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Posts Tagged ‘retail’

A brief meditation on the Restoration Hardware catalog

In aging, beauty, business, children, culture, design, domestic life, life, Style, US on June 14, 2014 at 2:45 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

And so it arrived — all 4.5 inches of it — and all seven editions:

Have you seen it?

IMG_20140613_160742930

For those of you living beyond the U.S., RH offers one-stop shopping for all manner of weathered, patinated objects, from enormous replicas of German lighting and railway clocks to a wall-hung glowing ampersand. (Do I really want to sleep beside a piece of punctuation?)

The tone is regal, imperial, seigneurial — and the scale of many of the objects and furniture designed for people who inhabit extremely large homes and estates. Their catalog named “small spaces” offers tableaux named for a Chelsea penthouse and Tribeca loft, each of whose entry point is about $2 million, in cash.

It’s exhaustingly aspirational, and references abound to “landed gentry” and “boarding school”, clearly meant to appeal to people who have experience of neither. (As Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary said, witheringly, to her self-made suitor, Sir Richard Carlisle: “Your lot buys things. Mine inherits them.”)

What to make of it all?

1) Fly into shopping frenzy, wanting allofitrightnow!

2) Read the descriptions in wonder and dismay:

“Crafted with Italian Berkshire leather…” — it’s an ice bucket, people. And it’s $199.

3) Sneer at the hopeless addiction to more stuff it inculcates and rewards

4) Dog-ear a few of the pages, however guiltily, because some of it — yes — is really gorgeous, like this bed, oddly featured in the baby and child catalog.

5) Wonder why our possessions are deemed “treasured” and whether or not they even should be; (see: Buddhist teachings and the ideal of non-attachment)

6) Consider attending an auction to watch the detritus of a hundred other lives, wondering when this stuff will end up there, too

7) Might children raised in these formal and fully-designed rooms, amid thousands of dollars worth of wood and linen and velvet, emerge into the real world of independence and employment with overly hopeful notions of pay and working conditions? Let alone college dorm facilities?

8) If a baby projectile vomits or poops or pees onto the immaculate washed linen and velvet beds, chairs and cribs shown here, how elegant will they really look (or smell)? Much as I love the idea of refined aesthetics (not pink or plastic everything), this seems a little…excessive.

9) I love their restrained neutral palette — pale gray, cream, brown, white, black — and their industrial designs for lighting. But if I were six or eight or 14? Maybe not so much. Your kids have decades ahead of them to stare at wire baskets and faux-Dickensian light fixtures.

10) Have you ever noticed the echt-WASP names included in these catalogs, as would-be monograms or examples of personalization? You won’t ever find a Graciela or Jose or Ahmed or Dasani here, my dears. Instead: Addison, Brady, Lucas, Mason, Ethan, Grace, Charlotte, Chloe, Sarah. Such a 19th-century white-bread version of “reality” ! Am I the only one who finds this pretentious, silly — and very outdated marketing? Many people of color have money to spend on these items as well. My husband’s name is Jose and he’s got great taste and good credit. Include him, dammit!

11) OK, OK. I admit it. I love this chair. After a long crappy day, even a putative adult might enjoy the soft and furry embrace of a stuffed elephant.

12) “Understated grandeur” and “Directoire-style daybed” — in a nursery?!

13) People put taxidermied animal heads on your walls to prove that: a) you  know how to shoot accurately; b) you own guns; c) you can afford to spend time in some foreign land on safari; d) you enjoy killing things; e) you have no shame showing this to others. Putting up faux images of wood, paper and metal like these ones seems a little beside the point.

14) Do you really want to eat your food with a replica of the cutlery used aboard the Titanic, and named for it? What’s next — the Hindenberg armchair?

15) As someone addicted to great fabric, I do think these linen tablecloths are both well-priced and hard to find. And their glass and metal bath accessories — dishes, canisters and jars — are handsome enough to use on your desk or in a kitchen.

16) Dimensions? It’s a total time-suck to have to go on-line to determine furniture sizes.

17) For $25, this is the chic-est beach towel you’ll see this season. (I bought one of theirs a few years ago and the quality is excellent.)

