5 things customers say during the holidays – and what they really mean

by Christopher Elliott on December 20, 2013

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It’s that time of year when you follow the herd to the mall and gorge on the displays.

That’s right, I’m talking about the irrational holiday shopping season. Think I’m overstating this? The authoritative National Retail Federation (NRF) predicts a 3.9 percent rise in holiday sales this year, meaning that collectively, Americans will buy $602 billion worth of gifts before the end of this year.

The average holiday shopper will drop $737 on gifts, décor and greeting cards, according to the NRF. That’s some serious gorging!

This year, I’m not going to tell you to avoid the frenzy. (What kind of Scrooge would I be?) Instead, as a service to consumers, let me help you understand what the other members of the swarm actually mean when they talk amongst themselves.

A few weeks ago, I helped you decode customer service-speak — the language employees use when they address you. But consumers also have a peculiar lexicon, and never more peculiar than during the High Holy Days of Consumerism.

“Excuse me!”
I think we all know what a genuine “excuse me” sounds like when another shopper accidentally bumps into you or cuts you off. But excuse me can mean something entirely different in the context of the holidays. Like, “Outta my way.” (A recent survey suggests the “me first” attitude is running rampant during the 2013 holiday shopping season, with a plurality of consumers admitting they are shopping for themselves.) That’s never more true than when you’re standing between a shopper and the last Xbox One on the shelf. Better step aside if you don’t want to get hurt. Excuse you!

“You sure about this price?”
That’s a common refrain used by entitled bargain-hunters who, make no mistake, are not asking if the price is right. They’re asking if the price can be lowered and they think the answer is “Yes.” It’s a euphemism applied to floor displays in late December: “Are you sure about this price?” It means they think the store might be in a bargaining mood, in the interests of moving merchandise. It means the shopper believes he has the upper hand. Usually, he’s just being presumptuous.

“Thank you.”
A genuine “thank you” makes a sales associate’s job easier and can turn the grumpiest holiday shopper’s frown upside-down. But the “thank yous” you hear being tossed around when shoppers stream into the mall like locusts descending upon late summer crops are sometimes meant to convey the precise opposite. “Thank you for taking the last Despicable Me Minion!” “Thank you for spilling your eggnog latte on my six-year-old!” They’re not saying thank you. They’re saying, “[Blank] you!”

“Happy Holidays.”
I can’t remember the last time someone sincerely wished me a merry Christmas at the mall, unless you count the for-hire Santa. I have, however, heard something like it while circling a full parking lot in vain. As one driver selfishly pulled in front of another, occupying the spot for which they’d been waiting half an eternity, I heard the first driver wish the second one, “Happy holidays.” It didn’t sound very genuine, and was accompanied by a hand and a finger fully extended. Anyone care to guess what she really meant?

“I’d like a refund.”
Plenty of merchandise will be returned before New Years Day. But when someone bellies up to the counter, argyle sweater in one hand, gift receipt in the other, what are they really saying? Do they just hate the gift? Do they hate the person who gave them the gift? Or is it that their loved ones don’t really love them anymore? No matter. “I’d like a refund” means so much more than that.

Attention, shoppers! Now it’s your turn to share your favorite holiday shopping phrases.

Come on. We’re just getting started.

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