Sunday, November 29, 2009

Jesus Came to Save Retail

I have a complicated relationship with capitalism.

My day job is in retail and it appears no one has gotten word out to all the consumers that the recession is over. (It must be over---I heard it on NPR!) Sales are terrible and so there is no little hand-wringing over how to increase them.

Christmas to the rescue!

Suggest Christmas gifts to people, push certain product that is supposedly "hot" this year (which is to say, convince a customer that a product is hot and therefore must be bought).

I love my job. I really do. If I didn't, I wouldn't be there for 6 years at a wage suitable for part-time college students. I love helping customers find what they're looking for, I love making suggestions if they have some ideas but nothing in particular. I even love trying to figure out what it is they're looking for when they have only partial information. I actually use a lot of my pastoral care training from seminary. I ask questions, rephrasing what they've said to help jog their memory, tease out information they didn't realize they had, that sort of thing. I've even told a few customers along the way (when they've asked for something that's a little embarrassing), "don't worry, talking to me is like talking to your therapist. Nothing goes beyond this transaction." It's good for a laugh and it seems to put them at ease.

I think I'm really pretty good at this. Judging from the repeat customers who have told me, "you're always so helpful," I think I can back that up with testimonials.

But I'm a terrible salesman. I don't really believe in convincing people of things that are not their idea. I don't really believe, in fact, in consumerism for the sake of consuming, which is what a lot of selling is. "You don't realize you need this, but here's why you do."

This year, perhaps more than any recent year, Christmas is going to make or break some retail establishments. Every year, it's the Christmas gift-buying that shores up businesses, keeps them in business for another year.

And here is my complicated relationship. I don't want to see anyone's livelihood disappear. I also don't really believe in buying gifts just to sooth guilty consciences or otherwise puff up false attitudes of generosity. I don't believe in the expectation of Christmas gifts. I need to keep my job. I don't like taking advantage of people's paranoia about needing one more gift for someone.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw A Charlie Brown Christmas with some friends. I couldn't help thinking about how many people have seen this cartoon over the last four-plus decades and how little difference it's message of anti-commercialism has made.

I really just want to tell people, "you know, if you don't know what they like or what they want, maybe you don't know them well enough to buy them a gift." Maybe the money is better spent on a charitable donation to something everyone can get behind. Cancer research, for example.

I am not against Christmas gifts. I enjoy buying a handful for a few dear people in my life. I enjoy getting a few from people who know me well enough to make it a real show of care for me (even if it is a frivolous gift but still shows they know my particular tastes in frivolity).

But I'm still disturbed by how much our economy depends upon Christmas. It's an economy built upon false desires, false obligations.

Jesus didn't come to save retail stores. It just looks that way.

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