CLOSE
THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

21 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Mall Santas

THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

Being a mall Santa might seem like a relatively easy job: Put a kid on your lap, ask them what they want for Christmas, pose for a quick photo, and send them on their merry way. But any Santa who’s done even one season at the mall will tell you the job takes dedication.

“There’s no harder job in all of Christmas than being the mall Santa,” says Paul Sheehan, who worked as a Santa at a mall in rural New Hampshire and is now in his 36th season as a professional Mr. Claus. “Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve at 3 pm, I had seen over 17,000 kids. Someone in a bigger city, they’re doing twice and three times that.”

But there’s a reason thousands of rotund, bearded men don the suit every year: While demanding, being Santa is also incredibly rewarding. We spoke with a few professional Kris Kringles about what it’s like being the season’s biggest celebrity.

1. THEY GO TO SANTA COLLEGE.

If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corporation, an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country. Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s Director of PR.

Every August, Noerr hosts its Santa University in Arvada, Colorado, where hundreds of “gentlemen of great mirth and girth” gather for four days of training on everything from Santa ethics to how to ho-ho-ho. “It’s amazing to sit with all these guys in their red shirts and suspenders,” Rosenquist says. “You look up and you’re speaking to Santa. It’s the best audience in the world.” Watch a sneak peek below:

2. RULE #1: ALWAYS STAY IN CHARACTER.

If you’re wearing the red suit, you must behave like Santa at all times. This means having a jolly temperament and never snapping or yelling at a child, no matter how frustrated you may be.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” says Rosenquist. “They’re never to break that character.”

For some of the more professional St. Nicks, the white beard and big belly stays with them all year, so they have to be careful about how they’re representing the jolly old elf in public. This means being on one’s best behavior and fielding questions like, “Santa, what are you doing at the grocery store?”

Robert Hildreth, a professional Santa of 30 years, says he doesn’t drink when he goes out for dinner with his wife Carol Hildreth (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), because he wants to be the model image of Santa for children. “You gotta watch what you say and do because the kids are looking at you,” he says.

But playing a convincing Santa all year round comes with its perks, like the occasional free meal. “We’ve had a couple incidents where we’ve gone into restaurants and the little ones notice us,” Carol explains. “He’ll go over and talk to them a bit and then when we go to pay the bill it’s already been taken care of.”

3. THEY KNOW WHERE THE MALL’S SECRET BATHROOMS ARE.

Santa shushing in the show.

“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s men in red. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa you have to stay in character and it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”

In some malls, Santas have their own designated dressing area complete with a bathroom. And if not, they improvise. “I find the restroom in the mall that is the most obscure and private,” Holland says. “If I have trouble finding those, I find the nearest department store and use one of their restrooms that’s out of the way.”

4. THEY SECRETLY SWAP.

If a Santa needs to take a lunch break or his shift is ending, sometimes another one will step in without anyone noticing. “In the busiest of malls, we often set it up so there are two Santas and we try to match in terms of physical appearance so it’s not that obvious in mid-day when we swap,” says Holland. “We don’t want anyone saying ‘That’s not Santa!’ A lot of times even parents and especially kids, if they didn’t see us together, they wouldn’t know which was which.”

5. THEY GET A BODYGUARD.

According to Rosenquist, every Noerr Santa gets an escort when he leaves the set. This is supposed to discourage the mobs of fans from attacking him.

6. THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BLEACH A BEARD.

While some naturally-bearded Santas are blessed with snowy white bristles, others aren’t so lucky. In that case, bleaching is the best option, but only when it’s done gradually and with great care. “It’s gotta be done in stages,” says Rosenquist. “If you try to go snowy white all at once, you’ll burn your hair and it gets yellow.” Smart Santas begin the coloring process in October in preparation for the holiday season.

7. THE MONEY’S PRETTY GOOD.

Santa holding lots of money

Noerr doesn’t disclose how much it pays its actors, but according to Rosenquist, it’s a salaried position, and the rate can vary by location. Ed Warchol, president of Cherry Hill Photo, another Santa distributor, says his Santas earn “well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work.”

8. AND SENIORITY HELPS.

The more experience a Santa has under his belt, the bigger his paycheck. “We always look for experience,” says Rosenquist. One 18-year veteran St. Nick said he could make $30,000 in one season.

