Sunday, April 1, 2012


Malled: My unintentional career in retail
Caitlin Kelly (2011, Penguin)

Caitlin Kelly lost her job at the New York Daily News in the summer of 2006. A year later, finding freelance work rarer and more poorly paid than she’d seen in her thirty years in journalism, she applied for part-time work at a newly opening clothing store in a mall half an hour outside of New York City. She was unprepared for the physical and emotional rigors of retail, and has written Malled to complain about them.
There’s some good information here; the chapter on weathering the economic downturn, which put tens of thousands of white collar workers from other fields into competition for retail work, would have made a reasonably useful article. The retail industry employs fifteen million Americans, paying a median wage of less than nine dollars an hour, and offering five million of those people only part-time work; fifty per cent of the jobs turn over every three months. It’s a tough way to make a living, whether one is a student, the parent of young children, or a laid-off journalist, teacher, or business executive.
And Kelly could have gotten at least a few juicy blog posts out of the conditions at The North Face, where she worked. It’s one of the chain’s busiest stores, supplying an endless line of demanding, entitled customers with pricey equipment for skiing, camping, or walking around the city trying to look like they do these things. Kelly didn’t work on commission, but she took a competitive pride in meeting her weekly sales goals, and mostly felt good about the value of the products she was selling. But if the customers weren’t driving her batty with their foolish and annoying demands, corporate management was coming up with some new way to be stupid.
Again, that’s not an uninteresting subject, though it’s not clear that her parochial experience is the best example. You’d have to suspect that the natty perfection of the sales floor, with all the jackets sorted by size and facing the same way, required hours of somewhat mindless labor to maintain; and you’d readily believe that the store displays were all designed by one highly-paid person who went from place to place doing nothing else; and you wouldn’t be surprised that the behind-the-scenes spaces of the store were nowhere near as clean, spacious and well-lit as the sales floor; in fact, they’re often quite hazardous places.
It’s not much of a stretch from these realizations to the fact that, from the perspective of a giant corporation, an individual sales associate is really not important at all. The workers’ pay is the best place to save a buck, and if they get sick or injured, or simply burned out, there’s a stack of applications to choose another one from. And if their bodies are expendable, how much more so their minds and spirits, though a facade of expertise and cheerfulness is part of what’s demanded of the salespeople, no matter how long they’ve been standing on their tired, sore feet.
Caitlin Kelly, unfortunately, brings us this news with a large side helping of narcissism and entitlement. Her lack of self-awareness, irritating as it is, is unintentionally rather comic, too. Every chapter of Malled includes some chatter about her previous success in journalism (she interviewed the Queen of England!! On a yacht!!!); or the places she’s traveled, or how many languages she speaks, or how much money her family used to have.
All this is by contrast with her full-time co-workers, who are struggling to get through community college, or to buy toys and clothes for their small children. Her snootiness toward them is matched only by her rage when customers are snooty with her. (Those foreigners are the worst!! They’re such terrible racists!!!) In fact, she shares their contempt for the work she does. She is Awfully Glad she isn’t Really the Type of Person who works in such a job, not permanently at least. She’ll turn around and be just as demanding and obnoxious a customer, leaving a store in a rage because she can’t get a sales associate to sell her a (two-hundred-dollar! silk! designer!) blouse. The whole experience, given that she’s working just one or two shifts a week for most of the twenty-seven months she keeps the job, comes across as slumming.
Also unfortunately, the book is not much of an advertisement for what are supposed to be her real skills in journalism, writing, and editing ($150 an hour!!!). When she’s talking about or quoting other people, she’s making only the barest stab at descriptions or transitional explanations. When she’s talking about herself, she goes round and round in circles, patting herself on the back. A firmer editorial hand would have trimmed this material, but the result would have been a pretty skinny book.
Some of what’s wrong with Kelly’s work experience has obvious solutions, though the problems would require district management to acknowledge them, and throw a little money at them. Fix broken equipment, light the stockroom well enough to see the stock, hire enough workers for the Christmas rush, maybe even offer bonuses to the management and staff of the best-performing stores--how hard is that? But corporations are driven by a philosophy of neo-Taylorism, which holds that if any employees ever have a free moment on the job, you’ve hired too many of them; and if they are comfortable enough to stay a few years, you’re paying them too much. Rationally as well as morally, these attitudes are wrong, but I don’t see them changing any time soon.

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