18) Did the designer or copywriter even snicker when including a $139 “industrial style” basket marked “Stuff”?

The writer’s week: PLM, stretch lace and late payments

In behavior, business, journalism, life, Style, Technology, work on January 19, 2014 at 2:33 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Occasionally, I review a week in the life of a full-time writer, me.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

Monday

That’s a whole week ago, so I can barely remember. Finished up a fact-checking job for another writer, someone I’ve never met who lives in Florida, whose book is a series of brief biographies. A story I’d written for the Wall Street Journal — whose income, as always, I rely on — was abruptly killed, an overnight loss of $600. Shit.

In an online members-only writers’ forum, I saw the plea for fact-checking help and, for $25/hour, jumped in. I made up $500 of that lost $600 with a week’s phoning, emailing and on-line research, even though I’d never fact-checked before. Much of my work now means jumping, without hesitation or fear, into media and projects I have zero experience with.

But now I have to let all the people I interviewed for the WSJ piece know they’re not going to get the mention they had hoped for. One of the problems of writing for a living that’s rarely discussed publicly is managing your sources, without whom you have nothing to write about. I hate wasting people’s time and now have to share this disappointing news with them. I fear it make me look incompetent, when a killed story happens maybe 1% of the time.

Tuesday

Off to cover a trade show in Manhattan, at the (ugh) Javits Center, the massive conference center at the western edge of the city. I hate Javits! This is the third year in a row I’ve attended the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, an annual event that brings every possible vendor of anything interesting to a retailer — scanners, training programs, scheduling software, PLM (product life management) software. It’s basically an annual arms race, in which one or several Big Box retailers adopts a specific system, the vendor touts their win, and competitors think “Hmmmm, maybe we need this as well.”

The center is so huge that even walking to the bathroom or coat check is a hike; one vendor wearing a pedometer tells me she walked 10 miles there in one day.

malled cover LOW

I run around the place interviewing the eight people I’ve been asked to meet. Some use acronyms I’ve never heard — PLM, RFID — and I’m dancing as fast as I can. RFID turns out to be, (to me anyway), fascinating, radio frequency identification, which embeds every paper clothing tag with a device that can be read from a distance without opening a box to check inventory. (OK, I guess I’m a systems geek.)

Having worked retail for 2.5 years as an associate for The North Face — the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” – and having to slash open huge boxes of clothing with a box cutter, (talk about inefficient and dangerous), I’m really intrigued by this efficient new system. But it’s expensive — 7 to 8 cents per tag — and I realize how much cost our clothing prices include that we never see or know about.

I leave Javits at 4:00 pm, into pouring rain. Of course, there are no cabs at the taxi rank and a long line of miserable people waiting. My feet are killing, me but I hoof it another four long, wet blocks to the bus stop to catch the crosstown bus to Grand Central to catch the train home.

INTERVIEW TECHNIQUES

Wednesday

So excited! Today I’m attending another trade show in the city, for the same editor, someone in a distant state I’ve also never met, (typical of my worklife). This show is a lot smaller, and a lot more fun, a combination of textile manufacturers and designers whose own paintings and digital prints designers buy, then use in their own collections. Glam-looking professionals, all in chic bits of black, cluster on the sidewalk clutching their coffees, waiting for the doors to open at 9:00 a.m.

Two dozen of us watch an hour-long video of spring/summer 2015 trends: pale colors, lots of mesh, netting, lace and transparent fabrics. Neon is out, kids! I run around the show until 5:00 interviewing the people on my list. Many are French, so I speak the most French I have in ages, which I love. I see spectacularly beautiful silk, lace, wool, mesh and satins and recognize the names of some Very Big fashion labels on the buyers selecting their choices. One designer of amazing patterns, which you can buy, own and use exclusively for $625, tells me that one of my favorite women’s activewear companies uses many of his designs.

I’ll never look at a piece of clothing quite the same way again. This is why journalism is so addictive. In one day, I’ve enjoyed: meeting a pile of highly creative people; gotten to use my language skills; learned a great deal about this industry and made some useful new contacts for future stories and projects. What’s not to like?

