Temporary Insanity

A day in the life of a holiday temp.

By Matthew Boyle

The author struggles to make a bed. John Lewis will hire about 500 temps this year.


It’s just after 11 a.m. on a cold December day in East London, and I’m still in bed. Not my bed, but a $1,250 double bed on the second floor of the 260,000-square-foot John Lewis department store in the Stratford City mall, where I’m moonlighting as a temporary holiday worker. My job is to make the bed — a simple task, one would think, but I’m unable to master the precise placement and folds of the dual duvets, various cushions, and faux-suede throw.

Thankfully, Jaimini Chudasama, a full-time employee who’s shadowing me in the home department, walks me through the process. Before long — or at least before any customers notice — the bed is back to its pristine condition. I redeem myself slightly by deftly decorating a $280 Christmas tree lacquered with fake spray-on snow. It’s a hot seller this year and already out of stock.

“You have to take more initiative,” Barry Davison, a store personnel manager, says as we recap my morning among the 100 seasonal workers (John Lewis calls them “partners”) at the Stratford store, the newest of the retailer’s 29 branches across England.

With unemployment rates hovering at about 8 percent in both the U.S. and Britain, today’s temps aren’t just bored teenagers or college kids home on break looking for extra cash or an employee discount. They’re older and often angling for full-time work, like Neil Maclennan, a 32-year-old temp from London’s gritty Hackney neighborhood, who works in the stockroom to supplement his income as a self-employed artist. “I’ve applied for a permanent role here,” says Maclennan, using a handheld scanner to sort through the 215 Web orders that will be picked up by customers in the store today. “I can’t see art as my main income for a while, so I’d like to stay on here after my holiday contract is up.”

Hundreds of thousands of temps will stock shelves and man cash registers this year, and the quality of seasonal applicants has improved dramatically since the recession hit, according to Craig Rowley, head of the global retail practice at workplace consultant Hay Group. More than one-third of U.S. retailers surveyed by the firm said they’re hiring more seasonal workers this year, up from 10 percent last year. In the U.K., more than two-thirds of retailers will boost staffing for the holiday season, up from 54 percent last year, according to the British Retail Consortium.

John Lewis, which was founded in 1864 and now employs 28,000 people, will hire about 500 temps this year (about the same as last year). The company gets as many as 30 applications for each spot, says Laura Whyte, the personnel director. Work starts in late October and pays about £10 ($16) an hour. Aspiring temps fill out an online questionnaire and are interviewed in groups of about 20 to judge their problem-solving and people skills.

“We can teach you to sell the product, but we cannot teach the right attitude to have with customers or the confidence to ascertain their needs,” Whyte, a 30-year company veteran, says. All temps are paired with a full-timer during their shifts. Some of those who excel during the holidays join the permanent ranks, becoming eligible for a slice of the company’s profit, which amounts to about 14 percent of the typical John Lewis employee’s salary.

I could use some of that confidence Whyte mentioned as I wander the electronics department with another shadow, a suitably geeky-looking employee named Jacob Craig who can rattle off the specs of flat-screen TVs and tablets with ease. We approach a customer looking for a black, 16-gigabyte version of Apple’s iPad mini, but the five that were in stock when the store opened at 10 a.m. were gone an hour later.

The shopper leaves, disappointed, but success at John Lewis isn’t only about making the sale, I discover. The rapport Craig established might prevent the customer from going to a rival for his gadget.

Bagging items behind the counter later on, I finally make a connection with a shopper who’s buying some napkins for a Christmas party she’s hosting later in the month. We chat about the weather — Britain’s favorite topic — and the stress of making everything look perfect during the holidays.

Luckily for me, she wasn’t shopping for a bed.


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