For most retailers, personal needs take a back seat during the holiday season. Long hours, prolonged standing and stress come with the territory.
"People tell me I must get all my shopping done because Iwork here," said Suellen Weisberg, community events coordinator at The Mall in Columbia. "Half the time I don't even get out to the hallway. It's like the shoemaker's children who don't have shoes.
"Merchants often find themselves caught between their families and their jobs."
So this year Weisberg helped create a program called M.A.D. (Making a Difference) For You, designed to soften the pressures on employees during the Christmas crush. Employees are treated tospecial discounts, entertainment, free gift-wrapping and even advicefrom a foot doctor on surviving eight hours a day on your feet.
The mall's program is not the only one of its kind in the county.
Two weeks ago, the Ellicott City Business Association held its own morale-boosting event to kick off this weekend's 14th annual Midnight Madness, when stores stay open until midnight.
"For most merchants, Midnight Madness monitors how the season will be," said Suitable Shirts proprietor Kathy Chambers. So free food and drinks were provided during a get-together at P.J.'s pub to let merchants get to know each other and cooperate on advertising.
So far, The Mall's program is getting praise from employees.
"It's a stressful year for everyonein retail," said John Hall, manager of the Patowmack Toy Shop. "Sales affect a lot of employee salaries. Making A Difference has made theseason a little lighter."
Among the M.A.D. program's services were two employee discount shopping days last week. More than 70 mall stores offered discounts to employees presenting their ID cards.
"It's worked very well," said Hall. "I've seen mall employees I've neverseen in my store, buying for nieces and nephews."
"It's great formorale," said Helen Canet, manager of the Silver Heron. "What I likebest is that it's involving the merchants -- someone's paying attention to us. Someone even came by this morning to do magic tricks."
Canet's store participated in the M.A.D. program's Secret Elf campaign, where stores anonymously make a nice gesture to another store for a week. The Silver Heron elf sent a gift basket filled with cookies and candy. In return, the store sent out popcorn with honey roasted nuts and cider.
Weisberg also has arranged for a stress-reduction workshop teaching breathing and stretching exercises. The long hours and prolonged standing were the catalysts that prompted a workshop on foot care by Columbia podiatrist Mark Spier.
Besides standing for long hours on concrete floors, mall employees have a long walk to their cars, especially on weekends. Mall management initiated an employeeparking program designating specific places to park with regular shuttle bus service.
Weisberg said he plans "to do something fun" thelast week before Christmas -- "Like send an Excedrin Squad around with candy pills."
The Christmas spirit is apparently catching. "In 1989 I had a customer in who was wearing a red-and-white button," said John Hall. "It had a red line through a green 'L.' I worked it out -- it said 'no L.' I finally found those buttons last year and boughtthe last 22 of them and gave them away.
"It makes people smile," he said. "And that's the most important part of this season."