Thursday

Time to bang out two 1,000-word stories, due this evening to my editor in California. No pressure!

I also call and email editors whose payments to me — as is now typical — have not arrived, even weeks later. While 30 days is normal, the pace of my production is much faster now, and waiting for a month for something I have to bang out within a day or two seems ridiculous. At this point, I have pennies in my bank account, bills are due and I have to start using my line of credit. (I have significant retirement savings and another emergency fund with six months’ expenses, but a short-term cash flow issue is not, in my mind, an emergency. I keep those funds in case, God forbid, I simply can’t work at all for a period of time, to be able to keep contributing the amount my husband relies on every month for our expenses and savings.)

A freelancer who can’t pay their bills on time is someone whose business, health and reputation are at risk. I’ve had a bank line of credit — $16,000 worth — for more than a decade. When I call and email editors, my tone needs to be breezy, relaxed, happy, not someone desperate for any assignment. (Even if it might be true!)

I email and call half a dozen editors, print and on-line, to check on the progress of my pitches to them. A pitch I’ve sent to one Marie Claire editor comes back, suggesting another editor there, and possibly a better fit for a competing magazine. I try the second MC editor and decide to give it a week before trying the competitor.

THINK LIKE A REPORTER

Friday

Exhausted. Between writing, blogging, tweeting and FB, I feel like my eyes are going to melt. I should jump at once into my next story, a long personal essay for Good Housekeeping, but I desperately need a day to myself and off the damn computer. I’m also physically spent from two crazy days of walking and non-stop interviewing.

I have an eye exam and discover — which I knew — I finally need reading glasses. The optometrist is a woman my age who tells me I’ve dodged that bullet a decade longer than most.

I get an email, out of the blue, from a source in California I’d interviewed last year for my (unsold) book proposal, asking me (!) to possibly speak at their annual conference. I give her an idea what that will cost and hope it will come through. I enjoy public speaking and it’s the easiest money I now earn.

I drive to Greenwich, a super-wealthy Connecticut town about 20 minutes east of us, to pick up a gallon of my favorite, spendy, British-made paint, Farrow & Ball. We’re having a new contact over for dinner — someone who might (!) send me on a very cool research trip for her organization — so we want the apartment spotless. I splurge on some gorgeous fresh flowers, white nerines, orange tulips and some greenery, and pick up the food for the dinner. I’d hoped to make filet mignon but at $29/lb. (!!!!) choose pork chops instead.

Saturday

One of the great pleasures of living so close to New York City is being able to hop in for a few hours after a 40-minute train ride. I buy a 10-trip ticket — whose price has just risen again — now $83. I walk from Grand Central to ICP, the International Center of Photography to see a show of photos by Lewis Hine.  Admission is $14. New York City is really expensive!

The show is fairly large, and the images — of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1905, of child labor in 1915, of African Americans in the 1920s — are powerful, some of them very familiar. A former schoolteacher, Hine became the pre-eminent photographer of his era, capturing slices of life that were damning and which prompted social change. Yet he died broke and unknown.

I wonder what impels us to do the work we do, to care as deeply as we do, if this is to be our inglorious end.

Our dinner is a lot of fun; our guests have lived and worked in Europe, the U.S. and Africa, so we have lots of stories to share, from the White House (my husband was a NYT photographer there for 8 years) to Rwanda.

Sunday

Pooped! A day to sleep, recharge, catch up with my husband, himself a busy, tired NYT photo editor, and read four newspapers — the WSJ, two days of the NYT and the weekend Financial Times.

I bang out this blog post, trying not to freak out about the coming week: bills due, no checks (yet) and a 2,000 word piece due on Thursday I haven’t had a minute to start work on.

Scrooge city! Employers hotly defend poverty-level wages

In business, life, Money, news, politics, urban life, US, work on December 17, 2013 at 3:22 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

‘Tis the season!

