Once a week, I put on an official shirt and shoes, loop a lanyard around my neck with a little plastic badge with my first name carved into it, and go sell merch for The North Face, an international chain of outdoor clothing, with 23 stores in the U.S. I was hired there September 25, 2007 and did it to earn some extra, steady cash, to get out of my suburban apartment and the relentless isolation of working alone at home all day, with no kids or dog for distraction and company. I’d never worked retail in my life. Never had to, never had a huge desire to. But it’s paid work and I am now lucky to have it.
I make a fat $11/hr., no commission. Last week, in my seven hour shift, I moved $3,650 worth of product, $521.42 worth per hour. No one said “Thanks! Great job!” or high-fived me. I went home, showered, went to bed.
Every week, I think, OK, it’s time to quit. The work is not terribly interesting and the learning curve flattened out a long time ago.
Then, every week, yet another magazine or newspaper — my primary source of income for the past few decades — closes, cans its staff, cuts its freelance budget, tossing hundreds more competitors into the pot for the dwindling amount of freelance work available. I read there are six extremely well-qualified applicants for any available full-time job. So, I stay.
I spoke to my manager today — after reading today’s Wall Street Journal story about how retailers (surprise) will be cutting back on labor this holiday season and hiring fewer temporary workers. He asked if I could work some more hours in November and I said yes. I had planned to add hours in December, when the store will really need veterans who know our stuff and our team. In this economy, any steady work is a rare and valuable commodity. So is someone who knows how to do their job well, certainly the physically tiring job of retail sales.
I went shopping yesterday in Manhattan and came home fuming with the incompetence I saw in almost every store. At Sephora, where I wanted to enjoy finally cashing in a gift card, two of the associates did not speak English and I had to cross the store in search of help. In the worst recession in this nation in 40 years, I actually do expect competent help from anyone who still has a paycheck when millions do not. Silly me.
And firing someone in this economy can make for a terrifying, ugly scene. Our manager finally let someone go from our staff — who returned the next day and made physical threats. My partner was in a local Staples last week and watched a young man, just fired there, shrieking obscenities at the top of his lungs at every manager in sight. This went on until the police came.
I find this economy confusing, these behaviors both understandable — and mystifying. If even the crummiest jobs are so hard to win and so deeply coveted, why not do them really well?
Here’s a recent front page New York Times story about the insane fight for a $13/hour clerical job – 500 people applied and a 28-year-old woman won it.