Consumer spending amounts to 70% of our GDP. Retail sales is a significant part and a major driver in our economy. The difference then between success and failure for retail businesses must come down to product, its marketing and competent management. “The most critical part is me,” says Caitlin Kelly, Author of “Malled : My Unintentional Career in Retail,” a memoir of the 30 months spent as an unappreciated retail sales associate. And the Tarrytown, New York resident wasn’t alone in the lack of recognition this pivotal class of workers receives.
“If I’m not on my game and ready to engage, customers do not buy,” she said during an author talk at the Warner Library in Tarrytown on September 8th.
At the outset of her tenure with North Face in The Westchester, she began her “career” enthusiastically. After losing her job as a Daily News Staff Reporter, trying to string together a living as freelancer, made her realize that intermittent work took a toll and a part time paycheck would help.
The hospital stay that coincided solidified the point. “I ended up with pneumonia,” she says.
In turn, an $11 an hour gig from North Face sufficed nicely. Additionally, the journalism background played a part in her optimism. I’ve had to size up presidents and prime ministers, she says, and being able to quickly get inside the heads of customers provided a great lead.
A challenge she also appreciated, interacting with a variety of people was also a draw. But for all the upside, the enthusiasm would completely wear down on the way to her eventual exit.
In her outside research for the book, she uncovered a broad corporate mindset that viewed workers through a single word (and explained the prevailing experience). “Disposable,” she says.
While retail serves as a transitional income for many, others are not so lucky and the atmosphere encourages workers to leave. “Initiative is not valued,” she says, and your replacement will always demand less money, she adds.
A subtle example provided a good deal of proof. Submerged in a Christmas Eve mad rush, she accidentally broke the device that removes the clothing’s sensor tags. Making due, the clerks had to keep passing the remaining gizmos back and forth between each other. “We looked kind of silly and inefficient,” she says, but damning to managements’ case was that six months later it had still not been replaced.
Simply stated by the Tarrytown resident, they don’t care about the work conditions or whether you look silly and inefficient.
More troubling was the inventory layout and the difficulties involved in bringing out items that customers were ready to buy. When there were younger guys on the floor, she says, they would literally scale the ceilings to help everyone, but without their agility, the scramble was an incredibly strenuous, sometimes dangerous exercise.
Adding in a shift that had her standing nonstop for up to six hours, a physical toll is taken that shouldn’t exist. In fact, managements acknowledge the poor conditions in a very surprising manner, and it’s transferred directly to customers. “They know workers are so unhappy that theft is a given, and it’s built into the prices,” she says.
The effect on her (and probably many others) was disturbing enough. “I turned into a bitch and that’s not who I wanted to be,” she says.
Nonetheless, grievances made to managers resulted in nothing and employees are never asked how to make the store more efficient. But she doesn’t blanket the entire industry in this boldface. Costco, Wegener’s, Trader Joes and Home Depot are putting more premium on workers, pay decent wages and still manage to make healthy profits, she says.
She attributes a backwards business model to the constraints of Wall Street. “It’s all about the profit and loss numbers,” she says, and management decisions proceed from there, she adds.
At North Face, her book has gotten the attention of the higher ups and is off limits down below. “Employees are not allowed to discuss the book with customers,” she says.
Still, some executives get that a backwards look has value. She’s being courted in a consulting role by one Chain and a consultant who works with many others. But whether that comes through or not, a return to retail is unlikely.
“CBS is basing a sitcom on my book,” says Ms. Kelly. She also sits well with ample recognition from less lofty sources. So many retail people have contacted me and are grateful for portraying their plight, she says.
All told, she hopes more companies get the picture and realize that acting in the best interest of their workers is acting in the best interest of their businesses.
Rich Monetti coverage of event at Tarrytown Library with Caitlin Kelly