Tossing and flouring and rolling out ovals of dough, Raye Cruz is busily shaping pizzas at a time of day when most people are still thinking about their second cup of coffee.
Although it’s just 8 a.m., Cruz knows hungry shoppers do not like to waste time waiting for their lunch when they could be out snagging bargains.
“Today, we’re going to be very busy. I may make up to 40 pizzas,” said Cruz, 23, sprinkling cheese, spinach and broccoli on a pie at La Cucina di Capri.
It’s a Friday morning at the Century City Shopping Center & Marketplace, smack in the middle of the holiday shopping rush, and the mall elves are scurrying frantically about.
It’s no easy job preparing for the onslaught of browsers, bargain-hunters and shopaholics who make December retailing’s most important month. And while Century City might have more than its share of glitz, it’s really no different than L.A.’s other shopping centers, where the hours are endless, the pay relatively low and the customers uncommonly needy.
Many mall employees are young often students on vacation looking for some extra cash and that precious employee discount. Others are working two or even three retail jobs in an effort to capitalize on the seasonal demand for workers. Those salespeople who work for commission eye the big sales.
The number of workers at the Century City center increases 20 percent during the holiday season, to some 2,600. They can be found in the two department stores, 138 boutiques and specialty shops, 14-screen movie theater complex, one supermarket and 22 eateries.
Cruz is just one of the cooks at the food court preparing for the 10 a.m. opening. His neighbor, Vicky Martinez, manager of the Bueno Bueno Mexican eatery, has been chopping tomatoes, mashing avocados, boiling beans and frying up tortilla strips for homemade chips since 7:30 a.m.
“During the holidays, we come in a little earlier, because our customers come a little earlier,” she said.
Meanwhile, a team of landscapers tends to the grounds in the chill of the morning. Bundled in a hat and a coat, Lupe Uriarte drags a 50-gallon water tank to each of the 36 poinsettia baskets suspended by brass handles around the outdoor mall’s eaves. Despite the care, the plants often have to be replaced and not just because of their brittle nature.
Poinsettias “get stolen more often than others,” said Tim Gravatt, an account manager with Environmental Care Inc., the mall’s landscaping contractor. “I’ve found that in my 25 years in the business, no matter where you are, they disappear.”
Uriarte and another gardener spend 20 hours a week working from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. tending to the holiday flora, which require watering every three days. If they are not shoplifted, the plants should last through the end of the year. All told, the mall has 400 planted poinsettias, as well as ferns, birds of paradise, cyclamen and begonias.
Keeping the foliage looking leafy can be tricky at an outdoor mall. The plants have taken a pretty severe beating from the recent gusty winds, Gravatt said.
Unlike most mall workers, however, once the clock strikes 10 a.m., the green thumbs disappear. “It’s like Disneyland. You never see the gardeners,” he said.
Nearby, Rhonda Redman is hanging the wares on her three wooden kiosks in the mall’s courtyard. As co-owner of the 7-year-old gift outlet, Riginals, she, too, is at the whim of fickle outdoor conditions as a business without a storefront.
“If it rains, we’re in trouble. We had to shut down in the middle of the day twice this month because of bad winds,” she said, arranging her displays of rhinestone hair clips, hats, baby and children’s clothes and bright blue and pink boa purses. “It’s a lot of work to set these up and take them down. It takes up to one and a half hours in the morning and the evening.”
If the rain doesn’t keep customers away, sometimes the parking or lack thereof will.
Jim Arger is the man who oversees 2,933 spaces in the mall’s two-level parking garage. On busy holiday shopping days, there are between 16,000 and 20,000 vehicles, compared with 13,500 during the off season.
As a result, Arger increases his staff by 10 percent, to about 23 workers a shift. The mall also hires three officers from the city’s Department of Transportation to direct traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard.
All day long, Arger tries to maintain his cool, lest drivers lose theirs.
“We have carts that drive around and people will wave to us when they’re lost,” Arger said. “People hurry and rush and don’t bother to look where they parked, so we try to calm them down and get them to their cars.”
Should a frazzled shopper also lose a parking ticket, the mall forgoes the $10 maximum charge that is usually imposed. “During this time of year, we will let them go,” said Doug Roscoe, the mall’s general manager. “That isn’t the case, though, during the rest of the year.”
By 11 a.m. the lot looks full, but traffic congestion is at a minimum. The handful of valets waiting by Gelson’s Market are standing around. But as lunchtime nears, hungry shoppers file into the supermarket and congregate around the deli. About 10 people are waiting as half a dozen service attendants slice up meats and package prepared salads. One customer’s basket is rapidly filling with containers of ready-to-eat foods.
