A Little Bit Of Festive Spirit
Working in a department store at Christmas was not as much fun as Sophie had expected. How could she cheer things up?
WHEN Sophie was offered the job of Christmas temp at Allen’s Department Store, she was thrilled.
It would be exciting to be surrounded by all the festive merchandise, immersed in a Christmas shopper’s paradise.
The customers, she imagined, would be abuzz with seasonal excitement. And, if the queues were long, they’d be offered chocolate treats and moved along quickly by the extra staff like her, brought in to ensure everyone was happy, even at the busiest time of year.
Oh, dear. How wrong could she have been?
Christmas shoppers, it turned out, weren’t full of peace and goodwill at all. They were a crotchety bunch, who grew steadily more grumpy as the calendar crept closer and closer to December 25.
“It’s not you, it’s them,” Linda, an experienced supervisor, told her. “It’s like this every December.
“Too many bodies in one shop, too many warm layers of clothing to be inside, too many things on their list, too much money needing spent.”
“But that’s awful!” “We’ve had a go at all sorts to make it better,” Linda said forlornly. “But if we try to spread out the shopping days by displaying the seasonal goods earlier, we’re accused of starting Christmas too soon.
“If we keep the shop cooler, then people complain that it’s too cold in the changing-rooms. “We can’t win.” There was one thing that filled Sophie with cheer, though, and that was the sight of Ollie from menswear cutting through her department every time he went to the staff canteen for his break.
Ollie was tall and blond, and Sophie wasn’t the only person who noticed him – even some of the customers couldn’t help staring.
If Sophie was a little disappointed at the lack of Christmas cheer that went with the job, she was determined not to waste her time there.
As well as earning her a decent bit of money, the job fitted well around her timetable as a business studies student – plus it gave her the chance to learn all she could about the department store model.
Sophie kept a notebook, the front section of which she used to scribble down all her observations. At the back, she wrote about Ollie.
Over the weeks, Sophie gained a great deal of experience, listening carefully to the staff and the customers and jotting down her findings in her notebook at the first opportunity.
No matter how much time she spent on her appearance before work, though, and no matter how many excuses she found to make little visits to the menswear department, she didn’t get a second look from Ollie.
“It’s not for the want of trying,” Linda observed, as Sophie gazed at his slender back disappearing through the “Staff Only” doors.
“Oh, dear, am I that obvious?” Sophie asked.
“To me, yes,” Linda replied. “But Ollie’s not your typical guy. He’s married to the store, if you ask me. He doesn’t notice girls – even nice ones like you, pet.
“I’ve seen it all before: when the Christmas staff come in, they all fancy him. He’s completely oblivious. I don’t know what you’d have
to do to get his attention.”
Sophie didn’t know, either, and tried not to waste too much more time thinking about it.
Then, without warning, she found herself called to the manager’s office.
Mrs Dobson was not a typically austere figure. When she sailed around the shop floor, adjusting displays by minute amounts here and there, she always had a smile and a greeting for her team.
But everyone agreed that you definitely didn’t want to get into her bad books.
Sophie tried desperately to think what she might have done wrong. Had she unwittingly been rude to a customer, or short-changed someone? Surely she wasn’t accused of something worse!
“Sophie,” Mrs Dobson began. “Thank you for coming to see me. I’m sure you’ve lots to do in homewares, but I wanted to have a little chat.
“First of all, you must forgive me. I’ve been a little bit cheeky.”
Sophie was baffled. “A document has found its way into my hands,” the manager said. “And, on inspection, I would have to concede that it is clearly a private document. Yet the content is of such value to me, and to this organisation, that I was compelled to read it in full.
“I am speaking, Sophie, of a green-backed notebook. I believe you know it.”
Oh, no! Surely not. Sophie had been scribbling down her latest ideas only a little while ago, during her lunch-break.
How impudent her suggestions for improving the business must seem to someone as experienced as Mrs Dobson. This was a nightmare.
“It fell from the flap of your bag as you crossed the menswear department,” Mrs Dobson explained. “The young man who saw tried to get your attention, but you didn’t hear him, and he couldn’t leave his customer. He didn’t know your name, so he looked inside.
