Cash-Strapped at the Cash Wrap

Today, as I sit to write this, it’s the day after Black Friday (Grey Saturday?). The Oregonian and The Wall Street Journal both have front-page photos of crazed shoppers in queues, loading carts with deeply discounted merchandise; yesterday’s USA Today had a cover story about the abundance of seasonal retail jobs. Employment rates, shopping. It’s all covered to death. But who’s talking about the daily lives of people working those low-paying jobs?

That’s what prompted me to pick up Caitlin Kelly’s Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail. Kelly, a 50-something career journalist, was laid off from her job reporting for a major newspaper. Tired of the isolation of freelancing from home and unable to find a permanent position, Kelly got a part-time job at the North Face store in the mall in her affluent community. At first, she enjoyed the solidarity she found with her co-workers and the challenges of thinking on her feet, but after two and a half years she quit, drained and demoralized.

Kelly struggles with tired feet, rushed breaks, and growing resentment at the impossible policies of an unseen corporate office. She also finds helping customers exhilarating. Retail work is funny that way: a monkey could do it, but it takes a clever, extroverted human to do it well.

According to Kelly, one-fifth of American business is retail, worth 4 trillion dollars a year. But “the money that stores devote to their labor budgets--between 8 and 13 percent--is almost always the absolute least...take away decently compensated employment that matters to us, and our souls begin to die.” Lots of people who’d otherwise love their retail careers quit in frustration or become soul-less retail robots, because the company employing them does not love them back.

Kelly’s writing from the perspective of an outsider who went inside, just as Barbara Ehrenreich did in her now-classic Nickel and Dimed. For a different perspective, try the anthology The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles, where writers share their most horrific memories from the retail jobs they had before they became established authors. Be glad these people won’t be ringing up your purchases this season.

What about the millions of other retail workers who don’t have a book deal to escape to? Keep them in mind, no matter which side of the cash wrap you may find yourself.