For some comparison: according to a cheeky report from insurance information site Insure.com, the real Santa Claus would earn roughly $140,000 a year if he were compensated for all the work he does, including overseeing the toy factory and piloting the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

9. THEY MIGHT KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE.

Noerr teaches Santas-in-training key ASL gestures so they can communicate with deaf children. They’re also advised to learn basic Spanish. Rosenquist says the demand for Santas of different races and backgrounds is growing. “We are in a lot of markets that are heavily Hispanic, so having bilingual Santas is of supreme importance,” she says.

10. THERE’S A SECRET SANTA GREETING.

In public, Santas speak in code to one another as a show of camaraderie. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” says Holland. “That’s a giveaway.” Or, if a Santa lookalike answers to “Brother In Red,” you know you’re talking to a St. Nick.

11. A ROUND BELLY IS NOT REQUIRED.

“You don’t necessarily have to have the belly full of jelly,” Rosenquist says. “We don’t measure our Santas by their waist, we measure them by their hearts.” Noerr’s training program actually includes a session on how to eat properly and avoid the health risks that come with being Santa-sized, like diabetes and heart disease. If Santa needs a bigger belly to be convincing, he can be “enhanced” with padding.

Some Santas also wear makeup to maintain a rosy glow. “Number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look,” one actor told This American Life.

12. CONDIMENTS ARE TO BE AVOIDED.

“If he’s presenting that day, it’s pretty much just water and sandwiches with no ketchup or mustard in them,” says Carol Hildreth. “Otherwise the beard gets dirty.” And nobody wants Santa all up in their face if he’s got bad breath, so good Santas keep breath mints on them at all times. Robert adds an extra special touch: His beard oil is peppermint-scented.

13. THEY HAVE TO STUDY.

“One of the things you have to have at your fingertips at all times is all the culture that goes with Santa,” says Sheehan. This goes way beyond being able to recite the names of Santa’s reindeer. Sheehan tries to keep up with every new movie or TV show in which Santa makes an appearance and memorize the plot so he’s not caught off guard by an inquisitive child. “You could be blown away by a new movie out this season that you haven’t seen yet, but the kid has like six times,” Sheehan explains. “They’re asking details about what happened in the movie and you don’t know what’s going on.”

Santa also has to know all the latest toys—after all, he makes them. “I go through the toy catalogues every year,” says Sheehan. “In a nutshell, it’s staying current. Like any dentist or doctor has to read professional journals, it’s the same with us but we have to stay up on everything that has to do with Christmas.”

14. “I’LL ASK MRS. CLAUS” IS CODE FOR “I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT.”

Kids say the darndest things on Santa’s knee, and no amount of studying can prepare a Kris Kringle impersonator for all the odd questions or bizarre requests. You know you’ve stumped Santa when he brings up the wife.

“I blame a lot on Mrs. Claus,” says Holland. “If anything comes up that’s questionable, I say ‘I’ll have to check with Mrs. Claus about that.’ It really defuses a lot of skepticism.”

But Mrs. Claus does more than just take the blame for Santa’s shortcomings. She often helps shy kids feel more comfortable. “Sometimes the little ones are afraid of the big guy in the red suit and the beard but they’ll come to someone who looks like grandma,” says Carol Hildreth. “So they’ll sit on my lap and then talk to Santa.”

15. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PROMISE.

One of the worst things a mall Santa can do is promise a child they’ll get what they want for Christmas. “If you promise stuff the parents can’t provide then it’s rough on them and it makes Santa look bad too,” says Holland.

Noerr coaches its Santas to deliver a message of hope, but to make no guarantees. “The most you can say is that you’ll try,” says Sheehan. “Even if I know you’ve bought it for them, I’m not gonna tell them that because god forbid the garage catches fire and the toys are gone.”

16. THEY HATE CRYING BABY PHOTOS.

But for some reason, parents love them. “Unfortunately some think that’s the thing to have,” Holland says. “I do everything I can to avoid them. Parents say it’s ok if they cry, but the crying picture is not any fun for the kid and it’s not any fun for Santa either.”

The best way to avoid a screaming, sobbing child is for parents to stay close, rather than shoving the kid in Santa’s lap and walking away. “Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” says Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying. Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa.”

