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When I tell people I worked at a toy store, they tend to respond with, “Ah, that’s so cool,” or “So, you got to play with toys all day.” I had been known to perfect my video game skills and snag action figures, but a toy store is not as fun as you may think. Children looked at me as though I was the epitome of fun and enjoyment as I offered assistance in my blue vest with a huge transfer of Geoffrey the Giraffe on the back. Parents came to me thinking I was an encyclopedia of dolls and board games. Though there was some truth to these assumptions, the three years I spent working in toys exhausted me, forced me to encounter some bizarre people, and exposed me to situations I could not have conceived would occur in a store for children. Most importantly it helped me gain an understanding of the diverse behavior exhibited by shoppers and allowed me to realize I have an incredibly high tolerance for ignorance.
I officially became part of the “R Us family” when I started working for Toys R Us during the 1999 Christmas season. Prior to beginning my new job, I realized the difficulty in maintaining a smile and energy as hundreds of impatient, shop crazed parents destroyed isles of Legos and stuffed animals, while carting around crying infants, snotty toddlers and selfish adolescents. Regardless, I expected a personal reward in seeing children stand in awe of the mass amounts of toys the store kept in stock. Their happiness would bring me happiness. Plus, I would not have to get too involved with the children; they had parents that supervised them. I also felt a boost of Christmas spirit would be inspiring and much needed. How could I resist parents eager to buy Christmas gifts and children pointing out their favorite toys with smiles on their faces?
Within the few weeks that composed the busiest shopping time of the year, customers were able to diminish my joy for the holiday season. My first anti-holiday experience occurred when I was learning how to run the registers. At this time, I was also learning that parents tend to feel a great need to please their children by purchasing the trendiest toys and by spending hundreds of dollars on Christmas presents. One such “guest,” as we are encouraged to refer to customers, a thin woman with fluffed brown hair, came through my lane with a cart full of toys.
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My explanation was not the answer she wanted to hear. She decided to throw the rest of the toys in her hands onto the register and explained to me, “This is a bunch of bull shit! My daughter needs a Barbie airplane!” I stood still for a few moments in confusion, which turned into embarrassment for the woman. Not knowing exactly how to respond, I simply began to put the toys under my register and ring up the next person. The woman did not hesitate to continue her complaint about my incompetence as she walked out the door.
The woman acted in an extreme manner, but this sort of behavior was fairly common. A week later a middle aged business man told me he heard about a Christmas promotion that was being offered. Each customer could receive a free Tickle-Me-Elmo with purchases of a hundred dollars or more while supplies last. The man did not think “while supplies last” applied to him. Once I explained that the free Elmo dolls had all been given away, he felt it would be appropriate to state, “Damn it. Are you serious? I really need one for my kid. Shit!” He believed I had complete control over how many Tickle-Me-Elmos were produced throughout the country and that I could obtain one immediately. He knew there must be at least one more Elmo in the building.
In the midst of his sighs and grunts the man informed me that he did not appreciate my being difficult and that I had ruined his day. His amazement at what he thought was my stubbornness encouraged him to repeat “I can’t believe this shit” as he stared at me with disapproval.
Unfortunately, the man inaccurately accused me. He left angry and without an Elmo. I could at least hope he felt his shopping experience was complete with the pleasure of expressing his opinion of me. He concluded the scene by claiming, in rather harsh terms, that I was “an unintelligent girl that treats customers poorly,” and that I acted in an “unprofessional way.” I found it difficult not to laugh at the man’s behavior and ignorance. I also questioned how “professional” did a Toys R Us worker have to be? My dress code consisted of a Geoffrey vest and a name tag claiming I was “Creating Magic since 1999.” Memos informed workers of the names of Power Rangers and Pokemon. My responsibilities were to know where puzzles were located and to be familiar with the characters of Blue’s Clues. Of course, I was required to be respectful, helpful, and honest, but a high level of professional ability was not a word often associated with my job.