Check out the 300 comments — and climbing (including a long one from me) — at the Harvard Business Review blog where a Wharton professor, Peter Capelli, (gasp, competing B-school!) posted the following argument in favor of actually paying workers a living wage:

Jobs paying $15 per hour are not the concern, though. Those are routinely seen as good jobs now. The concern is those jobs paying at or around the minimum wage, $7.25 per hour or only $1160 per month for a
full-time job. About 1.6 million workers in the U.S. are paid at that level, and a surprising 2 million are actually paid less than that under various exemptions. If you are an employer paying the minimum wage or close to it, the Government has determined that your employees need help to pay for food, housing, and healthcare even if they have no family and no one to look after but themselves.  As we’ve been reminded this season, many of those workers also need help from families and coworkers to get by.

No doubt the reason low-wage companies continue to pay low wages is because there are plenty of workers willing to take jobs at those wages, and the need to pay more to avoid the risk of being unionized is
largely gone. But “can” and “ought” are not the same thing.  Nothing about the minimum wage implies that it is morally ok as long as you pay at least that much. It simply says that the government will prosecute you if try to pay less than that level.

A longstanding principle in all developed countries including the U.S. is that labor is not like a commodity where taking advantage of the market to squeeze down prices is a fact of life. Employees have human rights that do not disappear when they enter the workplace. Even in business law, principles like the “mechanic’s lien” say that employees should be paid before other creditors because they are more vulnerable than businesses and do not get profits to compensate them for risks.

We’re at an inflection point in the U.S., where some low-wage workers, unprecedented in decades, have actually begun to stage walk-outs, strikes and protests in recent weeks.

In Germany — where 9,000 workers are employed by Amazon — employees have just gone on strike.

Wage list

Wage list (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have — as we say here in sports-metaphor-obsessed-America — skin in this particular game.

I worked 2.5 years making $11/hour (the federal minimum is still $7.25/hour) selling costly outdoor clothing at an upscale mall, the subject of my book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

No matter how insanely productive we were — one of us sold $16,000 worth of merch one holiday Saturday — we never got more hours or  serious raise (mine was 30 cents/hour) or a boost into a low-management position with a (barely) liveable salary.

The endless argument in favor paying crap is that low-wage workers are all teens, seniors and/or have no skills.

False! A recent survey of 436 New York City retail workers found that two-thirds of them are supporting another family member on their wages. Their average age? 24.

I also pay my assistants $15/hour, albeit part-time, about 10 hours a month. This year I paid out $1,5000 in wages to one worker, a significant amount for a one-person shop — me — and a healthy sum to a person new to my line of work, in effect, someone essentially entry-level I was training and paying.

I am appalled, disgusted and fed up with corporate greed, corporate welfare and the right-wing outrage that all low-wage jobs are low-skilled. They’re not.

Every single job adds profit to an employer’s bottom line or — in union-free America — it’s swiftly cut, with no severance or warning.

Walmart and MacDonalds workers suck up my tax dollars in Medicaid and food stamps because their greedhead CEOs think this is moral, equitable and justifiable way to treat workers.

I disagree.

How about you?

It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

In behavior, books, business, culture, life, Money, Uncategorized, US, work on November 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.

While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.

Retail workers also deserve more:

– More money (most earn minimum wage)

– More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)

– More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)

– More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)

Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.

An excerpt:

In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.

Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.

For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.

These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.

Walmart

Walmart (Photo credit: matteson.norman)

As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.

Walmart has yet to pay the $7,000 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.

For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.

“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”

I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.

I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.

malled cover LOW

It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.

It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” details my experience, as well as that of hundreds of others nationwide.

Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?

Disposable.

Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them  — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!

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THERE’S PRE-CLASS READING FOR THIS ONE, SO IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, DON’T DELAY!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.

The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

The wearying, growing toll of “emotional labor”

In behavior, business, cities, culture, journalism, life, Media, news, urban life, US, work on March 26, 2013 at 2:18 am
emotion icon

emotion icon (Photo credit: Łukasz Strachanowski)

It’s a phrase some of you might not know, even as your every workday includes it:

Does your job require you to manage your emotions, or the way you express those emotions, to meet organizational expectations? This is called ‘emotional labor.’ People in a service-oriented role – hotel workers, airline flight attendants, tour operators, coaches, counselors – often face the demands of emotional labor.

