Shop Girl Blues

A journalist tries selling for a living and lives to write about it

Caitlin Kelly, born in Canada, has for some time lived and worked in the United States. There are two Kellys present in Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail: one is the newspaper reporter fed up with getting mistreated by management despite her respected reporting and, finally, a casualty of the shrinking print media, “sliced out of my career with surgical speed” in July 2006. Not able to “face another year of all-day solitude” as a freelancer, she goes to work part-time for a North Face outlet in a mall near her home in New York State. The experience allows her to garner anecdotes from colleagues while learning what it is like on the floor level in retail. It is also a good opportunity for her to use her research skills, and Kelly provides useful and interesting background and statistics on how retail merchandising operates.

“Retail, certainly at our low level, doesn’t really lend itself to introspection or philosophizing,” writes Kelly. Ignoring her own words, in Malled she reveals and, at times, usefully collates a complex set of facts about retail life that become a series of well-deserved charges against retail businesses and their conduct. Most chains come out poorly in her assessment (Costco and Home Depot do well), especially in their treatment of employees. We perhaps already know that the chains drain workers of life, paying just enough to make it appear that a job where you stand on aching feet for eight hours each day serving personality types fresh out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is worth keeping. But there are perspectives (such as on mall architecture) where Kelly’s research enlightens the general reader. For instance, when a clerk goes looking for an item in the stockroom, chances are it is dimly lit, with boxes stored absurdly high, preventing personnel from seeing, let alone retrieving, what a customer has asked for. No one can sit on a stool, not even if injured, due to insurance concerns, and if essential tools break they may not be replaced, no matter the inconvenience.

A surprising thing Kelly brings out is that retail businesses regard their employees as “disposable” and want them to quit. “As every industry expert I spoke to reminded me,” she says, “you’re meant to leave.” She underlines this: “Since the work is hard, dull, repetitious, and poorly paid, anyone who takes on that job—the unspoken logic seems to suggest—should know better and leave. Soon.” The reasoning? “Constant staff churn doesn’t appear as a line-item cost. When retail executives can’t quantify the cost of replacing 40 to 100 percent of their staff every single year on their balance sheets, it doesn’t enter their business calculations.” Curtis White, an American novelist and commentator, writes in The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption and the Culture of Total Work that “millions of our fellow citizens are told in not subtle ways on a daily basis that they are basically not needed. For anything. Ever.” Such treatment partially explains the behaviour of staff we see in most stores. In addition, low-wage workers are often denied overtime or paid less than the minimum wage, their breaks are short and they are expected to take guff from customers without complaining. Meanwhile, managers of chain store outlets supervise but have little say in what happens: store design (the planogram) is rigid, merchandise is ordered by head office and sales goals are set at ridiculous levels by higher-ups. Left with little latitude except when it comes to the overworked and underpaid staff, like Pancks at the demand of Casby in Little Dorrit, managers must squeeze and squeeze their employees.

The choice by such a highly motivated person as Kelly to be part of this coarse yet vital sector would provoke most readers to ask why not find another job in another newsroom. Kelly gives something of an answer, describing the world of journalism as a place where you keep restrained “your kinder, gentler qualities,” and where your colleagues will be “cold, hard, selfish, and ruthlessly ambitious.” In retail, she finds she can be her better self, humorous, compassionate and connected with others. She returns again and again, though, to the gulf separating her from her fellow employees. Their youth, neighbourhoods and life experiences (there are single mothers and possible felons, for instance) prevent much commonality save for working at North Face. She says near the end that her retail work was of negligible significance, unlike “teaching or medicine or nonprofit or, yes, even journalism,” and she keeps a hand in the media through freelance work.

I said there were two Kellys. The second is the suffering adult who writes late in Malled of her discovery, thanks to retail, that inside she has “a deep, simmering pool of rage” stemming from childhood. As almost a hundred pages earlier she had said that “no one could quite imagine me, short-tempered, impatient, easily bored, actually enjoying a low-level, low-wage service job,” the revelation does not actually appear to be one. In fact, Kelly’s temper is a constant. Sniping remarks about “drawling skinny blondes” and “skinny blond wives” escalate into an encounter with another blonde who “just wouldn’t shut up. It was as though someone had pressed a screaming-bitch button.” Kelly, herself a blonde, likes two lean blondes, but those are the exceptions. (Women of other hair colours seem to be safe.) Apart from blondes or other poor customers—“serving non-Americans was always the worst”—Kelly directs her anger at senior executives, the “invisible, distant CEO collecting millions,” North Face itself and the corporate culture. However, her methodology differs with the suits. Harnessing her anger, she researches, as a good journalist does, what makes retail tick, providing a description of the retail environment that conveys her disgust in a calm tone. Maybe it is harder to remain calm if the cause of our distress is snapping fingers in our face wanting better service, rather than many kilometres away and faceless.

Outnumbering the occasional frank notes about her temper are occasions when Kelly congratulates herself. A praise-filled note from a “female customer my age” is quoted at length. “It wasn’t an accident that after a twenty-minute conversation with me someone would easily spend $400, or much more. That person had received my careful, individual, and undivided attention, a rarity in any store.” And the kicker? “A rarity anywhere, really.” There is a palpable ego here, and no false modesty.

Anyone who loses her place, surgically or otherwise, in a world she had invested so much of herself in suffers a profound injury, and a kind of insecurity pervades the pages of Malled. Compounding this injury, Kelly’s life experiences, many of them worthwhile and potentially interesting, contain little of interest to her co-workers. This must have been a rude surprise. She becomes desperately eager to talk with customers with whom she might have something in common. Kelly tells us many times that she is a fine salesperson, able to give good advice. Success of this kind is limited, especially when not on commission, and ephemeral, but she puts the best face on it.

Apart from a section where she talks about time spent with her father, Kelly is guarded about herself; she sounds open, but she does not divulge much. The personal passages are filled with shifting tones, as though she had not figured herself out, and this does a disservice to herself and the book. But when Caitlin Kelly focuses on writing about retail as a crushing system—that is, when she brings her journalistic strengths into play—herprose flows smoothly, she communicates effectively and she synthesizes her research well.