news\ Sep 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Another Holiday In The Trenches

Another Holiday In The Trenches
By Dylan Platt

A perspective of the holiday shopping season from the retailer side of the cash register

I could see it in his eyes as soon as he stepped through the doors.

He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a build that suggested a once-muscular man who’d traded the weights for a six-pack a decade ago. Still, he outweighed me by at least 50 pounds and his head extended above mine by three inches or more. But that wasn’t what made me nervous. The look in his eyes did that.

He might have been a father, a grandfather, an uncle, a friend. He could have been there on behalf of any of a dozen relatives, friends, or acquaintances. I didn’t know any of the details, but I didn’t need to know, because none of that mattered. The look in his eyes gave me all the information I needed.

I watched as he approached me, wary, like an arena fighter sizing up his opponent. He took cursory glances at the walls as he walked by but I knew he was heading straight for me. The mad gleam intensified the closer he got.

“What can I do for you?” I tried to keep my voice even, to keep the situation from escalating. His ragged breathing slowed. After a long pause he spoke up in a low voice.

“I need a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii.”

I realized I’d been holding my breath without even knowing it. I exhaled and allowed a small smile to escape my lips.


“We’ve got one copy left.” I pulled the red case from the cabinet behind me and held it where he could see. For one tense moment, he held my gaze with a ferocity that exceeded even what he’d shown thus far, like a tiger trying to decide the best way to attack.

Then a broad grin broke out across his face. “Finally. I’ve been everywhere.” I chuckle, and the tension dissipates instantly. I made small talk as I ring it up, but that’s my mouth on auto-pilot – my brain was too busy catching its breath, so to speak. A few beeps and a credit card swipe later, and the game’s in the bag, the bag’s in his hand, and he’s heading out the door. Another satisfied customer.

I allowed myself a second – just a second – to feel the relief of narrowly avoiding a nasty situation. That was all the time it took for the next person in line to step up.

Just as you’re never supposed to look down when trying to keep your balance on a precarious ledge, I’d learned from experience never to really look too closely at the size of your line. But that second of relief gave me a false sense of security, and I made a rookie mistake. I glanced up. I immediately regretted it.

The line which began directly in front of me winded through the store, between shelves and display racks, and disappeared behind a stack of empty 360, PS3 and Wii display boxes in the back of the shop. Some clutched their game of choice close to their chest, eyeing the other shoppers like they were conspiring to take it from them. Others struggled to carry more than they could handle, wrestling a Rock Band bundle, three controllers, and a stack of strategy guides in a vain attempt to keep from dropping everything. Some held nothing but crumpled notebook paper lists and confused, bewildered expressions. All in all, no fewer than 30 people waited. For me.

I swallowed hard, and felt my stomach do a quick flip, like when your roller coaster reaches the top of the hill and begins to drop. I could hear a phone begin to ring from what seemed like a great distance, though intellectually I knew it was only a few inches from my hand. Out of the corner of my eye I could vaguely see my co-workers, but I knew they were no help to me. They had situations of their own to deal with.

The phone continued to ring, and the next customer eyed me dangerously. Under normal circumstances she would have looked like any other grandmother, about as threatening as a houseplant. But these were far from normal circumstances. These were the front lines of the battlefield called Christmas retail.

I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and headed back into the fray.

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