Arlie Hochschild created the term ‘emotional labor’ in 1983 to describe the things that service workers do that goes beyond physical or mental duties. Showing a genuine concern for customers’ needs, smiling, and making positive eye contact are all critical to a customer’s perception of service quality. These types of activities, when they’re essential to worker performance, are emotional labor.

When you face angry clients, or people who are generally unpleasant, emotional labor can be particularly challenging. A large part of that challenge comes from the need to hide your real emotions, and continue to ‘smile and nod your head,’ even when receiving negative or critical feedback.

Companies often place a great deal of strategic importance on service orientation, not only to external customers but to colleagues and internal clients as well. While emotional labor is applicable to many areas of business, the consequences are probably greatest in traditional service roles. However, in an increasingly service-oriented marketplace, it’s important to understand how emotional labor affects workers, and what organizations can do to support and manage any issues.

People who serve others in customer-facing jobs — like waitress/er, bartender, nurse, flight attendant, public transit workers and retail staff, to name only a few — shoulder this significant burden with every shift.

When I took a part-time retail job, which I describe candidly in my 2011 memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, I didn’t really get how hard emotional labor is. Now I do!

Part of it is the assumption, if you work in a service job like retail — and a snotty assumption increasingly made in a time of growing income inequality — that the person serving you has never attended or graduated college or traveled or can speak foreign languages. (All of which our staff of 15 could or had.) We really didn’t need to be spoken to sloooooowly in words of one syllable, as we so often were.

And then there was the bad-customer behavior — which we were expected to ignore, or greet with indulgent smiles — The tantrums! The insults! The whining and finger-snapping and eye-rolling.

With a grateful sigh, I left retail work on December 18, 2009.

English: Managing emotions - Identifying feelings

English: Managing emotions – Identifying feelings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But my writing business is pushing many of the same buttons.

A few recent examples from my freelance writing life:

– The young PR official from a company I’m profiling who Tweets my visit, (alerting all my staff and freelance competitors to my story), and then, (oh, irony), accused me hotly of “betraying” him by finding and interviewing sources he hadn’t pre-selected, approved and overseen. His naivete in tweeting leaves me shocked and furious, but in front of him, I pretend it’s not that big a deal because I really need to get this story finished.

–An editor assigned me five stories then told me she was leaving her position the following week. I felt a mix of confusion, annoyance and fear I might not get paid without her there; instead, I simply wished her well in her next project. (And, funny thing, the final two fell through, and cost me income I expected to earn. I did get paid, six weeks after invoicing.)

– A lawyer, a partner in a major D.C. firm, a story source, talks for 30 minutes — then tells me “this is all off the record.” In an email, he insists I print every word as he wrote it to me later, a promise I make but know I can’t keep because I don’t edit these stories. I’m now scared he’ll make my life hell, annoyed at his lack of understanding of how journalism works and sick to death of people threatening me!

Technically, I don’t have to do this for any employer (that would be me!), but I do…because maintaining my composure in the face of endless bullshit, no matter what I actually feel about it, is still just as essential to keeping sources cooperative, getting editors to answer/return my calls and emails and making sure I actually get paid.

Being self-employed offers no protection from emotional labor! We’re all in the service industry now, kids.

Do you perform emotional labor in your job?

How does it affect you?

The writer’s week (hack, cough, wheeze)

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Technology, work on January 18, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Some of you may have noticed I’ve slowed down the frequency of when I post. After three and a half years and 1,300 posts, I’m a little pooped.

Truthfully, while the blog adds five to 15 new subscribers every day, readership is stagnant, which has dimmed my enthusiasm. There are only so many hours in the day, and most them I have to devote to income-producing work.

But I’ve been busy as hell, even if less visible here.

I loved my hooky day last Friday, feeling healthy again for the first time in three weeks. As North American readers know, we’re in the middle of a major flu epidemic. So I thought, great! I’m healthy again, and did the usual Kelly thing, of 0 to 60 in six seconds. Everyone in our family seems to run at two speeds, reallyfast or asleep.

