I’m not sure how many of you know that, back in 2010, I spent 9 months as a keyholder at a mainstream retail store. It was the most exhausting, demeaning, and enlightening experience of my life. (And I’ve been to grad school!)
I was hired as a ‘Pricing Specialist,’ which meant I was largely responsible for all markdowns, signage, and marketing in the store. I, along with another associate or two, would be expected to go through thousands of markdowns (items going on clearance), change out hundreds of signs, and replace huge vinyl window signs each week - if not each day - within a short time frame, often while attempting to assist customers and replenish inventory during store business hours.
I sincerely enjoyed certain aspects of that job - the methodical way we had to go through each and every piece to put on clearance, the puzzle-solving aspect of how to fit all of those items in the already-junked-up clearance section, the constantly changing marketing campaigns, and the satisfied feeling of the rare days when things were completed on time and without any issues.
Other aspects, notsomuch. The customer base at this store was rude and treated us like servants. The corporate management (not in-store) was completely out of touch with everyday activities, belittled us constantly, and had completely unrealistic expectations. I got paid more on unemployment than I did at this job, a level just under the in-store management team.
And the waste, oh god the WASTE. Vinyl window signs that were over 10’ x 10’, hundreds of paper pricing signs, and thousands upon thousands of plastic hangers were trashed every month. Not to mention the damaged and defective apparel that I had to personally shred and throw in the garbage.
At the time, many people encouraged me to write about my experiences but in all honesty, I was so exhausted every day that I didn’t have the energy. However, I recently finished reading Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly and I felt like I was commiserating with her on every page.
Written about her experience working at a mainstream retailer (North Face) after losing her job as a journalist, Kelly’s writing burns with frustration that few people care about the atrocities that happen every day in every retail store selling mass-produced goods across America. It also emphasizes how many of us are actually exacerbating the problem by demanding so much from people who get paid so little and from constantly consuming more and more and more cheap products.
Anyone who has worked a retail job will appreciate the unreasonable list of things associates are expected to do while being charming to all customers. The discussion she has of ever-longer holiday hours that don’t allow low-level employees any time off has become even worse now, as have stories of violence and death on Black Friday just for some great ‘deals’.
She also shares stories of just how few breaks retail workers get and how strict workplaces usually are about simple things like having a snack or bathroom breaks. She points out the economic realities of how hard you have to work to earn $9 an hour (or less) when she shifts from a hardworking employee to a consumer herself, shopping on her lunch break, and analyzes whether a $70 tank top is worth it.
And the final chapter Customers From Hell, including the story of the one time she cried at work, almost made me weep not from pure empathy but from memories of extremely similar situations feeling like a human punching bag.
Kelly makes a point of not whining and falling into despair throughout the book, though, pointing out how she enjoyed helping a variety of customers solve problems and find exactly what they were looking for - ‘making people happy’, which in turn increased her feelings of being valued (something she rarely experienced in her previous journalism job). The simplicity - “show up, work hard, go home, get paid” - can also be appealing, especially to anyone who’s worked freelance or another job where paychecks come infrequently and often with uncertainty.
The brief discussion of stores who value their employees and locally-owned businesses also rings especially true - knowing that every hard-earned dollar you spend there is going to an independent business owner and not inflated corporate salaries for people who don’t even do the difficult work.
In the end, Kelly comes to a conclusion very similar to the one I reached myself when I quit working my retail job:
As Kelly points out throughout the book, you never know when it could be you on the other side of the counter. I don’t regret my time spent working in mainstream retail and I luckily had the choice to leave after a while. Others are not so lucky. Your purchase decisions have an impact in many ways and all workers deserve respect.
Find Caitlin Kelly’s book at an independent bookstore here: Malled.