Friday, January 4, 2013

Weekend Reading: Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly.

I picked this book mostly because I loved the title (wordplay!) and because after working in retail for most of my life and just sort of going numb to the way things are, I thought it would be interesting to get an outsider perspective on it (and revel slightly in the fact that I no longer have to do it).

My review, in a sentence, is that this is an important book, but one with far too many flaws to really have the impact that it should.  Kelly is a professional journalist who, feeling the pinch of the recession and the cutback that most journalists are feeling these days, wants a source of steady income and takes a job at a North Face store.  The problem with this book, and one that I didn't think would occur considering that this writer is a professional writer who has thus far managed to keep herself fed and clothed using the power of her prose, was that this book is just quite poorly written.  I don't know if the original draft was too short and she just added a lot of padding, but this is honestly the most repetitive book I've ever read.

I read this in an afternoon, and perhaps it was intended to be read over the course of months, or the author wanted to just excerpt each chapter out as a stand-alone essay because she kept repeating herself over and over again.  I feel like I'm repeating myself just mentioning it more than once, but at least I'm aware of it.  One of the other major flaws--she only worked one shift a week, usually just five hours.  On one hand, it's a bit shocking that working that few hours could make a person crack after just two years, but on the other, it's a bit disingenuous to call this a "career" in retail.

Best takeaways:
--We expect stores to provide a high level of customer service, yet retail employees are barely paid more than minimum wage, the industry has 100% turnover and staff are rarely trained.  This leads to frustration for the customer and abuse for the staff.  Kelly mentions that on several occasions, particularly when she asked too many questions, she was rewarded with inaction.

--Expectations from on high.  At this store, employees were given a daily sales goal.  It was a pretty arbitrary number and they were expected to meet it, but whenever Kelly asked what would happen if they didn't meet the sales goal, no one had an answer.

--Lack of employee support. At one point in the book, Kelly broke the de-tagger, which is that tiny gadget that takes tags off of clothes.  Because it was broken, staff had to constantly use one of the other two, which are bolted to the counter.  This necessitated a lot of hopping around, and took up more time.  She later found out that the replacement de-tagger cost something like $10, but their store went without one for months.

--Ludicrous demands and policies.  I alluded to this when I talked about my experiences at Barnes & Noble and how obnoxious upselling is, but it bears repeating.  I've never worked at a clothing store, but I thought it was interesting that they had a person on staff whose job it was to 'stage' the store.  This meant that every so often, someone would completely re-organize the store so that the staff never knew where anything was.  This was to create new displays and highlight certain collections, obviously, but it also seems like a tremendous waste of time and effort.  Of course, this was something I wanted to know more about, but it was only mentioned briefly once.  This is something that the frontline staff has no control over, but they have to deal with the fallout of not being able to find anything for customers and we, as customers, have to wait longer.

Disappointing.  This book says something needs to be said, but it's just poorly written.  I was hoping for more of a retail version of Nickle and Dimed, but this is half fluffy memoir, one quarter analysis of the retail industry and just one quarter whining/boasting.  In writing something so sloppily, I feel like Kelly looks down on her readers the same way corporate overlords look down on retail employees, but that might be a bit of a stretch.

1 comment:

  1. having no frame of reference on the book or Kelly, my guess is a common one with journalists and one that I faced when starting grad school after writing 200-300 word articles for two years, with occasional 500-600 worders: upshifting to longer works can be a bitch, which is why a good editor is key in getting such things in shape. And I totally agree that 5 hours a week is NOT a career. I did shoe retail for 6 months full time, then did the 5 hours a week thing for two years, and it was a world of difference. It was surprising how much more fun I had doing it when I was only there for 5 hours.