casual curiosity of the second wave.
You can even see parts of the shop that were previously obscured by frustrated shoppers since your shift began.
By lunch, Black Friday is pretty much over, and everything starts to return to normal. You tidy your station and lick your mental wounds.
It was terrible, but you survived. No one will give you a medal, but with the thought of that extra pint you can afford in the pub tonight, it almost seems worth it.
Then there’s a thump behind you, and you turn around to see the angry man who dropped his TV earlier.
He had in fact, broken it when he did this, and now wants a refund. For the original price of the TV, that is. Not the Black Friday price.
At that moment, you realise your sense of victory was only an illusion. No one wins on Black Friday.
This article originally appeared on our sister website the i.