Behind the Counter at Macy’s


It seemed like a good idea at the time: working at Macy’s during the holiday season. As a New Yorker (and a lover of fine merchandise) I’ve always liked Macy’s and while I’m in South Florida working on the solutions-based book “Why We Failed: 40 Years of Education Reform” by Lonnie Palmer, I thought a temporary job would be a good way to assimilate and make a little Christmas money.

Did I say I love fine merchandise? I love to look at it, touch it, admire it. I can spot a $3,000 suit 200 yards away.

I worked for Macy’s in upstate New York 20-plus years ago so I’m not a retail virgin. And I’ve always admired Palm Beach County’s Gardens Mall. How could you not. It’s sparkles, especially at holiday time. So I applied online for a holiday position at the Macy’s in Gardens Mall three miles from where I was staying.

It was the second week of November. I chose an interview time and arrived at the prescribed time. I was interviewed by a manager. He asked if I ever had a situation where someone did something unethical or illegal in the workplace that I was aware of and what did I do.

I shared a situation I faced at work that was reported to me and as the Senior person in my position I had to report it. It never went anywhere but I was protecting myself more than anything.

Apparently that was enough to get me a spot in Fine Jewelry. After a battery of training on a variety of subjects: security, the difference between a precious and semi precious stone, and what to do with toxic waste — I never used that one — I was on the floor opening in the dark, counting necklaces, earrings, rings and bracelets. Every morning and every night hundreds of pieces of jewelry had to be counted before opening and after close of business. Auditors would be strict in February.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I suspected everyone was shopping online and traffic at Macy’s in Gardens Mall in Palm Beach would be light. I discovered some other things. For one thing, selling fine jewelry is like selling narcotics. (I have friends who are nurses.) Everything is locked. And when you’re holiday help, you get the worst keys. But you learn to live with them. (It is not a job for the faint of heart.)

I learned that people don’t like working in Fine Jewelry because there are so many procedures, but most of the people who work there have been there a long time.

And I learned that cash is a rare commodity. I can count on one hand how many times customers paid in cash between Black Friday and Boxing Day.

I discovered something else: online shopping can’t hold a candle to the relationship you form with customers in the store at the mall. Even when you’re only spending 15 minutes with someone. There was:

  • The man (middle aged if we’re honest) who didn’t want to move in with his girlfriend because she has a cat.
  • The woman (definitely middle aged) whose adult son was lovely but clearly on the autism spectrum. He was looking at a St. Christopher medal. She told him 10 times this was the only day she would buy it because it was on sale. She would not be coming back tomorrow. He wondered if one was shinier than another. She managed a mobile home park in New Jersey and was trying to get out of the northeast for a few months.
  • The woman who came running up after Christmas to say: “Do you remember me?” She held out her hand; it was a very pretty diamond ring. “I had a daughter I was trying to get her opinion?” I remembered the daughter.
    The woman and her millennial daughter and son buying a watch to replace her husband’s (their stepfather’s) watch which she broke in anger. The same watch that made her take notice of him 15 years ago. Oops!
  • The man who was proposing (middle aged man) for a third time.
    The man whose wife just had a baby a week ago. His “adult” daughter was helping him buy the gift, earrings and a necklace. I was thinking: this woman doesn’t need a necklace.
  • And the mothers who were buying gifts for their sons to give to their girlfriends.

Ultimately, they all added up to sales. We sold a lot of jewelry between Black Friday and Christmas. I sold tens of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry. And I was — am — a rookie. The people I worked with — Martha, Mani, Latasha, Patricia, Ann Marie, Cookie, Marie, Ruth, Michael, Vanessa, Kim, Anastasia, Debra, Lorraine, Deema, Katie and Lydia — were pros. They only tolerated me. After all, there was a commission and this was the time of year to make it.

Would I do it again next year?

Definitely. Turns out it was a good idea.

And I’m happy to report it was a good year for retailers, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which studies transaction and survey data on purchases made with credit cards, cash and checks. Retail sales were up 7.9 percent compared to the same period last year. (click here for the Washington Post story.)

Now we just have to work on the stock market.

Happy New Year!

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