Black Friday Throwback: What I Learned from Working at JCPenney

A photo of a pretty standard JCP storefront, this one in Dulles, VA via

I always get a little nostalgic this time of year about Black Friday shopping.

It reminds me of my first “real job” (way back in 2003) where I worked in the men’s department at the JCPenney in Montgomery Mall, Pennsylvania. Starting at age 16, I spent many school nights, weekends, and summer breaks behind the cash registers, learning how to re-fold men’s dress shirts into those tiny bags, handing out coupons, and perfectly re-aligning the jeans in those wall alcoves.

I believed then (even as I still do today) that customer-facing jobs offer a fantastic entry point into a career of working with people. Looking back now, it’s funny to think that the staff meetings hosted in the jewelry department before the store opened ended up being my first exposure to “daily standups.”

Like any job, some days I liked it so much that I would come home with a huge grin on my face. Other days I would scowl the whole evening, wishing I could instead be at home finishing my homework or sleeping. Sometimes I’d get stuck alone at the back quad for hours at a time without a single customer. To pass the time, I’d print out long strings of receipt paper and write mini-essays to myself about life, working, school, and anything else that came to mind.

Toward the end of my regular tenure at JCPenney, before I left for college in the fall of 2005, I turned one of these “receipt-paper essays” into the following piece and distributed copies for everybody I worked with. Last summer, one of my former colleagues found his copy stashed in a lost box of knick-knacks and sent me a scan of all of the pages. It made me smile, so I thought I’d share it with all of you, too.

Below, the original (unedited) text from my 18-year-old self.

Happy Black Friday, everyone. Be nice to your retail associates today — it’s thankless work.

What I Learned at JCPenney

(Circa August 2005)

People say one of the greatest things about working in the retail industry is that you don’t have to take your work home with you. Although this may be true, after working at JCPenney for more than two years, I’ve learned that you never go home empty-handed. Whether you leave with two giant bags of clearance t-shirts for $2.77, bits of pink price stickers stuck all over your pants, or just with the admiration of acquiring 9 credit applications in a single day, there will always be that little part of JCPenney that follows you outside of Montgomery Mall, beyond Parking Lot 32, and into the real world.

Here’s what I learned at JCPenney:

1. Every day is a sale day.

It may not be the renowned JCPenney Sweet Sale, Associate Shopping Day, or even a simple coupon day, but it’s comforting to know that any given day out of the 363 available shopping days each year, you will always find something on sale somewhere, and guarantees like this make living in this uncertain world a little bit easier…with or without that delicious chocolate!

2. No matter what you do, things will always get messy. (And then you have to clean it up again.)

Because all the customers like to politely wait behind you as you straighten one table, so within 30 seconds after you leave, the job that just took two hours of backbreaking labor needs about three hours of recovery work yet again…

3. Serving time in the children’s department isn’t always a bad thing.

Okay, I’m lying. Who would willingly subject themselves to such an afternoon sentence, faced with the daunting task of straightening the approximately 1,000 shirts that are out of place as well as making the floor actually visible again?

4. Every mess must be cleaned up one piece at a time.

But if you choose to start with the shirt at the bottom of the pile, don’t be surprised when you become a human mannequin in a matter of seconds.

5. The entire world can change in a single weekend.

You can go home on Friday night and return Monday morning to meet a parallel universe of what used to be considered “your department,” but now you’re not quite sure because the underwear display is overtaking the front of the registers, the dress shirts now line the aisle, and the sunglasses have disappeared entirely.

6. Real men buy their own clothes.

By this I mean, “real men buy their own clothes and shop more than once a decade.” No mothers, no wives, and no daughters — nothing. And it also helps if they know their size before opening up every package in the store, but be aware that whatever size men think they are, it doesn’t hurt to go up one…just in case…

7. They really do play Christmas music earlier every year.

Okay, maybe not, but how many times do you hear people say this when the holiday decorations first appear around the store?

8. They really do make pants fit tighter every year. (Wink wink!)

Again, no they don’t, but that doesn’t stop half the population from thinking all the companies are mismanaging their tape-measures when labeling the inches that determine their respective waist sizes.

9. There’s always a catch.

With everything we do in life, nothing comes without that lengthy list of expectations (that must be read with a magnifying glass!). So whether you’re trying to just use that seemingly fabulous coupon or just get a free Mickey Snow Globe, be prepared to face the ugly consequences.

10. There’s never a reason.

Why is it necessary for the store to open prior to 9 a.m. on certain select days? Why does the music selection inexplicably change one day? Why do all the scissors just disappear? Why do they call the number of JCPenney credit applications we have yet to meet our goal the “magic number”? There’s never a reason. Period.