17. THEY WISH YOU’D DO THE HEAVY LIFTING.

 Santa Claus napping

The constant up-and-down that comes with hoisting kids on and off your knees for 12 hours a day can cause all kinds of aches and pains. After their shifts, the older Santas are probably going home to ice their knees or put a heating pad on their backs.

“Like any business you go into there’s always something that wears out, some part of the anatomy that takes a beating,” says Sheehan. “For Santa it’s the knees and hips. By the end of the season, you’re really going to be hurting.”

If you want to make your local mall Santa happy, save him a little bit of effort by lifting your child onto his lap.

18. NOT EVERY SANTA CAN NAIL THE SIGNATURE LAUGH.

“Interestingly enough, there are some Santas who just can’t ho-ho-ho,” Rosenquist says. “We try to get them to do it but for some of them it’s just not their nature.”

19. KIDS’ TOY PREFERENCES ARE CHANGING.

The old standbys never change: Lots of boys want a fire truck and girls want an American Girl doll. But according to Sheehan, requests for gender-specific toys have fallen over the last two or three years. “So I will hear boys asking for an Easy Bake Oven and the girls will like LEGOs and the kinds of toys you can build something with,” he says. “There is a shift and transition there that’s happened in last couple years.”

20. THE PROFESSIONALS HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE.

All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.

“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” says Robert Hildreth. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance. “We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.

21. IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING A GOOD LISTENER.

The most important part of a mall Santa’s job, according to Sheehan, is to lend an ear to kids who might be feeling lost. “Being with Santa might be the best thing that’s gonna happen to that kid all day,” he says. “I try to make it warm and affirming and raise them up. Everyone needs affirmation.”

Some kids ask for the impossible, like the return of a deceased family member or a reunion between divorced parents. “There are some things Santa can’t do, but we’ll pray with them,” Holland says. “Another thing I like to do is tell them that as long as they remember the person who’s gone, they’re still with them. You have to really philosophize with some of them and tell them stuff in a way that makes sense and that they will come away feeling like it’s gonna be ok. The parents get the pictures, the kids get the experience.”

All images via iStock unless noted.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
15 Secrets of Caricature Artists
iStock
iStock

The word caricature likely conjures up images of street artists on boardwalks or outside museums working up quick, humorous sketches of visitors, to the delight or dismay of their subjects. But the exaggerated illustrations of caricature include a lot more than what you see on the boardwalk—and can be more art than kitsch. We spoke to three experts in the field about the subjects caricature artists love and hate to depict, the best way to make their job harder, what they do if you don't like their drawing, and how they can tell when you really don't want to sit for a portrait.

1. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW IT'S OLDER THAN YOU THINK.

Caricatures by Leonardo da Vinci
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Some of the greatest artists in history practiced caricature as a means to develop their skills. Eileen Owens, curator of "Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to use caricature, in the “grotesque” sketches of unusual faces and heads that populated his notebooks. (His 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was “so delighted when he saw curious heads, whether bearded or hairy, that he would follow anyone who had thus attracted his attention for a whole day.”) Many other well-established Renaissance artists dabbled in caricature on the side, as breaks from their rigorous training: "It was a lot more huge noses, big hair, ways to poke fun at faces. You had to be adept at drawing to know how to exaggerate," Owens says.

The form gained momentum in late-17th century Italy, when Pier Leone Ghezzi “started making funny little drawings that poked fun at well-to-do Romans and tourists,” according to Owens. From there, it spread to Britain, where it became so popular that publishing companies sprung up for the sole purpose of printing caricatures. Publishers also rented out portfolios of caricatures by the day, and hung prints in their windows, to which crowds flocked to see the latest depictions of a buffoonish Napoleon and laughable upper-crust fashions. Owens says, “This was your chance to keep up with the gossip—kind of like People magazine today.”

2. MANY OF THEM ARE SELF-TAUGHT.

A street artist paints a caricature of a girl in Prague
iStock

Lots of caricature artists learn on the job, in part because there's not a ton of specific training available. Illustrator Tom Richmond, who spoofs movies for MAD Magazine (among other gigs), says, "Only a handful of art schools teach cartooning or caricature as a major part of curriculum, so it's hard to find instruction on how to do it. Caricature is such a specialized sort of thing, and diverse; you can’t teach it like you teach people how to draw comics, where [there's] storytelling technique and sequential art tricks and a science behind it, so to speak." Overall, what Richmond and others strive for is to “translate [your] art skill [into caricature], really lean into it—no matter how you practice.”

