John Nguyen

I’ve been going to the Mall of America (MOA) ever since my primary school years, and it’s usually the only place my family visits on Black Friday. Má, my sisters and I make the 30 minute drive from Saint Paul to Bloomington, where the MOA resides. Home to over 520 stores, the 1.3-million-gallon Sea Life Aquarium and Nickelodeon Universe (an indoor amusement park with 27 rides), the MOA is the biggest shopping mall in the United States. People enjoy poking fun at the Midwest for its chilly winters and cornfield-laden lands. But we actually have some cool attractions, one being the MOA. (Why would it be built in Minnesota? I have zero clue, but thanks to The Triple Five Group for letting us have something to flex.) Though, I can’t really provide other reasons that tourists travel to my North Star state, besides to experience the MOA. Surely, they don’t come to indulge in our 10,000 lakes. According to Jill Renslow — senior vice president of business development and marketing for the MOA — at least 240,000 shoppers visited the MOA on Black Friday in 2018. It can get hectic.

As I’ve grown older, Black Friday has become less and less significant for my family. People typically shop on Black Friday because they feel compelled to commence their Christmas shopping frenzy, taking advantage of the plentiful great deals. However, my family doesn’t celebrate any winter holiday festivities anymore. Assembling and disassembling the Christmas tree is tedious: I can’t recall the last time we put one up. And for the past four years, we haven’t participated in the gift exchange because my sisters and I have grown out of the idea of waiting to open presents on one designated day. Instead, we just buy one another gifts throughout the year. On Christmas day, my family slurps hot Vietnamese dishes like bún bò huế, a spicy, pungent beef soup. Food serves as the best present. Basically a part two to Thanksgiving, but sprinkle some snow.

Nonetheless, Black Friday shopping is still fun. I love the atmosphere: Everyone is in a jolly mood. (Though, I’m thankful to say that I’ve never witnessed those fights over flat-screen TVs.) On the biggest shopping day of the year, I walk around various stores at the MOA with my family. We always visit Macy’s: It has the best sales. We don’t overburden our shopping carts with products that we don’t need — eight items is usually our maximum. And as a former retail worker, I’ve come to appreciate the staff that make Black Friday run smoothly. 

In my senior year of high school, I was a bookseller at my local Barnes & Noble. Working on Black Friday was, of course, catastrophic. Little kids threw toys anywhere they wanted in the children’s area, and their parents didn’t clean up after them. Books got left on top of shelves and were placed where they weren’t supposed to be. (Why was there an adult romance novel in the toys area?) People, for some reason, also liked to steal vinyl records, so my managers often reminded me and my coworkers to keep an eye out. (Who even uses these anymore? How do you even use them? Are those vintage record player thingies still being manufactured?) 

Customer service is pretty much similar everywhere, and if a retail worker doesn’t have any complaints about the challenges of the job, then they’re probably lying to themself. Even during a pandemic, these retail warriors are still there, stocking the displays, manning check-out lines. While at the MOA a week ago, I didn’t find any items that enticed me, so I suddenly got the idea to write a YDN article. This impulse led to my interviews with 16 employees, all of whom work at various businesses in the MOA. 

I spoke to two American Eagle employees — who are high schoolers — and they shared with me their opinions regarding working on Black Friday this year. They emphasized, “People still don’t know how to wear their masks. Not even like not having it on, but having it on not the right way. People get frustrated when we ask them to lift it up. And like our fitting rooms are closed, and people get mad about those too. It’s just super crazy … But with coworker friends, the time passes by fast.”

Rebecca, a Forever 21 employee, also weighed in when I asked about her 2020 Black Friday experience. She underscored, “My honest and truthful opinion is that I have to stand up too long. And that I have to walk around and make sure everybody gets what they need. So I feel like customer service is very important. It’s a priority in these times.”

A Disney Store employee shares the same sentiment. She shares, “I’m more stressed than usual, and I don’t really understand why we’re doing Black Friday this year with everything that’s going on. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for me.”

“The food court [seating area] is closed. You can’t [sit down and] eat,” Sueda from Bath & Body Works exhorts. In order to maneuver around this newly implemented safety measure, MOA visitors sat on the hallway floors with crossed legs, eating without their masks, creating their own tiny restaurant. Though, according to the MOA website, “Mall restaurants and food court tenants will continue to offer food for takeout and delivery, but it cannot be consumed on property.” Sueda continues, “It’s claustrophobic, too many people, way too many people. It’s also pretty international, people from all over the world come in. And I’m tired. I should be getting paid more.”

This assortment of quotes from MOA employees conveys a disappointing truth: Retail staff carry on working long hours, while corporations get richer. In 2014, the MOA was valued at over $2 billion, making it Minnesota’s most valuable asset, without much competition. And after hearing everyone’s comments, I reflect on my current Yale experience. There’s the vast portion of Yalies who have never needed to work a minimum-wage job. Never will. And there are students who have been high-school retail employees, finding ways to handle college expenses, sending money to loved ones who struggle financially back home. For my two on-campus work-study jobs, I’m seated in my chair and getting paid. Although it can be difficult to manage work, academics, sleep, clubs and time for myself and friends, I’m eternally grateful. I don’t need to stand up for eight hours and tend to customers’ wide array of needs like I did in high school. Ultimately, despite the obstacles of navigating Yale as an FGLI student, I’m very privileged to be here. Because of the four-letter name of this university attached to the top line of my resume, I may very possibly never have to work in retail again. 

Many of these MOA employees were required to work on this bustling day of shopping: Stores need to be well-staffed in order to operate on Black Friday, of course. But since a worldwide pandemic proved unable to halt this important feat of United States culture and economy — of a capitalistic society — what’ll it take for retail workers to be recognized for their hard work? In the meantime, the people who staff our store and cash registers are left to ponder this question.

John Nguyen | john.nguyen@yale.edu

JOHN NGUYEN