How Workers for Amazon, Target and More Make Your Shopping Possible

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The holidays are a hectic time of year for everyone. But for those working in the retail and logistics industries, it’s the busiest time. From selecting the carols that play in the store to deciding the most eye-catching places to display toys to getting those Amazon packages to your doorstep on time, there are thousands of people responsible for making the holiday shopping merry. Here are a few of their stories.

When shoppers across the country walk into a Nordstrom this week, they will be met with twinkling lights, garlands hung around the store and Mariah Carey crooning that all she wants for Christmas is youuuuu.

But the planning that goes into creating an experience that puts shoppers in the holiday spirit starts a year ahead, when executives at the department store select the overall theme, which sets the tone for the décor, said Paige Boggs, the vice president of store environment at Nordstrom.

This year’s theme at Nordstrom is “Home for the Holidays,” a nod toward nostalgia and the traditions surrounding Christmas. Late last year, the store’s in-house design team and a group of engineers began to create décor around the theme, which included holiday villages and candles placed in windows. Those bigger items are manufactured and shipped to Nordstrom’s 93 stores by August, Mrs. Boggs said.

The actual decorating inside the stores, however, doesn’t begin until the Monday evening before Thanksgiving. Over the next few days, teams inside the stores work feverishly putting up 3,500 trees and hanging 3,900 garlands, 4,350 wreaths and 95,000 strings of twinkling lights — all in preparation for Black Friday. For many retailers like Nordstrom, the day after Thanksgiving is the beginning of the biggest few weeks of sales for the year.

And contrary to popular belief, Nordstrom doesn’t pump a scent into its stores during the holiday season. “Our goal is the absence of smell,” Mrs. Boggs said. “Scent is a very polarizing thing,” she continued, adding that the store even uses unscented cleaning products.

The day after Thanksgiving is also when Nordstrom will start to play holiday music in its stores. But to avoid driving store associates crazy with an endless loop of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” the department store has 30,000 songs in rotation. On Black Friday, the retailer will play holiday-themed music 50 percent of the time before dialing it down to 20 percent the next day and slowly building back up to 50 percent by mid-December. “My goal,” Mrs. Boggs said, “is that you don’t hear the same song twice in a day.”

During the holidays, the toys at Target are moved beyond their designated aisle to other parts of the store. The category is a big business for the retailer, and although the popular toys of the season are largely already known — hello, Barbie and LEGO — executives are constantly discussing how much space they should give to toys this time of year. There are ways to “cheat space,” said Tara Russell, vice president of visual merchandising and styling.

Toys are placed at the ends of aisles and in the main walkway. A large red bin shaped like a train holds small plush toys and other knickknacks to draw shoppers in. F.A.O. Schwarz toys are displayed throughout the store, too.

“I’m sure our toys team would like even more space,” Ms. Russell said, smiling. “But they maximize what they have, and then we make sure that we lean in and help find a way to give them incremental space.”

Sometimes, the team will unbox large items, like a play truck, to give parents a sense of how big it is. Children also get a chance to play with the items right away. But shoppers have told Target that they’re not crazy about having too many unboxed toys. “Our guest tends to not like the distraction as much as maybe we used to,” she said.

Instead, Target executives want shoppers to feel they can walk around the store easily while ticking through their wish lists. Signage plays a role in that.

“We know what those top 10 toys are, and so we make sure that you know where they are,” Ms. Russell said. “We want you to be able to find the things that are probably on your list more easily, and the likelihood of the top 10 toys being on your list is much greater than, say, the 100th toy.”

The week after Black Friday, Kraig Kuban, an Amazon driver, usually has a good sense of what shoppers in and around St. Petersburg, Fla., bought for Christmas gifts. He’s one of a few hundred drivers at the e-commerce giant who is trained to drop off the heavy items, some as much as 300 pounds, to customers’ homes. It’s his fifth holiday season doing this work.

Throughout the year, he drops off a steady stream of bed-in-the-boxes, Peloton exercise machines and appliances. He’ll still deliver those in the lead-up to Christmas, but he’ll also start loading more Power Wheels cars and kitchen play sets into his truck. Then there are the artificial Christmas trees.

He packed the first Christmas tree onto his truck even before Halloween. Now, there are at least one or two trees on his truck each day. “We’ve delivered so many of them, and it’s just kind of more monotonous,” Mr. Kuban, 50, said. “Put it in the truck, let’s go deliver it.” (He’s grateful he hasn’t had to deliver a real, prickly tree yet.)

On average, Mr. Kuban and his partner will deliver 15 to 30 packages a day, and sometimes will set up the treadmill or air hockey table they drop off. This time of year, parents will meet him outside by his truck, asking him to be discreet because the package is a gift for their child — so he’ll haul the item to the garage to help them store it away.

And despite jokingly calling himself a “Scrooge” when it comes to his own holiday shopping, his line of work and his truck make it impossible to escape Christmas. “The antenna on our trucks broke, so once we’re a little bit out of the area, the only station that comes on is the one that plays Christmas music,” Mr. Kuban said. “So we do listen to it.”

The racks of cozy knit sweaters and shimmery sequined dresses that are now on display in the local Macy’s started arriving at the company’s distribution centers toward the end of the summer. Making sure those sweaters and all the other items at Macy’s stay in stock is part of the complex game of Tetris that Sean Barbour, Macy’s senior vice president of supply chain, and his team are used to.

It’s Mr. Barbour’s fourth holiday season with the company; during that time, he and his team have made it through the Covid pandemic, bottlenecks in the global supply chain and the intense winter storms last year.

“We are great at solving challenges, no matter what form those challenges come in,” he said.

Behind the scenes, the company’s team monitoring its supply chain is determining which items — and how many of them — should be in the more than 560 Macy’s department stores across 43 states. It does the same for Bloomingdale’s stores, which Macy’s parent company owns.

The team spends the weeks leading up to Christmas using sophisticated technology to monitor a wide array of real-time metrics that help predict how much time it will take before a store is out of a certain product. The objective is to get more of that merchandise in the store before that happens.

“We are positioning inventory and assortment into those regions, into those stores in advance of the season,” Mr. Barbour said. Macy’s keeps product reserves in nearby fulfillment centers so that it can quickly deliver items to the stores that need them.

Delivering the same number of items to every store would result in some of that merchandise languishing. “We’re not really looking to have a tremendous amount of Christmas sweaters in Hawaii,” Mr. Barbour said.

Despite the sophisticated modeling, a snowstorm could hit a region and slow down delivery times, or an item could unexpectedly start flying off the racks. Mr. Barbour’s team has to be nimble in situations like that.

“We’ll go to really any length necessary,” he said. “We’ll change delivery schedules. We will send inventory from another location. We will literally do whatever we need to in order to support that store.”

Asked what time he wakes up on Black Friday Mr. Barbour said: “That assumes I went to sleep.”

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