Saturday I spent much of the afternoon — sexy! — reading three white papers about the use of mobile technology in retail, an issue I needed to understand before some meetings later this week. Then I spent more time on the phone grilling two friends in Silicon Valley, who understand tech, about an idea I have so I could start to see every possible problem and obstacle.

Basically, I’m living the very story I wrote, trying to reinvent myself and transfer some of my skills, knowledge and contacts into a few new areas, especially ones that pay a lot better than journalism. In March 2007, I kept working (while ill) and landed in the hospital with a 104 degree temperature with pneumonia. Three days on an IV taught me that when I get sick (rarely), rest.

(Oh, right, here I am anyway.)

This time, I’m checking my temperature very regularly, that’s for sure.

Sunday was fun, as my New York Times business story about people over 50 re-inventing themselves professionally climbed the charts — to 4th most read and 4th most emailed of the entire Sunday paper. Then 258 people commented, from Moscow to Brazil.

It was highly instructive!

I thought Clare Novak, a single 58-year-old, had made a really interesting and adventurous choice by moving to Islamabad to work. But about 95 percent of commenters were appalled — at her choice of country (it’s work!), at her restricted lifestyle there and by the fact (hello, recession?) she even had to leave the United States in order to get a decent job.

Many people — fairly — criticized me for not explicitly mentioning or addressing the elephant in the room, age discrimination. But I felt there wasn’t much to say other than it’s rampant and illegal.

Monday morning, I took a jazz dance class and almost-sort-of-maybe did a pirouette for the first time in three years, wondering how my new hip would hold up. Then I drove into Manhattan to meet a software executive for a business lunch, a man who made me an interesting business proposition to work with his company. I’m not sure where it will lead, but it’s heartening to feel I have value beyond journalism and publishing.

I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Big Show, the annual convention of the National Retail Federation, a place I need to visit to keep up on trends, say hello to contacts and gather story ideas. But to reach the Javits Center meant taking the commuter train and bus, then standing and talking for hours…exhausting and very likely exposing me to tons of germs.

English: aerial view from Empire State Buildin...

English: aerial view from Empire State Building West to One Penn Plaza and Jacob Javits Convention Center at Hudson River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Wednesday morning, I was ill again. As I sat there idly reading email, BBC’s World Have Your Say suddenly asked, from London, if I could watch Obama’s speech on guns — and respond to it, live on the radio, for an hour. Luckily, Javits is a short easy walk to the BBC’s offices, so I did it.

We lost half the show’s time to the Algerian hostage crisis (that’s the news biz). I made some notes and dove in anyway.

Weary, frazzled and increasingly  impatient with the tedious rhetoric of gunners, I told one guest of his “insane paranoia” — which resulted in a hateful email from a listener within hours.

Time to go home and sleep and drink tea.

Advertisement from December 1922 issue of the ...

Advertisement from December 1922 issue of the Ladies Home Journal, showing use of abbreviation “Xmas”. Artwork by Coles Phillips. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’m typing this from the sofa (big exciting change from bed!), warm and calm and enjoying silence. I have been busy pitching a bunch of ideas to everyone from Glamour, Country Living and Ladies Home Journal to a Canadian business magazine. I turned down an offer of $350 from a Canadian newspaper for a story that would have been picked up nationally by their chain (for no additional pay) and would have taken me at least five hours to produce. I try to be thoughtful about what work I commit to. At this point in my life, there are opportunity costs to filling up my work sked with stuff that doesn’t matter much or pay well.

I cashed checks from two private clients for consulting, checked in with the fabulous C. who is putting together my marketing materials for Malled speaking engagements, and set up four phone interviews for Monday and Tuesday. I feel a little better today and plan to sleep all weekend.

I still have to finish two stories next week before we head up to Canada, where we’ll visit my Dad, see friends and I have meetings in Toronto and Montreal.

How was your week?

