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.