I quit working for Toys R Us a few weeks after the Elmo episode. In January 2000 I was offered a job at Kids R Us, a chain of Toys R Us that strictly sales children’s clothing and accessories. I worked in the same building, but I felt I had gotten lucky. I no longer stood at a register for hours or hunted down the price of a single MatchBox car amongst thousands of board games, walkie talkies, and Disney videos for unappreciative guests. What I failed to consider was that parents were as obsessive about their children’s clothing as they were their toys. I witnessed a wide variety of disgusting and unsanitary behavior while working at Kids R Us: the smell of vomit, parents losing their children, children urinating on clothing, children unknowingly assisting their parents in theft, the piercing cries of infants. Though some of these actions are typical of guests, dealing with the drama was part of my job description that no one had fully expanded on (which was actually a wise strategy on behalf of those who hired employees.)
One ordinary day of marking down merchandise, straightening clothing, and repeatedly asking, “Are you finding everything okay,” I smelled something that did not resemble stale milk or diarrhea. I looked up to see a rustic man smoking a cigarette as he walked through the clothing section. He wore white painter’s pants stained with mud, an old, discolored t-shirt and a baseball cap, the same attire his cohort donned. I was disturbed thinking that someone did not know it was inappropriate to exhale cancerous fumes in a building where a good portion of the guests were minors.
I did not want to approach man who were in such dire need of a cigarette that he risked the lungs of growing youths. I opted to look for the nearest World Leader (another one of Toys R Us’ self-oriented terms, for manager). James suddenly appeared, so I explained the situation to him. I stood on the other side of a clothing rack a few feet away from the scene. I watched James calmly explain our logical policy - no smoking in the store. Though the man used no words, his grim facial expression was evidence of his annoyance. He took one last puff before he dropped the cigarette to the floor and put it out with the heel of his shoe.
The incident with the smoking man was not an isolated occurrence, which astonished me more. A year later another guest not familiar with the store’s smoking policy browsed the isles with a lit cigarette. At this point, I knew I had hard evidence that some people are truly ignorant and simply driven by their addictions. I sympathized and related to having the urge to smoke a cigarette at the most inopportune times, since I too am a smoker. But, unlike the smokers in Toys R Us, I understood that smoking inside many stores is prohibited, particularly when the store is geared toward children.
Unfortunately, guests are not the only people who enhance the working experience. Kevin had been working for Toys R Us for two years. He was polite, well-liked and efficient, but the stress of being around toys and irate guests, in addition to the problems in his personal life, caused Kevin to break down one day. The standard break time for an eight hour or longer shift is two fifteens and one thirty. Kevin had been working for a few hours that day and was told to take one of his fifteen-minute breaks. After forty-five minutes and no sign of Kevin, people began to wonder. Some co-workers checked his car without luck. Everyone assumed he must be in the store. A search started, and after a short time Kevin was found.
In a rather humiliating way, and in a slurred voice, he explained he was going through a hard time and drank before work. Apparently, his pre-work cocktail did not numb him enough. He had resumed drinking liquor he had stashed in his car while he was on his break. By the time he came back into the store, he was too drunk to remember to clock-in, but he was capable of walking into the stockroom and taking a nap on a toddler bed where he was found passed out. The Toys R Us World Leaders that were on duty that day felt it necessary to terminate Kevin on the spot. I felt sorry to see Kevin go, but it was humorous to imagine an intoxicated man contorting his body to fit into a four foot fire truck shaped bed.
These events only stimulated my work experience. Monotonous was not a word used to describe an average day. Guests refused to allow a dull day of work when they threatened to start riots because the lines were too slow, when children tested the durability of bicycles by directing them toward my shins, and when breastfeeding and vomiting were regular occurrences. Not everything at Toys R Us and Kids R Us was agonizing. I was constantly up-to-date on the latest toy craze and I gained some insight on people. I learned to avoid senseless debates with adults and that children are adorable and infinitely more tolerable than their parents, yet ruthless, loud and often possessing an unbearable odor. Toys R Us also left me with an unanswered question, why so many people tried to offend me by stating, “I will never shop here again.”