The Other Side of the Register

An excerpt from Caitlin Kelly's book, 'Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail'

You’re probably going to buy something today—gas, groceries, maybe a pair of sneakers. You’ll swipe your credit or debit card, or pay cash, or maybe write a check and hand it to someone standing in front of you, since we still make 90 percent of our purchases in person.

But who is that person standing across from you? What if it were you behind that counter, wearing that plastic badge, your feet aching, desperate for a pee or a break? (If you even get one.)

For two years and three months—rare in an industry with 100 percent turnover every year—that person was me. At 50-years-old I went to work for The North Face in an upscale suburban mall. I sold sleeping bags and T-shirts to teachers, athletes, surgeons, and hedge fund managers.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was growing up in Toronto I shopped rarely, and usually with my imperious grandmother, Aline. Shopping with Granny was a trip. She was the sort of customer that, years later as an associate myself, I would come to loathe: demanding, rich, prone to tantrums if the service failed to meet her stratospheric expectations.

It never occurred to me that I’d one day be standing behind a counter myself.

While my writing career was going well, in 2007 I became scared of the precipitous decline in the journalism industry. I also needed a steady source of cash. I decided to join the 15 million Americans working in retail, 1 million of whom sell apparel.

Putting on a plastic name badge proved a powerful eye-opener. I had never worked in any job that paid so little for such hard work.

The American economy relies heavily on consumer spending—70 percent of its GDP. Yet retail sales associates, clerks, team members—whatever you choose to call them—remain invisible in the media. Their needs and their concerns, whether for safe, clean workplaces or livable wages, often go ignored, both by reporters and the corporations that employ and rely on them.

Most workers doing these tough jobs for low wages are those least able to afford losing them. They have a powerful incentive to remain silent.

The median retail wage remains a crummy $8.92 per hour, even as one-fifth of American business is retail, worth $4 trillion a year. Thirty-four percent of employees work part-time, many of them with no job-related benefits.

We still make 85 percent of our buying decisions in-store. A lousy or lazy clerk can send you right back onto the street, frustrated, empty-handed, and indignant—or a good one can help you spend all sorts of money on items you hadn’t planned to purchase.

While retail associates remain the grunts of our consumption-based economy, they also retain tremendous power. One rude or indifferent interaction with an associate can sabotage the sexiest million-dollar ad campaign. Add the powerful multiplier effect of social media and even one lousy experience can, and does, easily go viral.

Only by working a regular shift year after year, through holidays, back-to-school frenzies, Black Friday sales, and January returns, did I start to understand retail. I liked the job when I started in September 2007, liked the routine, the comfortable, company-supplied uniform. I loved learning new skills. I enjoyed the variety of our customers and my friendly coworkers. I liked learning about and selling the products.

It took years for my early enthusiasm to wane. By the time I quit in December 2009, my zeal was long gone. The money was too low, clients too spoiled and demanding, the work dull and repetitious.

While those hiring retail associates enjoy ready access to a huge pool of workers, few associates, equally burned out, will ever stay long enough to gain any new skills or move up internally.

There needs to be a sea change in how this brutal business is often run.

Customers deserve, and want, much better. Healthy profits reward the few retailers who hire carefully, manage thoughtfully, train well and consistently, and pay associates well—and productive ones even better—and link managers’ compensation to employee retention, as exemplars like Trader Joe’s, Costco, The Container Store, and others have learned. As these companies know, retailing can be enjoyable and rewarding for shoppers and associates alike.

Author Caitlin Kelly is a journalist based in New York. This is an excerpt from her book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (Portfolio Hardcover, April 2011).