Purchasing An Alien For Christmas Showed Why Brick And Mortar Retailing Matters

By Bob Phibbs

why brick and mortar retail mattersI always wanted to be the great uncle. You know, the one who really made something special for a kid during the holidays.

Probably because I didn’t have someone like that and I wanted to reparent myself.

One Christmas, knowing how my nephew Matt and his sister had watched the X-Files religiously, I purchased an original script from the X-Files at a silent auction.

Figuring it needed some type of toy for a 5-year old, we tied a green slide whistle to the bow. When Matt saw the whistle, he tried to get it off but it was tied so tightly, he couldn’t.  Somehow, someone said, “Does anybody have a knife?”

Matt put the tip of the knife blade in the middle of the knot and pulled.  The knife slipped and cut his index finger badly.

His parents took him to the emergency room where he had several stitches to repair his finger and spent most of the day.  We had our dinner and then we drove to the hospital where we were able to see Matt.  He said, “I’m sorry I ruined Christmas.”

“Don’t worry about it, I said. “You’ll be fine,” And with that, he threw up.

I left the hospital feeling it was all my fault.  Matt had lost his innocence.  He now knew that the world was not a safe place, that  danger is real. People operate on you and try to repair you but you’re never whole again. He was forced to become a man at five. Now two years later, I still felt I had to make it up to him, big time.

We decided there had to be something for him up on Melrose, so we made the pilgrimage from Long Beach to the heart of the hippest street in Los Angeles. We arrived around 11am, exited the car, and began the hunt. It was a cool December day with bright sunshine all around.

Into the thrift store with the pink haired mannequin. Nothing.

Into the gift store – which was really a head shop filled with stoners. Nothing.

Past the black leather shops and tattoo parlors. More thrift stores. Nothing.

Vintage watch store. Nothing.

Vinyl records? No.

Candles? No.

Sex toys. Ugh – no. More black leather and plastic. No.

I had resigned myself to the fact I was either not hip enough to shop on Melrose or that it was too old a street for what we were looking for.  

And then I spotted it. Right across the street from the car -  the alien.  Like Ricardo Montalban when he spotted the Enterprise in the movie The Wrath of Khan I shouted with intensity, “There it is!”

Crossing the street with little regard for traffic, I was staring into a dirty shop window.  There in a black shrouded window was what appeared to be a 10” tall glass jar with a silver cap.  Inside, peering out at us was a pinkish-grey alien fetus with big bulging almond-shaped black eyes, like you’ve seen in the X-Files. Its bony little body had its arms and legs crossed like it had been forced into the specimen jar.

Was it for sale or just a prop to get us in the door?

We entered the dinky shop and found a friendly enough shopkeeper. I blurted, “Is the alien in the window for sale?”

“Yes. It comes two ways, one with a red flashing light in the top and one without.”  We had to have the flashing light.

“Where did they come from?”

“A guy did work for the movies and had some left over.  I purchased them all.”

“I’ll take it!”

I told the shop owner who I was going to give it to, he smiled and said, “Excellent choice!”

My Christmas love would be vindicated.  Any remembrance of the finger would be immediately replaced with the day the alien arrived in Matt’s life.

I started plotting exactly how to present the gift.  I would have to be able to turn the flashing red light on shortly before giving it, as the battery could be drained.  That meant it couldn’t be wrapped too well.  

I placed the jar inside an old metal ice cream maker, placed a few radioactive stickers on it and covered it with aluminum foil. I placed that in a larger box with styrofoam peanuts and brought along some scotch tape to close it. No need for a knife!

I also purchased a pair of yellow industrial gloves and a set of industrial goggles. Finally, I’d throw him off by giving him a kid’s book first.

About mid-way through the gift-fest, Matt tore off the holly and candy cane paper to reveal a Johnny Appleseed book complete with apple seeds.  His head dropped.

When his sister asked what he got, he said with stooped shoulders and pouting lips, “A book about Johnny Appleseed.”  Everyone but him knew this had to be a ruse and played along. “Oh that’s a great story,“ said my mom.  “I think there was even a song about him.”  We went on exchanging gifts, but it was clear to Matt that I had terribly disappointed him.

After everyone had opened their gifts Matt must’ve figured it out because he turned to me with a flash of expectation and asked,

“OK, so where’s my real gift?”

“What do you mean Matt?”

“You always give me great gifts and it wouldn’t be a lame book.”

“Well there might be something else in the trunk of my car for you but...”

And with that he dashed out the front door to my dark green El Dorado.  I went out and opened the trunk telling him to be very careful as he brought it in... and above all not to shake it.

Matt put the large cardboard box on the coffee table and pulled open the top to reveal the styrofoam peanuts.  I stopped him.

“Before you can open that any further, you need to put on these protective goggles,” I said.

“OK,” his confidence challenged as he did. “Can I open it now?” he asked with wide eyes and a big smile underneath the adult-sized goggles.

“Nope, you need to wear these,” I said.  I pulled out the yellow heavy-duty industrial gloves and handed them to him.  The gloves were so big they went up to his armpits.  The hands so big and the rubber so thick, he could barely grasp anything. But he was jumping up and down with anticipation.

“Now?”

“Yes, but you have to be very, very careful as it could get out,” I said.

He stopped jumping and got quiet. His eyes grew wide with surprise. Now everyone but me was concerned.

Matt very carefully lifted the silver cylinder from the styrofoam peanuts. Everyone sat in a bit as they saw the yellow radioactive stickers.

Had I given the gift of wonderment back to myself and everyone in the room at this moment?  

Next he slowly began to remove the foil top, allowing the flashing red light to shine up and out into the room. Now everyone was intrigued and somewhat nervously asked, “What is it?”

This was great.

Matt pulled the glass container up and came face to face with the pulsing red, lifeless black eyes of the alien.  Showing no fear he simply said, “COOOOL” and stared at the deformed body that represented love.

His distressed mom was trying to figure out what he was staring at as Matt’s back was to her.  “Show me Matt,” she finally said. Matt then slowly turned around to reveal the jar and simply said, “It’s an alien!”

My mom, a science teacher asked, “Is it real? Be careful, it might get out!”

“Matt ran over and said, “This is the best Christmas ever.”  And it truly felt that way.

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The Point 

You have no idea what someone’s story is at the holidays. They could be just trying to get by. They could be trying to show their love in a unique way. They could be trying to recreate their own boyhood. 

But this is for certain if you work retail: your product is going to have a profound effect on the receiver and the giver.  It is a sacred trust you share with the customer. Something not to be taken lightly and one which, when you can open yourself up to their excitement, can make working retail at this time of the year – the best job. 

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