What Bay Area retail workers want you to know about holiday shopping this year

Photo of Madeline Wells
The pandemic rages on, but so does holiday shopping season. Here's what retail workers want you to know before Black Friday.

The pandemic rages on, but so does holiday shopping season. Here's what retail workers want you to know before Black Friday.

Golga101/Getty Images/iStockphoto, Getty Images

The names in this story have been changed on request of anonymity due to fear of retaliation from employers. All of the interview subjects were granted anonymity in accordance with Hearst Bay Area’s anonymous source policy.

While social distancing guidelines mean stampedes of crazed doorbusters are less likely this year, Black Friday — and the busy holiday shopping season in general — has some retail workers worried.

“All my co-workers are hoping business does not pick up. We are very stressed about Black Friday,” says Lola, an employee at a large department store in San Francisco. “What we don’t understand is why the mall is not closing again, because when we closed in July, the situation wasn't even as bad as it is now.”

With coronavirus cases skyrocketing in the United States, most large corporate retailers like Walmart and Best Buy are emphasizing online rather than in-person doorbuster sales this year, stretching out their Black Friday sales over days or weeks, and offering curbside pickup. And in California, most counties are in the purple tier, meaning retail stores and malls can only be open at 25% capacity. Still, it’s no secret that shoppers aren’t always great at wearing masks, so any increase in business can be terrifying for retail employees.

“Most of our customers are wearing their masks, but sometimes they pull them down or wear them under their nose,” says Lola. “... In dressing rooms they ask for us to come give our opinion, and take off their mask and won’t think about putting it back on when we’re nearby.”

She also says that customers rarely keep 6 feet away from her at work, and that while they have plexiglass screens in front of registers, customers will often try to duck their heads around them.

On Black Friday, the store where Lola works is not holding any in-person-only sales, although it is open for extended hours. Capacity is capped at 50%, but in a huge department store like hers, that’s still hundreds of people allowed inside at a time, who often congregate around registers or escalators.

“Even if our store doesn’t have huge doorbusters, historically people come to the mall just to see what’s happening,” she says. “We have not heard anything about additional precautions for Black Friday.”

Sarah, an employee at a small game store in the East Bay, says she feels relatively safe at her place of work because of its small size, but has also encountered customers who give her trouble about following safety guidelines.

“I don’t feel unsafe working there, because the whole staff is on the same page,” says Sarah. “But there are a concerning amount of people who don’t wear their mask properly or obviously don’t care. … We have people who after several reminders have been asked to leave, and usually get pretty upset about that.”

Rebecca, who works at a lifestyle store in Marin, says the majority of customers are respectful of guidelines. However, it’s not always smooth sailing, from the customer who pulled their mask down to blow their nose in the store to those who turn combative when asked to wear a mask.

“As recently as yesterday, someone refused to wear a mask and told me it was causing her permanent brain damage,” says Rebecca. “... We’ve had complaints go all the way to the corporate office about requiring people to wear a mask.”

That said, she isn’t discouraging people to come shop in-person this holiday season, as long as they are being safe and respectful — although her store does offer curbside pickup and online shopping as well (which some, like Lola, would prefer you do).

With coronavirus cases skyrocketing, some retail workers are worried about an influx of holiday shoppers hitting their stores.

With coronavirus cases skyrocketing, some retail workers are worried about an influx of holiday shoppers hitting their stores.

Getty Images

For smaller businesses in the Bay Area, the holiday shopping season could make or break their ability to survive the rest of the pandemic, so most are keeping their options open to different levels of customer comfort. But if you do decide to do your shopping in-person this year, there’s a few things retail workers would like you to keep in mind.

“What’s frustrating is when a group of people comes into the store and stays for an extended period of time and doesn't get anything,” says Sarah. “That shows me you’re shopping for pleasure, which is frankly a dangerous thing to do right now. I don’t think there’s anything morally bad about going out to shop right now, especially if you are taking precautions. But if you are … just going out for the heck of it, especially if you are in a large group, you're putting yourselves and others at risk.”

Chris, who works at both a record shop and a liquor store in San Francisco, has seen his fair share of aimless window shoppers during the pandemic.

“I think a lot of people are bored and need stimulation right now, but I think coming into a small place of retail is not the best idea when you’re just bored, especially if you’re not really intending to buy anything,” he says. “Because that’s you taking up the space of someone who actually wants to spend money there.”

So, if you decide to brave the shops this winter, at least have the decency to buy something, and maybe don’t bring the whole family. And also try not to engage employees in unnecessarily long-winded conversations while you’re at it.

“It would be really nice to indulge people looking for recommendations and talk about things we like in the store, but the more people who come in for a longer time, they’re exposing others,” says Sarah.

While Sarah, Rebecca and Chris all feel relatively comfortable working at small businesses right now, because of diligent safety guidelines and very limited capacities, Lola is in a tougher spot. She doesn’t feel safe at the department store where she works due to how customers typically behave, but if she quits, she won’t be eligible for unemployment.

“I have two options,” says Lola. “I can keep going to work and feeling like I’m risking my health, or I can quit and not have an income anymore. So there’s no good solution to that problem, and [my coworkers and I are] feeling kind of helpless. … Even if most of us are really anxious about coming to work when there’s a surge of cases like there is right now, there’s not much we can do to avoid working.”

At this point, it seems malls and other retail will remain open for Black Friday in the Bay Area, albeit at reduced capacity. So it may be up to you, the shopper, to not be an asshole. But if you listen to Chris, you’ll be on the right track:

“Don’t let your guard down. Don’t let the holiday madness take over your life this holiday season, for God’s sake,” he says. “... Just be mindful that we’ve been through a hell of a lot, and maybe we should refocus on being grateful to be around, instead of desiring something that you just want to spend money on.”

[Editor's note, Nov. 25, 2020, 9:40 a.m.: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that San Francisco's retail capacity is at 25%. Capacity is currently at 50% and the story has been updated to reflect this.]