Returns and gift card season kicks off in southeastern Connecticut

Waterford — With its door-busting deals, long lines and occasional deadly violence, Black Friday is known to customers as the kickoff of the holiday shopping season.

But for many retail and customer service workers, that season ends on Christmas Eve and its helter-skelter monthlong sequel, called "Returns and Gift Cards," opened Tuesday.

Erin Campbell, the merchandise supervisor at J.C. Penney at Crystal Mall, says she gets through the day after Christmas by treating "every customer like they were the first of the day" and keeping a consistent smile. She added that several hours of preparation help the day go smoothly for customers and workers alike.

"We have to make sure we have enough stock on hand," Campbell said as she organized jewelry boxes. "Everybody has gift cards or exchanges. People always guess sizes too small."

Campbell added that she didn't mind working the day after a holiday, describing co-workers and repeat customers as her second family and saying the shift "gives you a break from the chores at home."

Nate Moniz, district manager of Toy Vault, was busy delivering merchandise to Crystal Mall on Tuesday, restocking after the busy run-up to Christmas. Moniz said in his retail career, the day after Christmas has often been just as hectic if not busier than Black Friday.

"On Black Friday, people don't care about customer service. They come in and get the deal, they get out and move to the next place," Moniz said, surrounded by new and retro games, action figures and popular Funko Pop! vinyl figurines. "On the day after Christmas, you have to be prepared to have a more hands-on approach."

Some customers arrive frustrated or angry and workers have to resolve returns issues, but most arrive knowing what they're looking for and with the mindset that "'I've got X amount of dollars on a gift card and there was that thing I wanted that I didn't get,'" Moniz said.

Retail workers throughout the region said they'd noticed an uptick in customer traffic this season.

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that consumers across the country went on shopping sprees in November, with brick-and-mortar retailers' and restaurants' sales jumping almost 1 percent higher than October.

"The economy is going good and it brings more people in and they spend more," said Pam Legare in between helping customers at Irish Eyes at Olde Mystick Village. "We need that for our little shops."

Legare said Irish Eyes, which buzzed with activity Tuesday afternoon, boosts staff around Christmas and throughout the busy summers. She described customers as "happy and we're small enough that we can take time with them. That's important."

Jewett City resident Towanda Ritz and her daughter Megan braved the cold Tuesday to shop in Mystic and visit Tiger Lily Tea.

"We're browsing, taking pictures and having an adventurous day," Ritz said, adding she never goes out on Black Friday, saying it's "too many crowds, too much congestion. My life is worth more than saving a few dollars."

Behind the fudge counter at Franklin's General Store, Kellylee Ventura said, "It's always hectic" on the day after Christmas.

"All holidays and big events are busy," Ventura said. "It's quiet compared to Target and Walmart with returns, but we have our moments."

By 3:45 p.m. at the Groton Walmart, returned toys, household goods and clothes of every color had piled up in bins, carts and shelves behind the customer service desk.

When asked whom to speak with for an article on busy day-after-Christmas shopping, a nearby worker, Millie Beasley, overheard, smiled and said, "Oh, boy."

"Crazy is not the right word," Beasley said of the experience.

The employees then deferred questions to Walmart's corporate media team.

Asked for data on transactions and customer flow, Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson said the company doesn't release any hard numbers on returns or transactions on the day after Christmas or any day of the year, for that matter.

But he said stores are "prepared for maximum customer service," ensuring "enough associates are on hand to help facilitate our customers' needs."

"It happens year-round but we know that from Black Friday until New Year's Day, those are the days we have to be at our best," he said.

b.kail@theday.com

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