Friday, December 16, 2011

Gifts for Geeks: Nightmare Shopping

So far we've covered the "Would you rather?" portion of this year's Gifts for Geeks segment with our posts discussing surprise gifts and gift cards, but we're still a little light on the traumatizing-yet-educational holiday stories. Let's try to address that today.

What's the worst holiday shopping experience you've ever had?

Alex: Every year, I tell myself (and others, proudly) that I will be starting my Christmas shopping early. Like, in August or September. You know, so I can spread the money around and not feel it too much in the old wallet come December (or, more accurately, come January when the credit card bill comes).

I do this every year. That is to say, I tell people this plan every year.

But, to my credit, most years I actually follow through. Though, I must confess, the actual start date is typically right after Halloween and not in the late summer. I think November 1st is a perfectly reasonable, perfectly viable day to start one's Christmas shopping.

This year, I've managed to get the bulk of my shopping done and I've even handed out a few gifts. Still, this upcoming week--the last before Christmas--is going to be tight in terms of finishing off the list.

Now, what's all this talk about preparedness have to do with my Worst Holiday Shopping Experience, you say? Well, ironically enough, one year being prepared managed to get me into--and then out of--what was, simply put, a Vortex of Madness.

Let me explain.

It was November 22, 2005 (I have a feeling some of you have already figured out what I'm talking about), and I found myself standing outside a Sears attached to the Danbury Mall, shivering in the dark at 5:30 in the morning.

Even though the store wouldn't open for another few hours, there was already a line formed outside when I pulled up into the parking lot. I stood around in relative silence for a while, blowing on my hands occasionally to stay warm.

No one else on line was in much mood to talk, and that was understandable. It was cold, and after about an hour of standing there, it started to drizzle.

In line were all sorts of people.

Crazy people, like me; moms standing there with lists in their hands and displaying patience under pressure; dads standing there, looking annoyed and baffled; and even grandparents looking generally confused at what the world had come to.

We were, of course, all standing in line on that cold, dark, rainy morning because November 22, 2005, was the United States release date of the Xbox 360.

Now, before you get all hopped up; no, I wasn't waiting to buy one for myself. I was there--valiant as ever--helping my parents get a 360 for my brother. It had become sort of a running joke back then about actually managing to buy a 360 before the holidays because every store--EVERY STORE--was either sold out or just wasn't going to get a shipment in time.

It was Madness on a Tickle Me Elmo level, only with the added bonus that the customer base for this particular toy was in their teens and 20s.

My brother had even told me not to bother--it was going to be impossible to get one, so he was going to wait until after the holidays. But I was determined. Why? Love for my brother? Need to fill my life with (yet another) obsession? No idea.

But I was going to get my hands on one, even if it killed me. This was my Jingle All the Way. I was Arnold. The rest of the world was Sinbad.

Nineties Christmas movie references aside, I remember waiting on that line--I was only about 5 people back from the front--at Sears until they opened, looking at that new sign in the window with the shiny 360 on it that read "Xbox is here!" and thinking, wow, I'm actually going to score one of these.

I also remember the anticipation of the doors opening, the push from the folks behind me, and the look on the face of that poor, poor man from Sears who had to tell us the following.

"Um," he started. "We haven't got any. Sorry."

As if we were one entity, every person in line asked at the very same moment, "Any what?"

"Xbox," was the reply. "We didn't get a shipment in, and, well. It looks like we won't have them before Christmas."

As I walked back to my car in the now pouring rain, it was like a scene from a Romero flick at the store's door.

Because I was determined (and only a little brain dead), I continued on to countless stores over the course of the next couple of weeks. Every trip ended in the same empty-handed walk back to my car.

At that time, I had just graduated from college and I was taking a couple of post-grad courses in New York City. I had a good group of friends that I would hang out with after class every Tuesday night, and I started telling them my Xbox tale of pity and woe.

I added some flourishes (we were in a writing class, after all) to give the story a bit more flavor, and I might have thrown in a clown or two for good measure.

Anyway, I finished my story with a sigh and I took a sip of my drink. "And that's how I ruined Christmas this year."

My buddies laughed and there was a momentary silence as everyone at the table took a bite or a drink or simply took a moment to be thankful they weren't me. And then Mitch, from the corner, says, "Or I could just get you one."

Another momentary silence.

"One what?" I asked.

"An Xbox. My girlfriend's father is a big wig at [insert toy store here]."

I laughed. "That's mean. Haven't I been through enough--"

"No, really."

At that point, we were still two weeks from Christmas, but the semester had ended.

"Just meet me at work sometime next week, bring the money, and I'll have your Xbox."

Work, as it turned out, was literally a stone's throw from one of the largest [insert toy store here]s on the planet. And when I showed up to meet Mitch the following week, money in hand and big, stupid grin on my face, he handed me the Xbox and, as it would happen, the weight of the world.

"I'd get out of here pretty quickly, Al," he said. I was too busy smiling stupidly to understand what he meant.

"Alex. You should go."

"Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to keep you," I replied.

"No, no. It's not that. Look across the street."

And there, at [insert toy store name here], once again I was faced with a scene from a Romero movie. The store, you see, had just sold out of the system (as the giant "SORRY, XBOX SOLD OUT" sign out front announced) and that eerie, dead-eyed look of failure was strewn across the faces of countless parents as they were exiting the store.

Some of the zombies--um, people--some of the people had spotted me. They saw the Xbox-shaped bag and I could tell that at least a couple of them were beyond the point of no return and attacking a complete stranger for a video game was something they might now consider.

So I left.

And that was that. It was a long, hard, and kind of stupid road, but in the end, I saved Christmas. And that's really all that matters.

Nathaniel: Unlike Alex, I try to avoid worst holiday shopping experiences. In recent years, I've done the bulk of my shopping at conventions--Comic-Con 2010 and Otakon 2008 were especially productive. I've also been conducting my shopping throughout the year, instead of in a mad rush in the day(s) before Christmas. There's usually a shopping trip to the mall one or two weeks out, but that's generally to give me inspiration for the last few stragglers on my list, and to fully immerse myself in commercialized holiday cheer.

I worked retail for a relatively brief period, and got a taste of the small-business holiday rush. I seem to have blocked the specific details out of my memory and may actually be fabricating part of this, but I do recall one customer who rifled through multiple copies of the same book before settling on one in gift-worthy condition, and after all the rigamarole of getting into line and handing the product over to be gift-wrapped, left the store in a huff because there was an imperceptible dent on the cover, grumbling something about going to a store that sold merchandise in decent condition.

Don't ever let the holidays get to you like that. Nothing is worth the stress that would drive you to that point. No retailer needs that backlash.

Anyone who's spent any time in customer service has at least a few stories of unhappy interactions and nightmare customers. I've got a story about a person who stopped me halfway through my complimentary gift-wrapping job and took back her gift so she could wrap it the right way at home. You've had worse, I'm sure. I've had it easy.

However, I did purchase a gift at Comic-Con 2011 and forgot to pick it up before walking away forever. I believe that counts for something.

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