I can’t forget, no matter how hard I try, my department store days. Tis the season to talk about holidays and holiday customers. Tales of retail personalities and politics can wait for another day.

Sure the store was closed for Turkey Day, but a lot of us went in to create the overnight magic of changing Wednesday’s day-to-day displays into Black Friday’s splashery. Believe it or not, it was fun, even though we bitched and moaned while we did it. Generally we went in on Wednesday after closing or at dark-thirty on Thursday morning to pull everything from staging areas, left at midday for food & family, then returned til we wrapped things up. It was just another form of theatre. On stage, the house lights go down and the stage lights come up – on time. In retail, the house lights go up and the audience invades our stage – on time. And in both theatres, the adrenaline rush was wonderful. [At least for me it was.]

The mind-numbing, exhausting times I’ll never forget usually came after the holidays. I remember when we accepted the return of custom-made draperies, red-wine stained and still reeking of tobacco smoke, a couple of days after New Year’s Eve. “They didn’t match the measurements I gave you,” she told us. “No, I don’t want you to come out to measure. I just want my money back.” Believe it or not, we gave her the refund. I’m glad my Buyer was there to deal with her. He later told me that she did this every year, but wouldn’t explain why we put up with it.

Another holiday I turned down a similar request, on a spotted, stained and ripped “defective” tablecloth. The customer demanded to see the department manager. I politely told her she was speaking to him. She started asking about each of my possible superiors and I told her that it was a Sunday afternoon they were spending with their families. The ruder, more excited, louder and crazier she was, the more polite, calm, quiet and rational I became. The line behind her got longer and more silent as she continued her tirade. Finally, realizing that I wasn’t going to give her a refund, she left in a huff, shouting across the aisle that she’d never shop there again. For the first time, after more than 15 minutes of calm politeness, I spoke as almost loudly as she did, politely asking her if that was a promise. The bystanders applauded.

A few weeks later I left for a job in an advertising agency, where I developed an even greater appreciation for customer and client satisfaction.

People teach us a lot.

Usually in spite of themselves.