“I’m going away for two weeks for the holidays so I’m packing away dinners for my dog Pokey,” said Beverly Hills resident Bernice Rappaport. “I’ve got brisket, veal ribs, turkey loaf and chicken. I want her to be happy while I’m gone. She has a gourmet palette.”
Deli manager Tanya Schnitzius, who is replenishing the salads and meats, says employees put in more overtime during the holidays, which stretch from Thanksgiving to the second week of January. She even brings in a graveyard shift to prepare the holiday platters of sandwiches, cheeses and vegetables. For Chanukah alone, the staff was frying 500 latkes a day.
“So far, it’s been busier than last year. Our business is up at least 10 to 15 percent,” she said.
By 1 p.m., the line of cars snaking out to Santa Monica Boulevard stretches to Avenue of the Stars, and drivers are blaring their horns.
“This is not so bad. They get really frustrated when we put up signs that say we’re full,” said parking attendant Yonas Ghebreslassieu, sitting in the booth at the express lane of the Santa Monica Boulevard exit. “Either way, they get mad. If we don’t put them up, they say ‘Why don’t you put them up?’ ”
Roscoe said excess traffic has not yet forced the garage to close its doors this year. However, should it occur, the mall will direct drivers to a parking garage west of the Century Plaza hotel with about 1,000 spaces.
Meantime, over at Bloomingdale’s, Violet Saab, 19, a self-described die-hard shopper who visits the mall up to twice a week, sits patiently while eyeshadow and liner are delicately applied to her skin by Chanel makeup artist Darrell Baum.
“The parties have started and women are coming in to get their makeup done before they go,” Baum said. “It’s a fun job, because people are in high spirits. And they’re looking for lots of dazzle, with lots of gold eyeshadow and lipstick.”
Baum said each makeover takes about 20 minutes to an hour and he does a handful every day.
A perennial gift favorite, of course, is sweaters, which keeps Macy’s sportswear manager Mae Morman busy folding, selling and providing sizes for customers. During the long day, she changed from her loafers to laceless white Keds.
“Management told us for the month of December, we can wear comfortable shoes when we need to and it really helps,” she said. “I’ve been here since 6:30 a.m. and my feet need a break.”
The sweater success carries over to Bloomingdale’s, where popular sizes and colors sold out last year by Dec. 10. General Manager Chris Cottey said his store increased this year’s stock by 30 percent, to last through Dec. 24.
The decision was part of a July strategy session concerning the holiday season, he said. The guidelines include increasing the work force by 22 percent from the first week of November through the end of the year.
So far, Cottey said business is off to a promising start, with sales trending higher than last year and tempers hardly flaring at all.
“If there’s a two-hour delay to wrap packages, I’ll hear about it,” he said. “Any time someone is waiting for a size or to get wrung up, that spikes up the anxiety level. We really train people to smile a lot and say, ‘Thank you for being patient.’ ”
Keeping the inventory neat is another secret to customer satisfaction, said men’s sportswear representative Douglas Musun, 24, waiting for his shift to end in an hour, at 7 p.m.
He points to what appears to be a relatively orderly display of ties. Not so. “That over there is a disaster,” he says. “Things get put into the wrong places, so we’re constantly folding and unfolding. One guy tried to say three Ermenegildo Zegna ties were on sale for $40 and there’s no way. Those are $120 ties. He happened to find them in the sale rack where they didn’t belong.”
So when a customer tries to pull the wool over his often-tired eyes, how does he respond?
“You breathe, you breathe,” Musun said. “Women are easier. They love to shop anyway. They’ll spend the extra five minutes. But men just want to be in and out. If they can’t get what they want, they leave.”
Nonetheless, sales clerk Elisabeth Lien, 19, finds men a bit more flexible, at least with the scents, soaps and shampoos at the Body Shop.
“They have no clue. So they listen to whatever we suggest. They’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ll take it.’ They don’t care,” she said, wrapping a candle and bottle of massage lotion in red tissue paper and cellophane for a customer.
Body Shop manager Holly Messinger said her staff swells from seven to 17 during the holiday season. Two part-timers do nothing but stock shelves through their entire shifts.
“By the end of the day, I’m exhausted. We’re standing the whole day,” Lien said, looking down at her black Rocket Dog sneakers. “I wear these to make it through.”
For some, however, the work is never done.
Cottey, who tries to spend seven to eight hours on the floor mingling with customers, said Bloomie’s associates also make phone calls to a handful of higher-rolling clients, wishing them a happy holiday. He personally calls about 200 of his top spenders to impart seasonal cheer.
“No sales pitch though,” he insists.