Monday, July 16, 2012

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

This book wasn't exactly what I was expecting. I actually had thought it was likely to be like a stunt memoir where someone normally does something crazy for a year, although working retail is far from crazy. But I still thought it would mostly be stories about crazy customers, slightly nutty coworkers, and cold corporate bosses. While I did get the last one, the first two were sadly lacking. But let me back up.

In late 2007 Caitlin is a fifty-year-old well-respected journalist who recently was fired and has been trying to get by on freelance work alone. In order to have a reliable if small paycheck, she applies for and gets a job with The North Face at a tony, upscale mall in Westchester County, New York. It's a brand-new store so they do get some training since it isn't open yet, although she concedes that's far from usual. Caitlin is normally the store's top seller despite only working 2 days a week (which she soon cuts back to 1, and that gets cut back to 5 hours after the recession hits.)

She does have a few stories of crazy customers but... in my opinion they're just not all that crazy. They're unreasonable and demanding, but that's not unusual at all. That's a normal customer (especially in a rich part of town). She never seems to deal with the genuine kooks or the people asking for truly bizarre things (if you'd like some examples, this is a fun website.) She does deal with racism (as an older person and the only white employee in the store, most customers mistake her for the manager, even after being told otherwise), she does explain the difficult lives of many of her co-workers and I appreciate that she didn't seem shocked that several of them have college degrees. (When I worked at B&N, everyone in the store had a degree, mostly from top-notch school, we had 2 with Ph.D.s and one M.A., with the exception of 2 teenagers who went on to Ivy League colleges.)

In a lot of ways what I was expecting was a lot less. I think the jacket leads one to think the book will be more fun, but as a journalist, Ms. Kelly couldn't help but do research on the world of retail, the average pay, average turnover, and she interviewed long-time retail workers in a dozen different stores. But I was hoping for more of just the odd everyday things. She gripes repeatedly about a lot of the same corporate shortcomings over and over. She seems naive in thinking that corporate would want to make the employees' lives easier or better in any way, and so her learning the opposite is not a satisfying lesson in the retail world. She complains a lot about the world of journalism, which isn't germane to this book at all. I just wanted more fun stories! I wanted stories about people like I see in REI, the earnest whippet-thin outdoorsy-types who are shocked - SHOCKED that I eat a Snickers when I do my long (12+ miles) walks instead of something disgusting and overpriced - but appropriately balanced with the exact types of electrolytes and protein - like Gu.  I know from experience that clueless customers will stand on displays, stand on merchandise even, let children destroy merchandise right in front of you, insist you conjure sold out merch from thin air, insist they called your store to hold an item and yell about how incompetent you are only to discover on a loud cell phone call to his wife that he's at the wrong store. These were the stories I really wanted.

That said, Ms. Kelly did live through an interesting time in retail, with the recession starting about 9 months in to her stint. And unlike Barbara Ehrenreich, she didn't cut corners - she truly did need this paycheck and she worked hard for it, for over two years. I zipped through this book very quickly. It was informative and interesting, but it wasn't terribly fun. If you go into it, knowing what type of book it is, I think you'd enjoy it very much. I'd probably shelve it in sociology. If I still worked retail.

I bought this book at a Borders GOOB sale.


Tammy said...

Sounds like an interesting read-probably one I would check out rather than buy. Thanks for the great info in your review!

Caitlin Kelly said...

Thanks for making the time to read it -- and to write a thoughtful review.

I didn't really see a lot of kooky/cute/funny stuff in my time at the store; I would have included it if I had. I saw some shockingly entitled behaviors, which I did describe. And, my naive optimism that corporate might clean up its act? Not unique to me...Many of my experienced co-workers felt the same way, just as fed up with no raises and escalating demands.

I also, as you understood, had a wider aim in writing Malled than simply a bitch-fest about retail. I wanted to help readers better understand why shopping is often still so wretched for customers and staff.

Bottom line: I've since gotten a lot of email from retail workers agreeing with my assessment of it -- I just didn't find retail a tremendously fun job. So the book, in that respect, is a truthful rendition of my own experience.

Others', of course, might be quite different.

Carin Siegfried said...

@Caitlin Kelly

Thanks for your feedback! Personally, I worked at a pretty bizarre store (apparently), and as it was the bastard step-child of our corporate parent (it was a B&N under another name), we never had any illusions about where we stood with the Powers That Be in NYC. I shouldn't wash all experiences with the brush of my own retail experience but I think that's what everyone does!

I think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had the flap copy better prepared me for what the book is. It's not overly misleading (I just reread it) but it does sound like readers will be getting a little more fun gossip and fewer statistics. It's always a disappointment when what I think a book will be and what it actually is don't match up, and that's not the author's fault - usually it's the placement and marketing of the book. And sometimes it's my own shoddy (or lack of) flap copy reading.

I actually will be passing along your book tomorrow to a fresh college grad who wants to be a reporter, as a cautionary tale, so she knows what she's getting into!

Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is in retail and at the same company, it is only even worse than what is described in the book. WIth the economy the way it is, you have a lot of "not 24" year olds who need work. If by a fluke you do get hired, there are the 20 year olds who are in college or graduate school and this is a fun way to make money(who are nice) and then you have the 20/24 year olds who are high school graduates or who have retail degrees and 24 year old assistant managers. For anyone "older" who excels they are bullied, taunted by "you think you are better than us", or "you are stealing sales" and treated like a 5 year old.

There is a reason why the service is bad at all corporate retail stores and it is only going to get worse. In retail I think the motto is, get promoted so you can do less work. I think retail management degrees teach students that employees are empty shells, not to be trusted and to get yourself promoted as soon as possible. My nickname when I am at the store is "reverso world". Everything that you think about business, about people, about management is the reverse. The least qualified person gets promoted to assistant manager and the ones who have been there more than 3 years are encouraged to leave, there is no respect for longevity no matter what age you are if you have not gotten yourself promoted. All I can say is stay away from any corporate retail store on the weekends during the holidays, they are literally war zones! One of these days at my store, something horrible is going to happen, either boxes collapsing on someone in the stock room and injuring them badly, a Loss Prevention(stealing incident) goes awry and an employee gets injured(because the managers are far too young to handle these things well) or a fixture falls on a customer and injures them or their child or a fight breaks out on the sales floor. I think that pretty much covers it all.