Ann Hurst

What a difference a week makes. Just seven days ago, I rang up nearly $8,000 in merchandise in a record-for-me day that brought an endless stream of customers. I was completing transactions fast and furiously, jockeying with my fellow sales associates for the dwindling numbers of working cash registers in the handbags and adjacent accessories departments. I was ringing up handbags and barrettes, evening bags and belts, wallets and costume jewelry, and pashminas, pashminas, pashminas, the luxurious cashmere wraps that dropped to half price immediately after Christmas.

Today, my sales total barely topped $700, once new returns on my previous transactions were factored in. Aches and pains from standing all day every day flowered full force, and there weren’t enough interactions to divert attention from my burning muscles and numbed feet. At $10 an hour, my current rate of pay, it’s a high price to pay, the little voices in my head screamed. Today would be a bad day to be on commission.

The day started like most others since my foray into the retail world: Walking into the store first thing in the morning is a little like being backstage before the curtain rises. The lights are dim, and there’s a quiet buzz of activity, with occasional sounds of clinking coins as cash terminals are opened for the day’s business, and everything is counted and recorded anew. I walk through two sections of women’s clothes, the second of which is a morass of sweaters, hopelessly tangled from the previous night’s visitors. A few women busy themselves folding and stacking, folding and stacking. Stock clerks drag carts loaded with merchandise to appointed stations. A few early-arriving associates begin peeling the drapes off costume jewelry displays.

I round the corner into handbags. Two staff members have made great progress in restoring order, yet there are still big areas of disaster. I dig in, sorting, straightening, regrouping the merchandise. The task is daunting, endless. Every once in a while, I find used Kleenex, discarded coffee cups. Last week, during the holiday craziness, I pulled an icky, sticky not-quite-empty Häagen-Dazs ice-cream container out from under the pashminas. (Who behaves this way? we associates ask each other.)

As we make our way through the aisles, the store manager’s voice fills the space. It’s time for our daily team huddle. “Good morning!” the voice booms enthusiastically. “I want to congratulate everyone on a great day yesterday and to recognize our superstar departments.” And then she reels off an impressively long list of departments with yesterday’s sales accomplishments, along with sales figures from a year ago. “Way to go!” the manager cheers, praising our “unbelievable numbers.”

Then comes our daily reminder: We will greet each customer within the first 30 seconds, we will remember to “suggestive sell,” we will open instant credit accounts (because customers with the store’s credit cards tend to be most loyal), and, above all, we will “make the guests feel good.” Just to keep us on our toes, we are reminded that “mystery shoppers” will be in the store during the month, and right now we are leading the chain with our near-perfect performance. But our goal is “100 percent,” she reminds us cheerily. Go team!

The lights are up full now, and four of us are moving rapidly through the aisles of moderately priced handbags. We’re sorting, resetting shelves, picking up ever-present hunks of the discarded tissue used to stuff the empty bags so they will stand up. I am hot, sweaty, and ready for another shower. We’re not quite finished, but the doors have opened, and customers begin to descend upon us, stepping over the merchandise which we’ve yet to replace on the shelves. We greet them with as much smile as we can muster and take proffered bags to terminals for price checks. We pretend not to see when our guests toss their discards haphazardly. It is the neat freak’s nightmare: a space that naturally—and instantly—morphs back into shambles.

This morning’s trickle of customers brings mostly returns, and more than a few others leave empty-handed after discovering the year-end sales have ended and the discount coupons have expired. The coupons themselves drive some of the sales associates wild—just enough of our “guests” whine and wangle for deeper discounts and ask for the coupons because they have left theirs at home or in their car. “No coupon, no discount,” K, a handbag veteran and champion sales associate tells me firmly.

She complains that another holiday worker has been granting 40-percent discounts on all handbags, even the designer bags that aren’t included in the promotion. “She doesn’t know what she is doing, and everyone will go to her because she is giving them away. When she does this, [the store] will go bankrupt,” she says, clearly perturbed. “She will bankrupt our company,” she repeats emphatically.

Seconds later, she catches the eye of a “guest” in the department, and the clouds lift from her face. “Ah, you are here to see the Fendi,” she says, her voice velvety and assuring, and she ushers her customer to the counter where an $1,175 denim purse with floral beadwork can be had for 40 percent off, and tiny red-orange suede crescent evening bags—”large enough for my license and a dime,” as one customer scoffed—are available for $240, a savings of $160 from their regular price.

If anyone can move the handbags, it is K, who has a nose for the real spenders and a knack for avoiding the lookers, whom she leaves for me. Before her commission kicks in, she says, she must meet a daily sales goal in the mid-four figures during the holiday season, not an easy task. She cannot afford to spend unproductive, non-sales time. And she doesn’t.

I feel fortunate to be working in handbags, where my co-workers have been accepting and relatively helpful. Only yesterday did K confirm what I’ve suspected. Whenever a customer came in with a messy (and low-yield) transaction, she would refer them to me, with a loud: “Anna, your customer needs you.”

Other holiday workers have described less generous beginnings. “They’ve peed on every tree,” one told me of her co-workers. “But they won’t get away with it.”

It’s a tough business. The ones who survive are the ones who play to win.