3. IT CAN BE GREAT TRAINING FOR OTHER ART FORMS.

Richmond says that when he teaches at workshops around the country, he always recommends—no matter what facet of the industry they are interested in—that students try their hand at live drawing, "maybe even volunteer at the local homecoming or draw for free at a daycare center." Having to work quickly with a model in front of you develops a sensitivity to gesture, to how the body leans and how weight is distributed, that's different from the skills you get "shading something for hours," Richmond explains. When you "go back to doing longer pieces, you've got an inner eye that sees things you missed before. It's great discipline for the developing eye."

4. THEY’RE NOT (NECESSARILY) OUT TO MOCK YOU.

Caricatures have been defined as "portrait[s] with the volume turned up." But that doesn't mean they have to be mean-spirited. Richmond says, “Caricature is a depiction of someone in a humorous way, but at its best it has a narrative behind it—you’re pointing out something about their presence, not just making fun of their features.” He explains that he’s not examining someone’s face to find a nose or a chin or dimples to blow out of proportion, but "trying to understand who you are as a person and exaggerate that.”

"I want to make [clients] smile or laugh," says CeCe Holt, who sketches at events and amusement parks, and is also business manager for the non-profit International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). "I never want to make anybody cry."

5. THEY DON’T SWEAT IT WHEN SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE THEIR LIKENESS …

Just because caricaturists strive to capture your essence doesn't mean you're going to like it. People can be in denial about their appearance, with a radically different idea of their weight, for instance, or even whether they have freckles. In Holt’s experience, party guests usually don’t make a fuss about their caricatures, since they haven’t directly paid for them. But when the occasional amusement park patron kicks up a fuss, “I just say I’m sorry and move on to the next person.”

Richmond is similarly blasé, pointing out that when a caricaturist is drawing a quick sketch for $15, the occasional bad portrait is bound to sneak in. "Sometimes they refuse to pay, or come back later and want their money back. Live caricature can be hair-raising, which is why I prefer working with art directors."

6. … BUT SOMETIMES CUSTOMERS RETALIATE.

Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Occasionally, customers do try to turn the tables. Ipecacxink, a caricature artist at a Midwest theme park, writes in a Reddit AMA about a boy she accidentally made very upset with her drawing. "I went to lunch right after I did it. Apparently while I was gone, he came back and drew a circle with spikey hair, glasses, and frowny eyebrows and a note that said, 'How do you like someone making fun of you?!' under it. He then placed it on my chair. It was hilarious. I saved it."

At Sardi's—the Times Square tourist destination known for its wall of caricatures—some of the celebrities depicted have gotten mad enough to take down their pictures, the restaurant's owner told AMNew York. It used to be that the in-house caricaturist (who's paid in meals instead of money) would hand over unfinished versions to the subjects first, to get the seal of approval, before going on to later exaggerate their features. That's stopped, but these days the caricatures have become less humorous, and more like regular portraits—which helps keep the peace between the restaurant and its famous clientele.

7. THEY CAN DO PORTRAITS IN AS LITTLE AS THREE MINUTES.

When she’s sketching guests at amusement parks like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, Holt aims to churn out a black-and-white portrait in three minutes. Working at a wedding reception, where she might add color, six minutes is the max. Much of this has to do with fitting in as many guests as possible—“You have to be fast to get through the crowd or they’ll leave,” she says.

For Holt, the need for speed means she has to “go with her instincts; there isn’t time to second-guess” a depiction. For Richmond, working quickly means caricaturists develop a "sixth sense" for how to capture expressions: “You develop an instinct for people, whether they’re energetic and outgoing, or more quiet." Some of that means honing in on their signature details: "Friends behind will be going, 'It’s the smile! That's exactly how he looks!'" Richmond says.

8. BORING-LOOKING CUSTOMERS ARE THE HARDEST.

Man's hands with pencils drawing a woman's portrait
iStock

The caricaturist's worst fear is the customer who comes in looking exactly like the girl (or guy) next door. "Most people are surprised to hear that what I consider to be the most difficult sort of person to draw is one that is completely average looking," caricaturist GertrudisSlugworth, who works at a theme park, wrote on Reddit."I will get a bland looking individual every once in a while, and when it happens I usually try to focus more on things like clothes, hair, or jewelry to get a decent likeness."

