Recently there was a flurry of people posting this sign from the entryway of a Nordstrom store,
Bravo! Way to go! Good for them! Or as I said, "Poor things."
You see, in a former life, I was a Christmas Elf. Not the kind that stands next to Santa and places your screaming child on his lap. No, I was a display person at Nordstrom.
It was my dream job and I was thrilled to get it. I started in the summer and had no idea of what was coming my way in November. My first job was at a "mini-Nordstrom" in my home town. A scaled down version called Place Two, that was basically Cosmetics, Men's and Ladies Shoes, Brass Plum and Brass Rail with a few other clothing items thrown in to round out the mix. It was one floor.
My first Christmas trim began in October. Aisle Units (those things that hang over the aisle) and column wraps were built, fluffed, and then stuck out of the way to wait their turn to go up. The funny part of "out of the way" at Nordstrom nearing Christmas is there is no "out of the way". Every single stockroom and floor space is packed with back stock merchandise for the holiday sales event of the decade.
When we received our wreaths thee was nowhere for them to go, we placed some in the personal office and some in the store manager's office. No space was safe from display.
The windows get a transfer on the outside of the glass and we were allowed to close them the week of Thanksgiving. This way we could spend all day Monday and Tuesday installing our two windows, leave them covered on Wednesday and then reveal them late Wednesday night in time for Thanksgiving reveal. How lucky we were to only have two windows. Imagine having a store with 12 windows (oh yes, that was my life later).
On to the main event. On Wednesday while most people are scurrying around to get their Thanksgiving dinner supplies in order, we slept in until eleven. The visual staff arrives at the store between Noon and three. At 5:00 there is an announcement that Nordstrom wishes you all a Happy Thanksgiving and reminder that we will be closing tonight at 6 pm to prepare for the upcoming holidays, we will reopen at 8 am on Friday for your shopping convenience.
Take a deep breath. ALL HELL IS ABOUT TO BE SET LOOSE.
That 5 pm announcement is the foil ripped off the champagne bottle. Every single department in the store has not been able to show a single Christmas item yet. They are all in the back stockrooms along with signs and pressed holiday table cloths (courtesy of the display team). 5 pm means they can start cheating those totes out. 5 pm means that display can start lining items up behind the doors.
5:30 pm, the early closing announcement is repeated. Basically the cage is off the champagne bottle top. Its unpredictable now. Anyone could just loosen that cork and POP, pandemonium! But no.... the store manager is there. He is walking around reminding people that we are still open. Customers first. No totes on the floor.
The problem is, every single employee in the store is stuck there until their floor has been re-set for Friday morning. No one can leave until released by the store manager. Some will be there until 8 pm. Some until 10 pm. If you are leaving town for Thanksgiving, too bad. If people are counting on you to cook tomorrow, no prep time for you tonight. And that is the pact with the devil that you make when you beg for a job in retail for minimum wage plus commission.
6 pm, "Ladies and gentlemen, Nordstrom is now closed. Please join us on Friday when we reopen at 8 am. Thank you."
POP! That cork is OFF! Everyone breaks into a run for the stockroom doors. Rolling racks, totes, and here comes display with EVERYTHING THEY CAN MOVE ON WHEELS. I'd call it controlled chaos, but let's be honest, there is very little control.
And there we were. Two display people and an additional 10 we had recruited from friends and co-workers. We would work from noon that day until 6 am the following morning. Windows revealed, cosmetic ledges filled (that's the space inside the cosmetic islands), wreaths up, column units up, aisle units up... then down, then up... Everything is pre-prepared to look it's best but has now been sitting for anywhere from a week to a month in storage somewhere. Now it has to be fluffed again. Last minute trim items added. Everything is wired to the display so it can't fall off. Every power cord hidden in the ceiling, painted out to match, timers attached to make the lights go on and off on schedule.
The loading bay doorbell rings, "Live tree delivery!" The 12' "live" tree has been painted over with a hearty dark green (probably lead based) non-flammable paint. The certificate will need to be kept on file in the office and it will be checked by the fire department. Since the tree couldn't arrive early, it is not lit nor decorated. That will take 2 people the entire evening.
At midnight we take a break. The last of the sales floor staff left about 11 pm. Now it's just the die-hard visual crew. We wash our hands (they are FILTHY) and eat a late dinner of sandwiches. No one is allowed to order turkey for fear of it making them sleepy. Caffeinated sodas abound.
Back to work by 12:30. Everything hurts. Up the ladder, down the ladder. My boss was brilliant when she told me to bring a second pair of shoes for the night. I change and feel like I have brand new feet on, for about an hour.
As tasks are completed, we send people home. The 12' tree is finished around 1:30, that crew goes home. By about 2 am there's only 4 people left. We open the mall door and go out into the corridor and scrape off the "At Nordstrom... we won't be decking our halls until Friday..." sticker on the window. On Friday, HA! It's Wednesday... no wait, now it's Thursday, oh Happy Thanksgiving... not.
The windows are revealed, and adjusted. We stand outside the front door and look over the store as the customers will see it first thing at 8 am on Friday morning.
"Cord hanging funny on 2nd column wrap."
"2nd Aisle unit is crooked."
"I can see the timer on the wreath in customer service."
It's 4 am and we are all tired, but its fix it now or come back at 4 am on Friday morning to fix it then. Of course we opt for now. We drag the ladders up to the 2nd aisle unit to adjust it and as we touch it, the aircraft cable that is holding it into the ceiling snaps and the entire unit swings down from one end of the sky, brushes past my ear and smashes into the glass cosmetic counter BAM!
The glass case is surprisingly alright. The aisle unit is broken. Repairable, but not tonight. Now it must come completely down. We examine how the aircraft cable was able to break and discover that the installation into the ceiling may be faulty and then have a debate about whether any of the aisle units can stay up in the ceiling because aren't they all just waiting to come crashing down onto the floor? And what if they do that while the store is open? And after much discussion, as we were just about to call it a night, the ladders come out and all the aisle units come down and go into the back for storage. Later that week a construction crew would come in during the night, reinforce those aircraft cable and we would hang the units again.
We left the store at 6 am. The sun wasn't up but the sky was getting lighter. Everyone says, "You okay to drive?" and we all promise to drive very carefully. I get home, slightly wired from all the sugar and soda, but need to "sleep fast" because Thanksgiving dinner will be at 1:00. I leave a note, "DO NOT WAKE ME UP. EVER!" for my family and go to bed.
And this became my life for 8 years. I do not remember any Thanksgiving dinners. I've attended them, but have no recollection. I became a visual manager or a Nordstrom that was 3 floors, with 6 windows and a set up crew of 100. We still left there at 6 am on Thanksgiving.
Each display person has their own horror story. The 6 foot fiberglass ornaments that fell from the atrium to the first floor, the holiday carpets that were glued down with carpet tape that would never come off the marble, the window lights that short circuited and knocked the power out to the whole store...
And then there is that smug little sign "At Nordstrom... we won't be decking our halls..." and all I can see after that is "...because we don't believe our visual department deserves a Thanksgiving."