Holiday jobs: Stores' fervid fans ready for blue-collar Christmas

"Retailers need to get people on the floor selling and answering customer questions as fast as possible, so it's difficult to set aside that time" for training, says labor and employment lawyer Jeff Tanenbaum of Nixon Peabody. But retailers who don't provide enough training about customer service and cash registers are going to "start getting disgruntled customers and disgruntled employees, as well. Most people become progressively uncomfortable doing things they're not good at."

•Explaining the retail life. The first question Butler says he always had about prospective holiday workers when he managed department stores was "have they worked in retail?" If they had, they typically understood that they can't take a week or two off in the middle of their five-week stint.

Kevin Postell, one of two ebullient managers conducting the Container Store interview, tells the group that, if hired, they would get Christmas day off but otherwise be needed weekends and nights, including Christmas Eve.

"We all love our families, too, but we have a family here that we need to provide for as well," says Postell, who started as a seasonal hire four years ago.

Butler says people who haven't worked in retailing often don't understand the late-night demands or "how taxing it can be to be on their feet on marble floors all day." Postell tells his group: "This is the last time you'll be sitting, so enjoy it."

Many seasonal workers are lured by the discounts, which typically range from 20% to 40% off merchandise, and some will quit after the stress starts getting to them and they've done their holiday shopping, former retail managers say. That's prompted some retailers to delay giving the discount until close to the end of the seasonal stint.

"As you got into the Christmas season, the challenge was keeping them through the Christmas season," says Brown, now a retail strategist with the global consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.

Retail salespeople can't be cranky

Retail sales requires people who are friendly and flexible "but respectful and willing to engage a supervisor when it is appropriate," says Robert Hogan, who runs the personality testing and consulting company firm Hogan Assessment Systems. Being reliable, dependable and having a "good appearance is always a plus" too, he says.

Hogan says important scores on his personality test for retail sales would be for traits such as sociability, prudence and interpersonal sensitivity and adjustment "so that they can handle stress and pressure."

"One cranky person can just cost you tons of money in immediate and long-term sales," Hogan says. "They are the face of the organization."

Kelly Spradley of Zionsville, Ind., worked as a seasonal worker in the '90s for the former Lazarus chain and found the job hard to take in large part because the hours were "terrible." She already had a day job, so she would start her weekday shifts at 5 p.m. and work until 11 p.m. or midnight. If it was a Friday night, she was usually scheduled to open the store the next morning at 7 a.m. "That was my last experience in retail," she says. "I doubt that I'll ever return."

"One of the most enjoyable jobs I ever had," says Dana Kalal of Southlake, Texas, who used to manage Hickory Farms mall kiosks in Texas during the holiday season. "Employees wanted hours, and everyone knew they could sleep in January. And there were minimal employee conflicts, because you can stand anyone for three months."

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