On the other hand, people who are naturally distinctive-looking are often artist favorites. Richmond says he particularly loves drawing Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. “He’s already funny looking, with no features, just glasses, hair, and a big top hat, so you don’t have to work that hard,” he says. “You can just do him standing there with his guitar by his ankles, like he plays it, or exaggerate how he puts his head back, which shows a lot about him as a player.”

9. THEY MAY CHANGE THEIR TECHNIQUE TO SUIT THE WAY YOU LOOK.

When she first started in the business, Holt says she dreaded drawing people who weren’t thin; she was afraid they might take offense at her portraits, although she didn’t intend any. Over the years she’s honed a technique in which she draws faces using a soft line that thickens toward the bottom. The result is “Cute, but they still feel like it looks like them,” Holt says.

GertrudisSlugworth writes that for people with obvious deformities, she may forego exaggerations, even though those are normally the hallmarks of caricature: "I find the best way to handle it is to go more realistic than exaggerated, depending on their attitude. Sometimes if it's an easy fix (e.g missing an eye), the customer will just ask to be drawn as 'normal.' For the most part though, people recognize any obvious deformities they have, and accept your portrayal of them."

10. STREET ARTISTS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE.

Tourists look at caricaturists in Rome
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

Richmond says that artists "sitting in front of a museum while the subject is in front of them have more of an advantage" than he does when it comes to creating an expressive caricature, since he often has to work from photos, which don't show gesture and personality in the same way. "When I'm working from 2D photos, all you’ve got is what the photo shows you, and it's basically superficial. It doesn’t really do it."

Holt agrees: "Working from a picture is different from getting your first instincts from a person." When a freelance client wants her to draw someone from photos, she says she'll at least ask for multiple photos to work from, especially body shots, which help to show posture—yet another indicator of the subject's personality.

11. THEY'RE INCREASINGLY IN DEMAND.

Richmond says that although staff cartoonists may be disappearing at newspapers as that industry shrinks, editorial cartooning—which often relies on caricature—“is experiencing a boom right now." Some of this is thanks to the heated political climate, he notes. But there's a deeper reason, too: "Most media stories, TV shows, or articles are, at bottom, about people and need images of people to illustrate [them]," Richmond says. "Caricature is one thing you can’t do with a camera, so when you need a humorous touch, caricature is a great solution."

12. THERE'S A CARICATURIST CONVENTION.

The ISCA hosts an annual convention each November that draws hundreds of caricaturists from around the world. Aside from a week of guest speakers, seminars, and demonstrations, the main attraction is a days-long competition in which the artists draw each other for prizes in categories like best color technique and most humorous. (The big award there is called the Golden Nosey.) Richmond says, “The variety of styles [there] is crazy: acrylic painting, pastels, airbrush, sculpture, and everything in between.” Holt says there's even an artist who spits ink out of his mouth.

13. THEY MIGHT HIDE THINGS IN THEIR PORTRAITS.

Artwork by Al Hirschfeld on display at The New York Botanical Garden in 2011
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Richmond says that a favorite stylist of his is the late Al Hirschfeld, who for decades hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his cartoons of cultural icons for The New York Times. (Hirschfeld would append the number of Ninas to his signature, creating a kind of game for readers). Ipecacxink says she "used to draw a picture of my face in [subject's] pupils sometimes. Really tiny. Or, I used to draw a little radioactive symbol somewhere in the drawing. We had to wear these god-awful neon yellow shirts to work, and I always felt we were radioactive."

14. THEY CAN TELL WHEN YOU DON'T WANT A DRAWING.

Occasionally, parents, friends, or partners will purchase a drawing for someone who just isn't interested. In that case, the caricaturist can probably pick up on it: "They either wouldn't look at you, wouldn't smile, or just sit down funny," ipecacxink writes. "I tried to handle it professionally. I would talk, if they wouldn't talk, I'd be quiet, but smile like an idiot when it was all said and done ... I always tried to be friendly to lessen the likelihood of them leaving without paying."