How to give a great speech (Hint: be authentic)

In behavior, books, business, education, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, work on November 15, 2012 at 4:01 am
Audience

Audience (Photo credit: thinkmedialabs)

Here’s a great post recently featured on Freshly Pressed, from Nancy Duarte:

The number one thing, I think, is to be audience-centric…Develop all your material from a place of empathy toward them. You’re asking them to adopt your idea, which means they may have to abandon a belief they hold as true — and that’s hard. So, know your audience — take a walk in their shoes. What keeps them up at night? How are they wired to resist your message?

Understand your role in the presentation…that of a mentor — you should be giving the audience a magical gift or a special tool, or helping them get unstuck in some way. You have to defer to your audience. When you put your idea out there for an audience to contend with — if they reject your idea, your idea will die. You have to think of it as, “The speaker needs the audience more than the audience needs the speaker.”

And then the third thing — wrap your content in story.

I recently gave a speech to 200 people, the largest I’ve had so far, students of retail at the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and about 20 retailers. It went very well, and I stayed an additional 90 minutes to talk to students, sign books and answer more questions. They were folding up the tables and chairs by the time we were done.

If you’re curious, here’s the link; I’m not suggesting I was great! It’s 1 hour and 22 minutes, the final 22 minutes are Q and A.

In the past two years since Malled was published, I’ve done a lot of public speaking: at public libraries, to college students, to retailers at conferences.

Do I get nervous? Speaking to a group of regular folks at a local library? No. To a room filled with fairly senior executives from major retailers, (some of whom I hope will hire me to address their own companies or conferences), who have paid me well to be there, yes.

Especially if it’s being videotaped!

Writers write.

But if you really want to sell books, you also have to be consistently public, visible, audible and articulate, even if we don’t know how to structure a speech or presentation. We may not own the right clothes or haircut or haircolor or glasses or manicure. We may have a horrible voice or stutter or pure stage fright. We often earn a small fraction of the incomes of those listening to us, who assume (wrongly) we must be making good money because (hah!) we have been interviewed on NPR or CBS and our books are in stores.

In 2011, I hired a speaking coach, DC-based Christine Clapp, who taught me how to structure a speech and get calm before delivering it; I did this the day before I did an hour, live, with call-ins, on The Diane Rehm Show, which has two million listeners and is NPR’s largest show. This is a link to the audio.

“Be emotionally naked,” Clapp advised.

I’ve watched many experienced speakers at conferences and some are awful, no matter how much they got paid. They use PowerPoint (zzzzzzz), they use slides and video (unless their content is visual, why?), they drone onandonandon, they say really boring shit  and some wear all black in some tired attempt to look edgy and cool.

One, who is very famous and should know better, strode onto a Manhattan stage in 2010 carrying a rubber chicken and wearing an overcoat.

I stand still. I use some notes and no visual aids.

(Obviously, some of these tips are not useful if your presentation is purely academic, scientific or technical.)

Tips:

– Are the references you’re making going to be familiar with your audience? I learned this the hard way when I referred to an airline, (an example of amazing customer service, Open Skies) to an audience of American business executives, forgetting that an airline with only one route (NY-Paris) wasn’t something many of them would know.

– Remember how differently others feel about some issues. I learned this the hard way with the same audience, telling them, proudly, how a former customer had asked me for referral to a therapist (everyone goes to therapists in NY!), which provoked guffaws from brawny macho Midwesterners. In Minnesota, knowing this is a NY thing, I prefaced that same story with a local reference, and it worked fine.

– Read the news, up until minutes or hours before you speak, to allow for including something timely and relevant to your subject.

– Humor is tough. If it’s safe enough to not offend anyone, it’s probably really dull.

– Dress stylishly. If you’re sitting behind a table or standing at a podium, people only see you from the waist or chest up. If you’re female, get a blow-out so your hair looks fab and you feel fully confident. No jewelry that clanks or might flash distractingly under bright lights.

– Make sure you have a watch or cellphone with you on the podium. Some podiums have a built-in timer, others do not. Do not lose track of time!

– Chill out, alone, for at least an hour before your presentation. Don’t waste your time and energy on anything but your sole reason for being there. Presenting well requires a lot of emotional, physical and intellectual energy.

– Always make sure you have 20-30 minutes for audience comments and questions.