“He’s a bright spark, too, and he immediately recognised the value of what he was reading, so he brought it to my attention.”
A bright spark in the company working in menswear? One who didn’t know Sophie’s name? It could only be one person.
The nightmare grew darker as Sophie imagined him reading the notes at the back of the book.
“Don’t look so worried, Sophie,” Mrs Dobson said. “You’re not in trouble. I’m very impressed with some of your ideas, and I’m going to get as many as possible up and running immediately, in time for the busiest spell of Christmas shopping.”
Well, that was something.
Far from being offended, Mrs Dobson seemed pleased. But it didn’t do anything to ease the embarrassment of Ollie having seen her strictly private thoughts about him.
Arriving at work the next morning, Sophie was amazed to find the empty shop unit beside the front door had its shutters up, lights on, and was clearly open for business.
She saw it had been fitted out with shiny clothes rails and a smart new counter top, behind which stood a girl she recognised as another one of the temps.
The girl spotted her looking and waved.
Sophie had a few minutes to spare, so she ventured in.
“I believe this was your idea,” the girl said with a smile. “It’s a coat-check facility for Allen’s customers, so they don’t get so hot and bothered in the store. The signage should be up by lunchtime.”
Mrs Dobson certainly moved fast. With a tiny glow of pride, Sophie made her way into the main store.
What was that they were playing? It didn’t sound like the usual in-store Christmas recording.
As she approached the escalator, she found a big section of floor had been cleared near to where the worst queues usually formed, and in it sat a string quartet.
They were students from the local college – another of Sophie’s ideas.
Upstairs she found some more performers – a gaggle of excited primary school children decked in reindeer antlers and tinsel, gearing up to sing by the tills.
Their teacher gave them a starting note and they were off, two tall boys shaking maracas as they sang out “The Calypso Carol”.
This was amazing! “That gentleman just told me we’re the one shop with a little bit of festive spirit,” Linda told her later. “That’s your doing, Sophie. You should pat yourself on the back.”
More colleagues told her similar stories as the day went on, but there was one person whom she hadn’t yet set eyes on, much to her relief. Ollie.
But then the “Staff Only” doors swung open, and in he walked.
“Sophie. Hi,” he said, making straight towards her.
“Hi,” Sophie said anxiously.
“I’ve been upstairs all morning with Mrs Dobson. We’ve been watching the shop floor on CCTV, and it’s amazing. The customers look happy and the staff seem more relaxed.
“We already know from the office that our takings for the morning are well up on what we would expect, and the word in the canteen is that everybody’s enjoying the changes.”
“That’s great.” Sophie smiled. “Look, I guess you’re the person who found my notebook, so I imagine you know what’s inside it . . .”
“Ah, yes. Sorry about that. I really only meant to see if there was a name, so I could return it, but it was immediately clear that the ideas were absolute dynamite, and I had to share them with Mrs D.”
“And those other ideas . . .” Sophie had to put it out there – to clear the air – or she’d never be able to face working with Ollie again. “At the back of the book?”
“There were more ideas at the back of the book?” Ollie seemed surprised. “I never thought of looking there. I bet they’re brilliant, too. Can I see?”
“My notebook’s at home now,” Sophie replied. She was relieved it was the truth. “But I could type them up, and bring them in tomorrow?”
Not those exact ideas, of course. But she’d come up with something.
“Excellent. You know, I always wanted to work in a big department store at Christmas, and I’ve done three here, as a trainee manager. I’ve loved all of them – I love this place – but this is shaping up to be the best Christmas yet.
“So many of the temps just come and go, but I really hope you stay, Sophie. You’ve got great instincts, and you’d be a real asset.”
“Thanks,” Sophie replied, her relief turning to pleasure.
“It’s so amazing to find someone who cares about Allen’s as much as I do,” Ollie went on. “Do you think maybe I could sit with you at the staff Christmas dinner on Saturday night?
“If you’re not already going with someone else, of course. We could go for a quiet drink afterwards, if you’re not exhausted.”
Linda popped her head over a stack of pillows behind them.
“That sounds like an idea you should have written in your book, Sophie!” she said with a wink. ■
Sophie would never be able to face working with Ollie again