15. THEY MIGHT BE SWAPPING THEIR PENCILS FOR A TABLET.

Some contemporary caricaturists paint portraits, like Owens’s traditional satirical masters once did. They may also be adept with other analog media, like bullet-tip markers, color sticks (basically colored pencils with no wood casings), pen and brush, and paper. But thanks to the changing needs of publications in an online age, which want all files submitted electronically, caricature artists working in their studios have also gone digital. Holt sometimes works on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil in Procreate. Richmond now does all his coloring on a computer or a tablet. “[A tablet’s] so convenient, because it’s like having unlimited amounts of paper, and your pencil never needs to be sharpened, and all your tools fit in a tiny bag,” he says. “But it’s still about the creativity behind it. Computers can’t do it all on their own.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
arrow
job secrets
14 Secrets of Costco Employees
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Costco has become something of a unicorn in the brick-and-mortar industry. While employees at other chains express concerns over low wages and questionable management choices, the 200,000-plus ground troops at Costco’s massive shopping centers rave about generous pay ($13 to $22.50 hourly, depending on seniority), comprehensive benefits, and pension plans. After one year of employment, the turnover rate is only 6 percent, compared to an average of 16 percent across the retail industry. Not having to incur costs of training replacements is just one reason the company keeps prices low.

It’s no secret that Costco employees are a relatively happy bunch. But we wanted a little more information, so we’ve asked several current Costco workers about everything from pet peeves to nail polish bans to revoking memberships. (All requested we use only their first names to preserve anonymity.) Here’s what they had to tell us about life in the pallets.

1. WORKING THERE IS BETTER THAN GOING TO THE GYM.

Turns out that navigating a warehouse full of goods stacked to the ceiling is kind of like getting an all-day gym pass. “I walk about five to eight miles a day on average, and that's all within the confines of the store,” says Rachael, a Costco employee in Colorado. “When you see pallets stacked with 50-pound bags of flour or sugar or dog food or cat litter, a lot of that stuff had to be stacked by hand by employees before the store opens. Ditto for those giant stacks of shoes and bottles of salsa or five-gallon jugs of cooking oil. It's a lot of hard work.”

2. THEY CAN DO THEIR SHOPPING AFTER HOURS.

Costco shopping carts are arranged together
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

While employees typically don’t get shopping discounts, they have something that’s arguably better: the opportunity to shop in a near-empty store. “You can shop after hours, and a lot of employees do that,” says Kathleen, a Costco employee in Washington state. “You just bring your cart to the front register.” The store will keep the member service counter open so workers can check out after other registers have closed.

3. THE GENEROUS RETURN POLICY CAN GET MESSY.

Costco infamously places very few restrictions on returns. Most anything purchased there can be brought back for a refund as part of the company’s overall emphasis on exceptional customer service. Naturally, some members are willing to abuse the privilege. “Members return couches that are over five years old, and interestingly enough, they still have the receipt,” Rachael says. “My guess is that they buy that couch with the intention of returning it someday, so they tape the receipt to the bottom of the couch so they don't lose it. Then, when they've worn it out and want something new, they bring it back and get a full refund.”

Rachael has also seen a member return a freezer that was allegedly no longer working. The store refunded both the cost of the appliance and the spoiled meat inside. “The meat smelled like death,” she says.

4. THEY CAN ALSO TELL WHEN YOU’RE A SERIAL RETURNER.

A shopper at Costco looks at the computer display
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Costco purchase records typically date back 10 years or so, but employees working the return counter don’t always need to reference your account to know that you're making a habit of getting refunds. “When someone comes in to return something without a receipt and they go, ‘Oh, you can look it up on my account,’ that’s a tell,” says Thomas, an employee in California. “It tells me you return so much stuff that you know what we can find on the computer.”

5. THERE’S A CONVENIENCE STORE-WITHIN-A-STORE.

While employees are generally allowed to eat their lunch or dinner meals in the food court, not all of them are crazy about pizza and hot dogs as part of their daily diet. Many opt for the employee break room, which—in some warehouse locations—looks more like a highway rest stop. Rows of vending machines offer fresh meals, snacks, and sodas, along with a complete kitchen for preparing food brought from home. “[It’s a] relatively new addition that is being implemented at more warehouses,” says Steve, an employee in California. “It's basically like a gas station's convenience store, with both frozen and fresh meals and snacks. The only difference is the prices are more reasonable.”

