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At Your Service

After three decades as a reporter, Caitlin Kelly enters the low-wage world of retail

Work defines us. Whether we’re a PhD, MBA, JD, DDS, MD – or a SAHM (stay at home mom) – it’s often our primary identity after graduation. What happens, then, when a satisfying or well-paid job in your field eludes you?

In September 2007, I stepped away from journalism – my only career since I began writing for the Varsity in 1975 – and into the gruelling, low-wage world of retail work. For two years and three months, part time, I sold outdoor clothing at The North Face in a suburban New York mall.

I had never worked retail, was 20 to 30 years older than my co-workers and the only Caucasian female employee much of that time. (I had never before worked in a place where I was the visible minority.) Typical of many retail jobs, we were all poorly paid, no matter how well we sold. Yet two of my co-workers were supporting four children apiece on our wages, $9 to $11 an hour with no commission. One woman once sold $16,000 worth of goods in one shift, but there was no promotion or huge bonus for her.

Retail was the simplest choice after I was laid off from my job as a reporter at the New York Daily News. Weeks earlier, I’d had a front-page exclusive – “the wood” in tabloid terminology. But as 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs in 2007-8, finding employment at another paper seemed hopeless.

I needed cash. I also hungered for a place I would be professionally valued. How hard could it be to hang ski pants and meet daily sales quotas?

Retail employment taught me new definitions of (boring! repetitive! sweaty! tiring!) work. A manager inspected my handbag every time I left the store. Security cameras caught my every move. Parking at the mall cost an hour of my wages.

Writers often work alone at home, cocooned – or isolated – in silence and solitude. In retail, I had to be on, from the minute I clocked in and donned my plastic name badge to the second, feet burning with exhaustion, I staggered home. Retail work resembles acting: employees are minutely observed by co-workers, managers, customers – and those ever-present security cameras. Holiday-season shifts offered a Chaplinesque workplace frenzy as long lines of toe-tapping shoppers stared at us impatiently. Why couldn’t we work even faster? And, oh, the fury when we disappointed them!

I had met impossibly tight deadlines at the Globe and Mail and Daily News, but being shouted at for running out of gift boxes? Our job was the classic exemplar of stress – responsibility without authority. Yet whether customers are finger-snappingly imperious or monosyllabically indecisive, the associate must inveigle them into actually buying something.

The U.S., where I’ve lived since 1988, prides itself on being a meritocracy, where education and hard work can rocket the ambitious out of the working class. Most of my 14 co-workers had attended or graduated from university, and some were studying between their retail shifts. But we were mostly assumed to be stupid, and it was deeply demoralizing to be so unvalued, by customers and the company alike. Shoppers leaned over the computer when I entered their name or address – I couldn’t possibly know how to spell.

I lasted far longer than average; 50 per cent of retail workers quit within 90 days and 100 per cent, typically, within a year. I’m glad I did it. I sold well, and developed new skills through working with a much greater diversity of colleagues and customers than any newsroom I’d seen. Empathy and responsiveness, patience and charm are all crucial in sales. Not in journalism, where a writer can easily grow enormous and admiring audiences (who will never meet you face to face), even if you’re a nasty little egotist. In retail, some journalists wouldn’t last a week!

Now when I shop, I wonder who’s really behind that counter, when they started and why they stayed. They may well be hard-working, smart, educated people. If only all managers and customers really understood that.

Caitlin Kelly (BA 1979 VIC) is the author of Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (Portfolio, 2011).

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  1. One Response to “ At Your Service ”

  2. MaryAnne Kneif says:

    Or...``You'll Never Work in This Mall Again!`` This falls into the "I think I wrote that article myself" category. The experience Ms Kelly describes couldn't be closer to my own having worked at 3 different stores in one mall in the last 9 months. I just quit my last position a week ago. It's quite a trip back to reality after having spent the last 22 years in the legal editorial field having the store manager stand over you as you fold clothes non-stop for 6 hours or have her put a Swiffer in your hand at the close of every day. Yes, I have greater respect for those working in stores - I'm also a nicer, more helpful person - but I never want to work in retail again!