Sometime Last Year…

How delightful Christmas shopping can be! [credit: Graphics Fairy]

Last year, I came into work at Phipps the Sunday after Black Friday. For reasons not quite understood, I had Black Friday and Saturday off. Still, I didn’t complain. It’d been my first holiday off in God knows how long.

On my way from the time clock to the Holiday Department, my boss stopped me. His pained expression told me everything I needed to know. “Thought I’d warn you – the place is ransacked. I’m really sorry.”

He wasn’t kidding.

At least a dozen shopping carts lined up against one of the walls, all filled with items found throughout the store that somehow escaped from the Holiday Department. The floors were covered in tinsel, decorations, candy, hot chocolate mix. Climbing Santa dangled from his ladder, arms reaching and legs kicking, held only by an electric cable that suspended him away from his perch. It would be inhumane to tell you about the fate of Elf on the Shelf.

Safe to say, more inventory could be found on the floor than anywhere else. I sighed. This was the price I paid for having a couple of days off. Needed it to prepare for the fresh hell that awaited me. As I gazed around the department wondering where to start, my boss wheeled out a couple of flats full of merchandise for restocking and shelving. I broke out in hysterical laughter. Moments later, the store opened. It was only 7:00 am, yet a human tsunami flooded the aisles, choking any serious effort to improve the place. Yet, by dint of determination and against the will of interfering customers, I managed to tidy up the department so by the time I left at 5:00 pm (yes, I had a bit of overtime), I left feeling proud of my hard work.

And how it shone! The tree toppers display looked so lovely, as did the endless supply of lights (tree, outdoor and figurines for your lawn). The ginormous center aisle Christmas Tree, twelve feet of glimmer and gold, was returned to its former glory, as were the four eight foot trees nearby, standing proud with their corresponding ornaments in bins surrounding them. Boxes of assorted ornaments lined up in neat rows on shelves. Wrapping paper in every shade and design stood in straight columns. Novelty candy, stocking stuffers, beribboned reindeer and all sorts of trimmings were returned to their proper placements. Before I left, I stood tall, proud that I could restore its spirit.

It was a cheerful department, full of imagination and life. Everyone who ventured in there smiled, because there was so much to choose from. And most of all, it was pretty. Something about stepping into the Holiday Department made even cynical me a little more inclined to believe in Santa, or the idea of him.

Not long after, I left Phipps’ employ to embark on my return to my career in the arts. I got a little misty-eyed, sure, but only because I’d miss the people I’d grown to like so much, my fellow coworkers. They became family, people I could count on to laugh with and complain to. But I’d see them again, on occasional trips back.

Jump to now, about a year later.

I woke up early so I could shop at Phipps. It’s a good store, the prices are great and it’s pretty close by. Most often I order what I need from there so I don’t have to go in. But at 7:00 am, there’s no one in there but staff and a few early risers like me. We’ve had a horrible rise in COVID in this area. I want to stay safe, so I go early and shop quick.

As I search for Scrubbing Bubbles, I run into a few people I know and say hi. The shelves are kind of bare and no one seems to be filling them. I find out that so many people order online the merchandise never makes it to the floor. [As I type this, I get a New York Times alert on my phone that says, “You might want to order your gifts now: A surge in online shopping has led to a flood of packages that could exceed the system’s capacity.”]

Eventually, I work my way back to the Holiday Department. There’s some absolutely wonderful candy that Phipps sells over the season, as well as other goodies I’ve come to enjoy. But I’d also like to check out their ornaments too. Maybe they have something cute I don’t really need but buy anyway, just because I like it. Or something different and fun my sister would appreciate.

What I see breaks my heart.

Gone is the beautiful Christmas tree display, and all the wonderful bins that surrounded them full of festive ornaments. No cheerful signs hang from the ceiling. No wall full of twinkling lights, or sparkling tinsel, or faux wreaths with velvet ribbons, or aisles filled with stocking stuffers or things that make a shopper gasp in delight. Instead, there’s just neat and tidy rows of Christmas stuff, all lined up as if it were in the stockroom. There’s just one decorative tree and it’s more functional than beautiful. I found my treats, but there were placed on a soulless table with no imaginative arrangement. There was nothing special about anything.

So very sad.

I was looking forward to going in and wandering around checking out what Phipp’s has for Christmas 2020, expecting with a scrutinizing eye, of course, a display of wonderment and awe. I could’ve been in the grocery store. But it’s the reality we’re facing now. No one shops like they used to; it’s not safe. Since a great deal of the orders come from online shoppers, Phipps has transformed the way it does business. While it still offers great service to those who come in, it’s just more efficient to treat the store like one giant warehouse. Staff roam the store with carts meant to fill orders and get them either to the pickup section or boxed and shipped.

It seemed like Christmas received a gut punch, absorbed the blow and made the best of its circumstances.

Eventually I made my purchases and left. Headed home to drop off a few things, then headed out into the nearby town to buy some more things. One tiny store whose owner I know was so packed I left, out of fear I might catch COVID. I’ll have to try again some other time. At least many shoppers are supporting the little businesses, who are hurt more than any large chain. I do my best to support them.

Still, it’s challenging to see how Christmas is going to be minimal this year. I’m heartened I’ll have my sister and her husband to share the holiday with (we all isolate), that I’ll do my best to stay healthy, make some cinnamon buns for Christmas Day, and relax. Over wine, I’ll think back to a time when previous holidays were spent dealing with impatient customers chagrined at Phipps not holding on the last something or another they came all the way from wherever to purchase.

It seems like it’ll be a Merry Christmas after all.

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