6. THERE’S A GOOD REASON THERE ISN’T AN EXPRESS CHECKOUT LANE.

A Costco shopper goes through the checkout lane
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Walk into a Costco and you’ll probably notice an employee with a click counter taking inventory of incoming members. According to Rachael, that head count gets relayed to the supervisor in charge of opening registers. “They know that for a certain amount of people entering the store, within a certain amount of time, there should be a certain amount of registers open to accommodate those shoppers who are ready to check out,” she says. If there aren’t enough cashiers on hand, the supervisor can pull from other departments: Most employees are “cross-trained” to help out when areas are understaffed.

7. THERE’S A METHOD TO THE RECEIPT CHECK.

Customers sometimes feel offended when they’re met at the exit by an employee scanning their receipt, but it’s all in an effort to mitigate loss prevention and keep prices low. “We’re looking for items on the bottom of the cart, big items like TVs, or alcohol,” Thomas says. Typically, the value of these items might make it worth the risk for a customer who's trying to shoplift—and they're worth the double-check.

8. THEY TAKE SAFE FOOD HANDLING TO A NEW LEVEL ...

A Costco employee works in food preparation
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

At Costco, employees are expected to exercise extreme caution when preparing and serving hot dogs, pizza, chicken and other food to members. “If an employee forgets to remove their apron before exiting the department, they must remove that apron, toss it into the hamper, and put on a fresh apron because now it's contaminated,” Rachael says. “Or, let's say a member asks for a slice of cheese pizza. We place that piece onto a plate, with tongs, of course, then place the plate onto the counter. If the member says, ‘Oh darn, I've changed my mind, I'd rather have pepperoni pizza,’ then we have to toss the pizza that they didn't want into the trash. Once it hits the counter, it can't come back.” Some store protocols even prohibit employees from wearing nail polish in food prep areas—it could chip and get into the food.

9. ... BUT WORKING AT THE FOOD COURT CAN PREPARE THEM FOR ANYTHING.

Costco employees who find themselves behind the counter at the chain’s food court say it's one of the few less-than-pleasant experiences of working there. For some members, the dynamic of waiting on food and peering over a service counter can make them forget their manners. “Usually members are rude when they are waiting on their pizza during a busy time,” Steve says. “If an employee can excel in the food court, any other position in the warehouse is pretty easy by comparison.”

10. THEY GET FREE TURKEYS.

Costco’s generous wages and benefits keep employment applications stacked high. What people don’t realize, Kathleen says, is that the company’s attention to employee satisfaction can result in getting gifted a giant bird. “We get free turkeys for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I didn’t even know that before I started working there. It’s a nice perk.”

11. THEY CAN REVOKE YOUR MEMBERSHIP.

Shoppers go down an aisle at Costco
Gabriel Buoys, AFP/Getty Images

But it’s got to be a pretty extreme situation. According to Thomas, memberships can be terminated if a member is caught stealing or having a physical altercation inside the store. For less severe infractions, employees can make notes under a “comments” section of your membership. They’ll do that for frequent returns, if you’re verbally aggressive, or if you like to rummage through pre-packaged produce looking for the best apples. (Don’t do that.)

12. MANAGERS GET THEIR HANDS DIRTY.

During peak business times on weekends and around holidays, the influx of customer traffic can get so formidable that managers jump in with employees to make sure everything gets taken care of. “Most people would be surprised if they realized that the person who just put all of their groceries into their cart at the registers or who helped load that huge mattress into their car was actually the store's general manager,” Rachael says.

13. EVERY DAILY STORE OPENING IS CONTROLLED CHAOS …

Shoppers appear in front of a Costco store
Scott Olsen, Getty Images

Like most any retail store, Costco prides itself on presenting a clean, efficient, and organized layout that holds little trace of the labor that went into overnight stocking or display preparation. But if a customer ever happened to see the store in the last hour before opening each day, they’d witness a flurry of activity. “It's controlled chaos with loud music along with the blaring of the forklift sirens,” Steve says. “Employees are rushing to finish and clean up, drivers are rushing to put merchandising in the steel [shelving], and the floor scrubber slowly but surely makes its way around the warehouse. It truly is a remarkable choreography that happens seven days a week.”

14. … AND EVERY CLOSING IS A SLOW MARCH.

To avoid stragglers, Costco employees form a line and walk down aisles to encourage customers to move toward the front of the store so they can check out before closing. Once the doors are locked, overnight stocking begins in anticipation of another day at the world’s coziest warehouse. “Our store has over 250 employees altogether,” Rachael says. “If all of us do our little bit, then it's a well-oiled machine that runs without a hitch.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER