Hi, it’s your Conscience. No, I’m not here to talk about how much you ate yesterday. Waistline and Digestive Tract handle those reminders. I’m here to talk about your holiday shopping. (More)

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, yeah, buy more thoughtful and sensible holiday gifts this year. Nag, nag.”

Actually, that’s not what I’m here to say. Yes, I could remind you that giving your Special Someone a new putter that just happens to be the putter you wanted – when your Special Someone doesn’t even play golf – was tacky. But your Special Someone pretty much let you know that, so I don’t need to mention it.

No, I’m here on behalf of the people you’ll see without really seeing … the retail workers in the stores you’ll patronize over the coming weeks.

Okay, I know you had a retail job once, back when you were in high school or college. You mostly talked with other colleagues who were your age. Yes, I used “talked with” as a euphemism for “flirted with.” Relax. It was normal behavior at that age and you don’t do that anymore, right? Right?

My point is, your own retail work experience shaped your impression of who retail workers are. I say “retail worker” and your mind pops up an image of a teenager, or a senior supplementing a retirement income or taking a job to stay busy.

But while you’re shopping, look at the retail workers. Most of them aren’t teenagers working for gas and pizza money or seniors looking for an excuse to get out of the house. Most are adults trying to pay their bills and feed their kids. Nine-in-ten are age 20 or older, and about half provide at least 50% of their families’ income. One-in-five provide their families’ entire income.

And most retail workers who provide at least half of their families’ income … live near or below the poverty line.

Many qualify for government assistance, from the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Care Tax Credits to direct aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and housing or home heating subsidies.

In other words, the few pennies you save on each shopping trip because retail workers don’t earn a living wage – the Demos report estimates your savings at just $18 a year – are offset by your taxes that pay for the programs to help retail and other low-income workers survive.

When billionaire restauranteurs tell you that you shouldn’t have to pay an extra 17 cents for a meal to pay for their workers’ health insurance, try to remember that you’re already paying for those workers’ health care. Right now, those workers go to public clinics or to ERs, and you pay the bill through your taxes. You don’t save any money … but the restaurant chain owner who underpays his workers gets to buy an extra vacation home.

“Those retail workers should learn some skills and get better jobs,” you think.

Yes, I hear you thinking that. But I also hear what you think when the shelves are a mess, or you can’t find the item you want or an employee to help, or you’re seventh in line at the only open register lane. Then you think: “This store should have more employees!”

Fact is, you expect retail workers to be there, to stock the shelves neatly, to help you find the items you’re looking for, and to check you out once you’ve found everything. If all of today’s retail workers got better jobs, you’d expect someone else to take their places.

Those retail workers make your life better. You can buy stuff you need, and stuff you don’t need but want anyway. You can buy stuff that, just a few decades ago, only a handful of incredibly rich people could afford. You can buy stuff that, only a few decades ago, existed only in science fiction. And you can buy that stuff at almost any hour of the day, almost any day of the year.

I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty. Guilty Conscience is over on aisle three. You and he can sort out those chocolate chip cookies. If not, Waistline and Digestive Tract will take care of it.

I’m saying this to help you feel gratitude. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, but you can stretch it a few days longer. Even a few weeks. You can’t fix our unbalanced economy all on your own. I get that. But here’s what you can do….

When you meet a retail worker, this weekend or over the coming weeks, take just a moment to smile and say: “Thank you. You do good work and I appreciate it.”

Think back to when you worked retail. Think about how rarely people said that. Think about how good it felt when someone did.

Be that someone, and I’ll be a Happy Conscience.

At least until I look at your web browser’s navigation history….


Happy Friday!