Shopping Maul | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
Shopping, no matter the state of the economy, remains our true national sport. (Illustration by Eric Palma)

Shopping Maul

The first rule of holiday shopping: There are no rules

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Elbows out, adrenaline pumping, they line up by the thousands, aquiver with the thrill of the chase. Their focus is absolute, their aim impeccable, their arms powerful, their speed impressive. Impede or deter them at your peril.

Shopping, no matter the state of the economy, remains our true national sport—not football, basketball or baseball, which come with referees, umpires, fines and actual rules. This is cage match fighting without the cage. The playing season is short but intense, kicking off with Black Friday and reaching a fever pitch on December 24—the all-star playoffs.

As a former saber fencer who has worked the past two years as a sales associate at a posh mall, I've lived the heart-pounding, sweaty-palmed challenge of ferocious competition. At least on the fencing strip, I had a metal helmet and a sharp, pointed weapon to protect myself. Competitors who behaved badly were penalized and tossed out.

At the mall: I wish.

When we roll open our store's heavy glass door each morning, we inhale our last calm, deep breath of the day. By late evening, we've scraped fresh gum off the counters, picked up half-eaten pretzels from the floor and refolded sweaters so many times our hands are raw and swollen.

Remember The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1963 horror film? Every time Tippi Hedren stepped outdoors, a cloud of birds enveloped her, hellbent on pecking her to death.

That's pretty much life on our floor:

"Miss!"

"Can you help..."

"I need..."

"Do you have this in red?"

"I'm looking for..."

A lot of shoppers seem to think that we're carnival barkers endowed with the ability to instantly guess their height and weight. I once had a mother ask me to sell her three coats for her children—ages 3, 5 and 7—without a clue as to what sizes they wore. As we race to and from the stockrooms, trying to memorize a dozen requests, we pray that the items the shoppers so desperately need are actually in the stockroom (usually sitting high atop a shelf or stuffed within an unmarked box). And after we've finished our scavenger hunt and come up empty, we hear the question that is repeated endlessly in my nightmares: "Could you check again?"

The shoppers we dread most are the upscale customers who enter the store as if they were being carried on a sedan chair. These are the people whose daily lives are soothed by an army of the deferential: nannies, maids, au pairs, interns, assistants, employees, drivers and personal trainers. One of them plopped her $5,000 designer handbag on my counter and barked, "Keep an eye on that, would you?" They and their children expect a level of obeisance that's positively pre-revolutionary. The French Revolution, that is.

And, while we welcome eager French and Spanish tourists bearing beaucoup d'euros, we really hate it when they insist on standing thisclose to us. We get it—it's a European thing. But, really, we can hear them just fine from several feet away.

Maybe the day will come when somebody will publish a formal rulebook for shoppers and install penalty boxes throughout the mall. But, until then, here are a couple of simple guidelines to follow: First, try to remember why you're here. To buy something. Not to thrust your self-importance into the faces of salespeople earning $9 an hour with no commission.

And when we utter the word "No"—as in "No, that doesn't come in your size"—please try not to take it personally. Behave like the seasoned competitors we know you are. On the soccer field, a searing kick to the shin is inevitable. Hockey players expect to get slammed into the boards. And shortstops know a bad bounce can blacken their eye.

After all, it's just a game.

Caitlin Kelly lives in Tarrytown, New York, blogs at trueslant.com and is writing a memoir about her retail days.

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