11. There is always something that needs to be done.

At least, this is what the managers say, but this is actually just code for “don’t play card games using the numbers on the back of the Gift Cards”…even when there are no customers within a five-mile radius of the store. (Not to say I’ve done that or anything!)

12. People are crazy…and annoying…and wonderful.

While some people are under the impression that every sales associate is capable of reading a numberless barcode, others just can’t understand the phrase, “We don’t have boxes at the register,” or see that they are, in fact, standing in the very department that they so desperately seek to find. So even though there will always be those people that ask you if you work at the store (as you are standing behind the register folding a shirt) or call simply to say, “You have nice feet,” it’s quite nice to know there are also the kind of people that turn in purses containing $1000 cash and help lost children be reunited with their Mommy and Daddy once again.

13. If something smells weird, looks wet, or feels sticky, don’t go near it.

Because maybe it’s actually the smell of vomit in the fitting room or the messy result of a little girl who just “couldn’t make it to the bathroom.” Or even worse, some other unidentified substance on a shirt that just won’t go away…

14. If you wait for it, prices will drop.

So if you typically wear sizes XS or 4XL, this strategy for shopping will work great for you. Otherwise you’ll be stuck with everybody else who purchases items when they think the prices can’t possibly drop any lower, then slap themselves in frustration when it is reduced to 70% off three days later…and they can’t find their receipt.

15. Pins are sharp. So are ticket-attaching guns and the pointy parts of ink tags.

Even after an innumerable number of cuts, punctures, and substantial blood loss, I don’t think I’ll ever learn not to reach into the pin jar while talking to a customer on the phone. I can only warn you not to do the same because you may say things you’ll regret later…

16. Sometimes it’s best not to ask questions.

Sometimes this is a very bad thing. For example, when you ask, “Was there anything wrong with this item?” during a return, it’s a bit disconcerting when some customers find it necessary to explicitly describe why that particular bra did not fit their figure or when they then proceed to engross you with the details of their recent pelvic surgery that caused some rather unsettling side effects…

17. All cash returns occur in the morning.

It’s a given. Within the first five minutes of when the store opens, you are guaranteed to have that customer who returns the $300 jacket that they paid for (in cash), and are then forced to give them their money with the mere $50 that is found in the register.

18. Smile! (It makes it all better!)

A happy associate is a helpful associate! Besides, if what they say is true, then just pretending to be happy actually works, even when you’re stuck in the store for one hour after it closed with a non-English speaking customer who just thinks that you’re trying to help them find a tie to match their shirt. So just keep your teeth locked in that oh-so-pleasant condition, even if you’re actually baring them menacingly and growling on the inside.

19. You have not seen it all.

None of us have. (I really don’t feel like getting into the details of soiled underwear, used coffee-makers left in the fitting room, talkative 60-year-old hat-sporting Italian novelists, and thieves that dress up as cows and then stow away stolen merchandise in their udders right now…but trust me on this, okay?)

And the most important thing I learned at JCPenney?

20. Opening up a JCPenney card is vital for your successful existence on this Planet Earth.

What? Where did that come from? (No, seriously, though…if you open an account with me, I’ll make it worth your while!)

So after two years of, “May I put this on your JCPenney card” and “Would you like to purchase a catalogue today?” and “Can I interest you in a Gift Card?” I can honestly say that nothing I pursue in the next four months will be able to replace the void that remains from stale lunches in the food court and watching General Hospital in the break room. (That’s right, not even my potential career that awaits me at school in the form of a hairnet and serving spoon could rival the overwhelming emotion that overtakes me when I have the opportunity to return a list of 40 items using just the receipt!)

No longer will I stock up on coupons to give to all my classmates, sport fashionable outfits to school (for under $5!), or shiver uncontrollably when I hear the words, “SKU check!” In addition, I won’t get the most precious bonus of all — the beauty of the associate discount. And I must admit that the thing I’ll miss the most will be working with all of the people I’ve grown to know so well over the past two years. It’s really true when they say that we are the JCPenney team, after all…through power outages, manic sweeps of the floor before inventory, and even introducing new associates to the wonderful world of retail. In retrospect, though, I suppose it is necessary to take some time off from the retail industry for the sake of my education.

Besides, I’ll be home for Christmas! (And that’s when the real fun begins!)

I’d be remiss to post this entire thing without at least highlighting some of the hot Black Friday deals today. Here’s a peek at once going on at store 0168 right now. (Via