It’s that time of year again. The time when everyone suddenly realizes that they’ve put off their holiday shopping a little too long. When everyone decides, on the level of some kind of group consciousness, that they need to get all their gift buying done right now.
And it seems like every last one of them decided to come to Bart’s Mega Mart, where I work.
I guess I can see the wisdom in their choice. I mean, here at Bart’s you can find everything you might need. I mean, you can buy novelty garden gnomes, big screen 4K TVs, and custom-flavored beef jerky all within a few feet of each other. And you can do it in something closer to a small-store atmosphere than any of those big warehouse outlets. Now, people are doing just that. A lot of people. The aisles are so packed that it looks like a rave at two in the morning, the noise level is through the roof, and the whole place is developing a bad case of barn heat.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I love working with the customers, helping them get what they need. There’s nothing quite like that sense of satisfaction you get when someone’s eyes go all big and they exclaim, “That’s just what I was looking for!” But holiday hours are in full swing, my feet are hurting, and if one more person asks where the baby deer plushies are, I swear I’m gonna scream.
To make matters worse, we’re operating off one of those stupid discount pricing catalogs, where each and every sale item has to have a special code and it takes forever to find it and the lines at the register are backing up and every customer has a particular and demanding need and I can see myself totally losing it in the next five minutes.
I take a deep breath, step back from the counter under the pretext of glancing beneath it. “No, I’m sorry, ma’am, we don’t have any more of the red bags. Only the green ones. Will that be all right?” Oh, please let that be all right.
The woman, a bit older, frizzy red hair escaping from beneath a knit hat and a frown of concentration on her face, purses her lips in indecision, as if weighing the fate of the universe. “I suppose so,” she finally says.
“Thank you,” I breathe, before slipping her purchases into the bag and handing it to her. “Thank you for shopping at Bart’s Mega Mart. Have a great day, and happy holidays!”
She grunts and moves off, and I wonder if I didn’t put too much forced cheer into my words. My face hurts from holding a smile all day.
Before I can greet the next customer in line, a hand claps down on my shoulder, and I glance back to see the front-end supervisor standing there. “Dave,” he says. “I’ll take over here for a bit.”
Am I on break? Has it been that long? Oh, please let me be on break.
“I need you to take a walkabout, see if any customers on the floor need help.”
The words shatter my fleeting hopes, but all I can do is nod. “You got it.”
“Be back in fifteen.”
It’s not perfect, but I as I move off into the crowd of shoppers, I still hold out some optimism. Maybe I can march around purposefully, a harried look on my face, and no one will bother me. That could be almost as good as a break.
Yet even that slender desire is cut off as I leave the sight of my supervisor. I’ve barely entered the stacks when a hand touches my elbow.
“S’cuse me, buddy, but can you help me out here.”
I plaster the biggest phony smile I can on my face and turn toward the customer. “Certainly. How can I…”
My voice trails off at the sight of this particular shopper. He’s a big guy, tall and… let’s say “heavy”, so we don’t sound mean even to ourselves. He’s wearing a big coat over a hooded sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up around his face, almost as if he’s afraid of being recognized. In the depths of his cowl, I glimpse a big, bushy beard the color of fresh-fallen snow, a hint of a rosy nose, and eyes that twinkle even in the harsh fluorescent lighting. There’s a hint of stale eggnog on his breath, with maybe something a bit stronger mixed in, and he gives off the air of a man with an impossible task, and a determination to see it through.
“…help you,” I finish. I don’t know quite why I’m surprised. We do get our share of department store Santas in here, fresh off their shifts, scrambling to finish their own holiday shopping. But there’s something different about this guy.
“Well, I’ve got a list here,” he says, fishing around in a pocket of his big coat. “Well, two lists, actually, but I really need help with the first one.” He pulls a wadded ball of paper out of his coat, smooths it out and peers at it. “Let’s see… carrots, an onion, bell pepper… oh, wait, that’s the wrong one.” He chuckles. “Mrs. Claus had some last-minute requests. You know how it is.” His hand dives back into the folds of cloth. “Ah, here it is.”
Now the hand emerges clutching a roll of what I can only call parchment. With a shake of his wrist, he unfurls it… and it keeps on unfurling, dropping to the floor and rolling off, disappearing from sight beneath the tromping feet of other shoppers, none of whom pay it any attention.
I stare at the scroll in his hands, a mix of confusion, wonder, and sheer despair washing over me. “Um, sir, maybe I should call a manager…?”
“No need, no need,” says the man. “Let’s just go down this. It’s all alphabetical. Knew I should have gotten to this earlier, but, well, sometimes I do let things slide, and it is that time of year.”
I can only stand there, in growing desperation, hoping this guy will suddenly start laughing and reveal the prank, point out the hidden cameras. But he doesn’t. He starts rattling off names, listing out gifts wishes, solely focused on his list and oblivious to the look of horror on my face.
After about a minute, he pauses and looks up at me. “Following me, sonny? Think you can help a fellow out?”
For a few seconds, all I can do is gape like a fish. “Um, sir, that’s a lot of items you want, and it’s so late in the season…”
His face seems to fall, that twinkle disappearing from his eyes. “Oh. Oh, I see.” He heaves a great sigh. “You know, maybe I’ve been doing this too long. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel. I just can’t seem to keep up anymore. Ever since the elves got unionized, I just can’t make them crunch. And PETA’s been all over me about how I treat my reindeer.” His shoulders slump. “I just hate to disappoint all those kids. The ones that still believe in me, still believe in the magic. I know, there are fewer and fewer of them every year, what with the Internet and all that stuff. But there are always some that still hold on; I guess it’s time for them all to just grow up and deal with it.”
He sounds so down, so devastated. I really want to help him. But there has to be a couple hundred thousand names on that list. I could work around the clock from here to Christmas and I wouldn’t get it all sorted out. I mean, it’s great to do the shopping and find a special gift for each and every person on your list, but…
Then an idea hits me. “Um, sir, have you ever thought about gift cards?”
He blinks. “Gift cards?” He says the words like he’s never heard them before.
“Yeah. They’re cards that give people a certain amount of money to spend on whatever they want at our store. They can come in any amount you want. Say, twenty dollars each?”
He hesitates, scratches his beard, a thoughtful look on his face. “I don’t know. Seems kinda… impersonal. Like I didn’t even bother taking the time to look for what each person wanted. Like I didn’t care enough.”
“Not at all, sir,” I say, shaking my head. “A gift card is all about giving the person you’re gifting a choice, leaving it up to them how they want to spend the money. It says you care, not just about the giving, but about their own decision, about letting them control what they want. I mean, imagine if they changed their mind between now and Christmas? They’d be stuck with a gift they no longer want or need. No, a gift card is the ultimate way to say that you’re thinking of them and want them to be happy, without taking away their freedom to choose.” I know I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’ve never been so desperate to make a sale in my life.
Still, he hesitates, a deep frown on his face. Then he smiles, and the twinkle returns. “You know what? I think you’re right.” With a flick of his wrist, he rolls up the scroll with a snap. “We’ll do the gift cards.”
I almost wilt with relief. “If you’ll come this way, sir, I’ll get those ordered for you. Would you like us to ship them, or…”
“No, no, I’ll handle the deliveries myself,” the guy says. “I should make that effort at least. And, believe me, after all these years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.”
“Perfect,” I say, growing happier by the minute. Man, am I gonna make bank today. This might even net me a raise. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
He pauses again, rubs at his chin. “Well, now that you mention it, I do have this other list… do you guys sell coal, by any chance?”