Working at John Lewis during the Christmas season is a particularly intense experience, writes BBC reporter and one-time temporary employee, Josephine McDermott.
The first thing you have to get to grips with when you start working for John Lewis is the language of the partnership.
It was my first day working in the Christmas department of Peter Jones in Chelsea and on asking where my manager was, the reply came: “Dominic’s recovering in babywear.”
Fair enough, I thought. It had been a busy day, but babywear? The image of a 6ft guy in a pink romper suit entered my head. It transpired that when partners (the workers) are called to “recover” – as they are over a tannoy at the end of the day – it means they are tidying up the stock on display, moving products to the front of racks and re-folding endlessly unfolded clothing. He was doing this in the baby section downstairs.
The staff customs and rituals took a bit of getting used to, but when it came to the customers, my customer service training had fully prepared me. No, we would never knowingly be undersold on a set of popsicle cluster tree lights. We would smile and greet each shopper, asking them if they needed assistance.
And on our break times in the comfortable John Lewis staff room, we sat there knowing that we all owned the business we were working for and would receive a share based on how hard we worked to make profit.
On my second day in Christmas Stationery, I posed with my manager for a photograph for the staff magazine The Chronicle. We were to be lauded for how the department looked – our impressive “wall” of boxes of Christmas crackers reaching from floor to ceiling, our selection of tree decorations including bejewelled pear baubles from the Vintage Forest collection – the last word in baubles that year – and our huge selection of flat wrap and roll wrap. But praise mainly came for the fact we’d opened ahead of schedule. It was 27 September. Ninety days until Christmas. And Day One of Frosty the Snowman being played.
The next important thing I learned was how to stifle contortions of rage and agony with a cheerful festive partner smile when a customer innocently asked if I could “Check if you’ve got it in stock”. We were on the fourth floor of the department store and our stock room was on the ground floor. As staff weren’t allowed to use the lifts I found myself scurrying up and down the 1930s staircase in my pencil skirt, beige blouse, John Lewis badge and sensible shoes dozens of times a day.
It was by far the worst part of the job. But as a fresh graduate, my last gig had been cleaning toilets in Italy. The other young girl in the department had come fresh from dressing as a badger in WHSmith’s.
As Christmas Stationery rolled towards the big day, the customers changed. By Christmas Eve, we had frenzied men, weighed down with bags, who’d sell their children if you agreed to wrap their presents for them. I got yelled at by a customer because I couldn’t answer whether Christmas stamps cost more than regular stamps. And no, we don’t sell stamps I’m afraid.
I also got a ticking off from my manager because my wrapping of baubles in tissue paper wasn’t up to standard. Have you tried wrapping a bauble? I focused on how this job was paying for me to go travelling while I considered the next 20 champagne gold textured baubles I had to lovingly swathe.
We’d all secretly been looking forward to Christmas Eve. This would surely be the day when shoppers caught up with our premature exuberance for the festive season. Not a bit of it. It was agony. We had no stock left, it was freezing cold, the customers were stressed out of their heads and Frosty the Snowman was still playing.
Fourteen years later, I can’t hear that song without pulling a stock room face. I guess I’m still recovering.