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Book Review: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly

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As a freelance journalist working for publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Glamour, Caitlin Kelly was far removed from the working experience of the retail sales assistant. Like most of us, her experience of retail was mainly as a customer. However, the knock-on effects of the financial recession in late 2008 led to many white-collar workers having to look for alternative jobs due to widespread redundancies. Kelly was one of the casualties of the recession, and the alternative job she found herself doing was as a part-time retail sales assistant with well-known outdoor clothing store The North Face.

In Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, Kelly recounts her journey as a part-time retail assistant/associate (RA). The book is laid out in a roughly chronological format and weaves in the stories of her fellow assistants. The fact that Kelly worked for only one day a week at this store and still felt as she did about it, is a taste of how intense and demoralising it likely was for those who worked there full-time, depended on their wage there and had little hope of changing careers, especially during the recession.

Kelly exposes not only the corporate bureaucracy of large chains such as The North Face, but also her own fears and insecurities, particularly the way that it felt to be caught between the whims of management and customers alike and how demeaning and undervalued this job made her feel. This was the issue that stood out for me about the book and ultimately about the retail industry. The over-riding and universal “customer is always right” philosophy pervades this industry, but it was interesting to hear about how this is experienced from the point of view of the RA; who can be abused by certain customers who use this “customer is always right” mantra to satisfy their own whims and need for superiority. It certainly seems to be the case that there are some customers who treat retail stores and the assistants who work in them with very little respect, but is that because no-one is communicating that they should be respected or treated fairly?

It can be a similar story online as well and eBay is a case in point. This giant online sales platform has cultivated a very clear policy that the customer is ALWAYS right. Sellers can only leave positive feedback for their customers, regardless of how they have been treated and there are some unpleasant tales out there of how some buyers have behaved. For the buyers on eBay it is a different matter – they are able to leave positive, negative or neutral feedback, and on the sellers’ forums there are many examples of how buyers have abused this power.

Policies such as these are meant to encourage good customer service. Do they do that? Or do they create environments whereby retail workers are forced into a demoralising subservience and a message is communicated that it is ok to treat them however we choose. The article “Top 5 Reasons Why ‘The Customer Is Always Right’ Is Wrong” by ‘Chief Happiness Officer’ Alexander Kjerulf highlights that the “customer is always right” philosophy often doesn’t lead to better customer service, and points out that better outcomes can be achieved by focusing on making your employees feel valued and motivated.

In the retail industry employees often do not feel valued. Quite the opposite, as Kelly points out in her book. This is echoed by comments overheard about this type of job. “I don’t want to end up stacking shelves”. People speak about shop work as if it is embarrassing and demeaning and not something to be proud of. Even those claiming unemployment benefits have looked upon this type of job with disdain, as if they would rather claim benefit than do such a thankless, low-paid, disrespected job. Retail is often considered the ‘bottom of the heap’ in terms of a job to be proud of. But it wasn’t always like this.

One of the areas that Kelly points to is pride in the job and being able to demonstrate a specialist knowledge that means you can offer something meaningful to the customer whilst at the same time feeling useful and valued. In some ways the large superstores, although they have offered variety, choice, knock-down prices and convenience, have gradually diluted the specialist knowledge of the independent shopkeeper. As Kelly points out, today’s RA’s seem to have very little scope for standing out and showing their unique skills – most training aims to make everyone do or say the same thing and act in the same corporate way.

Large corporations need their systems and processes but these come at the expense of individuality – which they see as an anomaly to the well-oiled machine. Personality tests are used to weed out those who do not show the appropriate conformity. While these can prove useful, people are not simply another variable or overhead. People can make a shopping experience what it is. If the RA is only taught to tow the corporate line and speak from a script, without any way to express their unique skills, then they are likely to have very little pride in their own abilities or a true interest in the job at hand and this is communicated to the customer.

With the rapid growth in cut price stores offering a huge variety of low cost, disposable items, there has been a reduced need for specialist skills or detailed product knowledge and staff are often encouraged to carry out their roles in a mechanistic fashion, sticking to strict corporate guidelines. This lack of individuality eats away at pride and motivation. RA’s feel as disposable as the goods themselves. This along with the low wages and the lack of respect from customers and from management leads to a high staff turnover.

With the overheads of running a shop, the wages paid are nearly always as low as they possibly can be. Cost-cutting is the over-riding philosophy in retail. But while this is essential for business, when it comes to staffing it isn’t always best to treat people like just another cost.

Obviously you can’t pay RA’s more money than you can afford to pay and you have to keep costs from escalating, but what you could do is give people a sense of pride and pleasure via utilising their knowledge, letting them develop a specialism. This is what the independent shops do very well and it is why they have survived; albeit in much smaller numbers. Larger corporations could add a little of this to their stores too if they want to reduce the incredible staff turnover rates in their industry.

The argument about costs doesn’t always tell the full story about why RA’s are paid so low. Stores spend 8-13% on labour yet millions of pounds/dollars on events and sponsorship and to celebrities to market their brand image. Kelly spoke of this and how the investment was rarely put into the staff on the frontline at The North Face, either in making their working environment more appealing or ergonomic/less dangerous or in making them feel valued or listened to. They felt they were treated poorly by customers and by the company. For example, the stock rooms at the branch where Kelly worked had plain boxes piled high and not labelled with their contents. During the busy Christmas period the RA’s would have to try and guess what was in each box and were not allowed to use box-cutters to make the job easier or quicker.

Furthermore, the security tag remover at the checkout desks that had stopped working when Kelly was new in the job was not fixed during her time there, which meant that staff had to stretch across each other at the checkout to access the only two that worked. This created a queue and also an unnecessary and not very spine-friendly position for these workers. When they saw the latest million-pound campaign boards being put up in the store it was difficult for the RA’s to accept that so much money could be spent on marketing yet the minimal cost of just fixing a tag-remover was not considered important; they felt they were not considered important even though they were the frontline faces of this store and were the immediate interface between the customer and the brand.

Kelly tells of the daily goals which would seem to change each day and were something of a mystery because they were never discussed or explained with the RA’s. This uncertainty conjures up an atmosphere of insecurity for the RA’s – they must have felt like pawns in some corporate game.

In the US 50% of RA’s are gone within 3 months. Staff turnover is at 100% a year in some parts of the industry. When asked the reasons for leaving many report boredom, long hours standing, extra duties such as cleaning, wages staying the same, little opportunity for reward or progression, and being treated very poorly by customers. Kelly sums up how most of her colleagues felt: “It’s just low-wage, thankless, repetitive work and the recompense minimal”. (p. 79)

Yet the author shines a much-needed light on the thankless job that is carried out by RA’s all over the world — and Malled particularly highlights the monster that has been created with the ‘customer is always right’ philosophy. I do wonder if it is time to rethink this mantra and look at the way retail employees are treated. There are some good examples out there (e.g., Costco), but there are too many retailers for which the philosophy is to focus only on costs and profit at the expense of the most important asset they have – their staff.

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