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Talking Shop: A Former Sales Clerk Speaks Out

Caitlin Kelly was a 50-year-old freelance writer who needed a job, so she took a part-time sales position in outdoor apparel and equipment store The North Face in White Plains, NY. She worked there from September 2007 to September 2009 and chronicled that experience in her new book “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.” She found the work tiring and many of the customers a challenge, but she liked her team and her store manager. “Retail has a very high turnover,” she says. “We had 15 people on staff. When I left, a third of the original team was still there. It was very collegial. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I don’t think you can survive retail without it.”

Pay Dirt: What most surprised you about the work?

Kelly: It’s hard to explain how tiring retail is. You’re standing six hours at a time. There’s a tremendous amount of lifting and carrying, and running back-and-forth to the storeroom. It doesn’t sound physical, but it is physical.

Did you need the job?

I’m not ashamed to say that I did need the job. You’ve got two places to go when you’re out of work: the library and a coffee shop, and a coffee shop costs money. Some of the reviewers and commentators have been extremely rude and snotty. I had a credit-card bill just like everybody else in the recession. My confidence was really quite damaged: I had sent out 48 resumes in a month. I didn’t get a single answer. I needed to have a place where people smile when I walked into the room.

Do you think consumers treat retail workers with less respect than restaurant workers?

People in retail get very little respect. There are many reasons for that. If you are rude to someone in a restaurant you don’t know what they will do to your food in the kitchen. For some reason there seems to be a different attitude to people in retail like, “All you did was run my credit card.” They don’t see you cleaning the toilets and running to the stock room. Many shoppers also assume completely inaccurately that retail workers are on commission.

What are the other reasons?

Because of the economy: People come into the store in a really bad mood. Because they can be and because of the notion that the customer is king: There are remarkably few public places where an adult can throw a hissy fit with impunity. This is where people can lose it. It’s an ugly function of the power imbalance in our economy. There are few places where people can release all those demons. Because we can’t retaliate: Customers can say, “I’ll call corporate.” If the manager loses their job, you could lose your job.

Do you think customers should tip retail staff?

I don’t see how that would work. If you think somebody’s awesome, thank them, use their name, tell them you will write a letter to praise them, and do it. People live in fear of retail. Write a letter to the management of the company saying, “Your associate was exceptional.” Retail is a team sport. As a customer, you can also ask your sales assistant if they privately consult. People freelance and do their own thing, especially in fashion.

What do you think of retail customer service now?

I’m appalled by most of the service I get. I’ve had a few great experiences: in Neiman Marcus, in my local gourmet store and at an Air Canada desk where a clerk asked me, “Are you okay?” All it took was three little words of compassion to help me that day. I was recently in a high-profile and expensive clothing store that Wall Street fawns over and the sales assistant was wearing ear buds. He didn’t even look me in the eye. That’s not the fault of the employee, that’s the fault of the manager.

You write that malls lure shoppers. How?

They’re designed so once you’re in, you don’t leave. You get more relaxed, you get tired and you get hungry. The longer you stay, the more money statistically you’re likely to spend. Malls are designed so there’s a significant distance from one exit to the next. They are like Vegas casinos. They are machines to extract money. That’s what they’re there for. They’re not there for amusement. They’re not there for window shopping. You are also paying to park. You’ve mentally already got a front cost, so you are more likely to buy something.

Have you changed as a consumer?

There are companies I won’t buy from because of the way they are treating their employees. I’ll shop in a company that has a higher average wage. As a shopper, I’m also much nicer to associates. I’m much more aware of how hard they work. But I’m much less tolerant of bad service. It made me aware of income disparities because I see how hard retail workers work. Everyone in my store had a college degree or was working towards one. There are amazingly, cool interesting people working in retail. But there is a bizarre conception that they must be stupid. If you have the right team, the right manager, the right company, it could be fun. The problem is that most are not well paid.

Pay Dirt readers, do you empathize with Kelly’s experience?

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    • I have been in retail management for 18 years. People do get the attitude that they are always right. They expect to be able to wear a shirt out dancing, bring it back smelling of alcohol, perfume, sweat…etc. Free rental..NOT! They get in your face, yell, etc. it is like watching a 2yr old having a fit. Other customers will just stare with fascination. I especially love the ones that bring all their kids shopping and let them run wild. I am a mother of three and they know how to act in public.

    • Good article. I needed extra money due to being retired early. I worked retail part time in a large department store to make ends meet. We had our share of difficult customers and the full time commission sales personnel were so aggressive for sales, I never really had a chance to make a decent wage.

    • Great article. I work for a home improvement company in the Midwest. You have to work between 50-60 hours a week to make a decent wage.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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