Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Malled by Caitlin Kelly

In 2007, Kelly, at that time a freelance journalist, decided to take a part time job in retail so that she would always have some dependable funds in her account for living expenses. When she heard about a new North Face store opening up in a suburban mall, she decided to apply there and despite her lack of experience in retail, but plenty of life and travel experience, as well as fluency in two other languages than English, the management at the new store decided to hire her. According to Kelly, she was a consistent top-seller at her store, and the store that she was employed at was one of the top performing stores for that company.

Kelly's account as a retail salesperson and her examination of the industry focuses on two areas: how poorly retail salespeople are paid and how poorly they are treated by the customers that they are there to help, despite how essential they are to the company and the lipservice that companies pay to the quality of their customer service. She talks about the makeup of the staff at her store: usually minorities (though, minority to who and where? I always wonder), but well educated and ambitious, some with college degrees, others are former military, some are single parents, but they all seemed to be trapped on the retail roller coaster, moving on or up only if they can escape retail. Retail sales is not a career, Kelly argues, you can barely make a living at it, the physical demands are enormous, there is no concern for perfecting a professional salesforce, and the staff just doesn't seem to care--but they would do anything to get out of their retail jobs.

Kelly describes how the corporate focus on the bottom line means that frontline sales staff will remain poorly paid--supposedly shareholders don't want to pay salespeople more, but shareholders are always the villains--and not given adequate tools to perform their jobs. Indeed, the fact that many corporations are apparently clueless about sales, ergonomics, customers and products, is a recurrent theme in the book. The corporate mindset appears as inexplicable and implacable as Kafka's Castle.

A different generation?

I think it may be a generational difference, but I am surprised that she was shocked by how retail salespeople are treated, mainly because almost every person I know has had some experience working in retail as a teenager or young adult. This was Kelly's first experience on the other side of the till (or cash wrap, as she prefers) and at times she appears a little naive at how craptastic a job in retail can be.

She is right about one thing: it is not going to get better for retail workers unless customers stop shopping at stores with crummy service, and who become know for treating their sales associates poorly, as well as for crummy products. And though I liked the book and the immersive journalism, Kelly could have gotten that response from any teenager on their first job--and I would have liked to hear more about how teenagers and young adults can be exploited by this industry, in addition to the few glimpses of mature workers who, after the economic downturn, found themselves working in retail.

I might have enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed more, but I still think that Malled is an important part of the immersive journalism literature on workplaces.

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