Topeka JCPenney general manager Brian Ruiz is ready for the Black Friday rush. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal) Topeka JCPenney general manager Brian Ruiz is ready for the Black Friday rush after several months of pre-planning, keeping both the employee experience and the customer experience in mind. (Thad Allton/The Capital-Journal)
Black Friday launches a frenzied month of fighting for parking spaces, long lines weaving to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and enough chaos to make customers consider holiday boycotts.
It is up to the people on the other side of the registers — the tireless retail workers — to keep smiling, keep ringing up merchandise and attempt to maintain order in chaos.
Brian Ruiz, general manager at Topeka’s JCPenney store at West Ridge Mall, is well aware of how much the busy holiday season can take out of employees. The company has always made an effort to support employees throughout the season, which launches close to Thanksgiving and lasts well into January.
“Team morale is very important,” he said. “We try our best to accommodate requests around important events in their lives, as well as hire additional staff so we can work them shorter hours. In addition to that, when we’re open on Black Friday, we are giving additional incentives like two times pay to our employees during that very busy holiday day. We’re giving them free shirts to wear and food around the clock.”
Such incentives can motivate employees who may find themselves on their feet dealing with (occasionally) grumpy customers. It is important that managers understand the challenges their employees face, said Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing and communications for HALO Recognition, an Illinois company focused on inspiring employees.
“Rushing around on foot all day for an extended shift can take its toll physically, making employees more susceptible to mental burnout,” he said. “Employee endurance is also pushed to the limit as they must contend with higher-than-usual periods of sustained customer engagement. Also, management can get over-extended and simple things like recognition and moral support can fall by the wayside. Seasonal employees already have higher turnover, and if they are marginalized from full-time workers, it only worsens.”
Kristina Dietrick, president of HR Partners, 1240 S.W. Oakley Ave., said the holiday season tends to be challenging for industries outside of retail when it comes to human resources.
“For us in the human resources field, probably the most employee relations issues that we see tend to be around the holidays,” she said. “We call it the HR employee relations dysfunction. I think it’s because it’s very stressful for a lot of employees during the holidays. A lot of people think this is the happy time of the year, which in a lot of ways it is, but it also can be extremely stressful.”
Dietrick said it is important that managers be aware of and recognize challenges employees face and that they encourage employees to take their paid time off instead of losing it at the end of the year and seek help through employee assistance programs as needed.
“It’s just those two things. Take the time off if you need it. Be in control. Be proactive instead of reactive. That’s what I see the best employers do,” she said.
Ruiz said the Topeka store usually ups its workforce by about 25 people, but this year it has hired 40 people to handle the gift-giving season. With adequate staffing for the crowds, it is easier to meet requests for time off when employees want to be with their families.
Crowds will flood stores throughout December. The National Retail Federation predicted 2017 holiday sales will increase 3.6 to 4 percent over 2016, hitting upwards of $678.8 billion in sales. The organization predicts there will be 164 million people shopping on Thanksgiving weekend.
Store managers like Ruiz worry about a lot more than staffing up to handle the crowds. Determining store layout for all the incoming merchandise is important to ensure traffic flow, Ruiz said. The customer experience, which involves multiple elements, is of greatest concern.
“It’s how you set the merchandise up to make it easy for the guest to shop, how you create additional line management processes for when the lines are a little bit longer, how you properly train the store’s staff and personnel to make sure to give the customer some personalized attention,” he said.
Brenda Price, owner of Absolute Designs by Brenda, 629 S. Kansas Ave., has a much smaller store than JCPenney, but customer service and being organized is the only way to manage for the holidays. She boosted her staff this year, adding three employees to handle the holiday decorating aspect of her business. Absolute Designs decorates commercial and residential buildings for the holidays.
Ordering for the holiday season occurs the previous January or February, so most of what Price does, she said, is “unpack a whole lot of cardboard boxes.”
“By the time it shows up in July and August, you’ve forgotten whatever you ordered,” she said, laughing.
Black Friday is busy for her, but it is typically busier on Small Business Saturday, which this year is Nov. 25. Price scheduled the store’s holiday open house for Dec. 1 and 2.
Staying motivated isn’t optional.
“You just — it’s hard to understand, but somehow you just know you have to kick into overdrive and say a big prayer and it happens,” Price said.
Get Black Friday shopping specials early!
Pick up your Black Friday advertisements early at the Topeka Capital-Journal from midnight to 1 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
We’ll be open for one hour only at 616 S.E. Jefferson St. so eager shoppers can get their hands on 37 advertising inserts with 636 pages of sales.