– Anticipate questions and prepare your answers.

– Write out your remarks. Practice! Time it carefully so you don’t run out of time, or run out of things to say.

– Smile!

– If someone asks you a really tough or challenging question, stay cool. Take a breath, smile, say: “I’m glad you asked that question.” It shows you’re confident, not rattled, ready to answer thoughtfully. The audience is watching you handle yourself and your questioners.

– Always have water at hand, in a glass or cup, with no ice. Slugging from a water bottle looks tacky, and ice will slide into your face and make you look like a wet fool. I once completely lost the ability to speak, in front of a room full of people paying to be there. I had to wait for someone to run and bring me a cup of tea. Not good!

– No dairy products (milk, cheese) or hot/cold drinks beforehand. They’ll screw up your speaking voice.

– No matter how nervous you are, eat a small high-protein meal beforehand to fuel you through.

Do you do public speaking?

How’s it working for you?

Who’s the best — or worst — public speaker you’ve ever heard?

Nov. 14, New York City: Malled event!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, Technology, work on November 10, 2012 at 12:06 am

The final frontier — Manhattan!

My book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published April 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback, but my first-ever event in New York City is November 14, presenting with three other authors at a mediabistro evening.

I’m glad to finally have a chance to present the book in NYC, as it’s virtually impossible to get a bookstore or other event there unless you’re a Big Celebrity; 100 authors (!) asked to be chosen for this event, so those odds give you some idea what we’re up against!

The Stand

228 Third Avenue, between 19th and 20th.

6:30 to 8:30p.m.

Few Broadside readers live close enough to stop by, but if you do, I hope you’ll come out!

I’ve been doing a lot of public events in the past few months: The Decatur, Georgia Literary Festival; speaking to 200 retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; speaking locally to two women’s clubs.

I love meeting readers and potential readers. We all shop and many of us have worked, or are working, in retail, so it’s a subject we can all easily relate to. Retail and foodservice, part-time jobs with no benefits and very low wages, are the two largest sources of new jobs in the U.S.’s still-struggling economy.

“Malled” offers several important stories:

It’s my own story of losing a well-paid staff job, at the New York Daily News, in July 2006 — returning to freelancing — and watching my income plummet to barely one-quarter of my former salary, like many people in the recession.

It’s the story of what it’s like to, even part-time, shift careers from a respected and intellectually-challenging role as a writer to a low-wage hourly worker whose every move is captured on security cameras.

It’s the story of dozens of retail associates around the country, some earning excellent money on commission to a woman in her 50s, with a shiny new master’s degree, making $7.25/hour at a department store in North Carolina.

It’s also the story of how a global supply chain puts workers’ lives and health at risk, like the 30,000 workers in Shenzhen, China who make electronics for Apple, Nokia, Samsung and others; as I was writing the book, 17 workers at Foxconn committed suicide, so appalling were their pay and working conditions; this link is to Wired magazine.

On Black Friday, 2008, on Long Island, a worker who opened the doors to impatient shoppers was trampled to death. His story is in “Malled” as well.

Here’s a sample of the book.

If you buy a print version and would like me to sign it to you or someone else as a gift, email me and I can share my mailing address; it’s also available as an e-book, of course.

I’d really appreciate it if you’d help spread the word about this the event and the book — blogging, Facebook, Tweets. We also have a Malled FB page with timely, updated retail-related stories.

Thanks!

What’s your Plan B?

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Media, Money, politics, work on October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am
United (States) Parcel Service.

United (States) Parcel Service. (Photo credit: matt.hintsa)

Van Morrison — one of my faves — has a new album out, Born to Sing: No Plan B.

I’m eager to hear it, but it also made me stop and think…what’s my Plan B?

I have a few, but so far haven’t had to put them into action.

With decent French and Spanish skills, and my interior design training, I feel fairly confident I could pick up a job — albeit likely entry-level — in that field. Worst case, I have a Canadian passport and citizenship and another country in which to legally job-hunt, if necessary.

But I sure don’t want to start a whole new career, which many of my fellow journalists were forced to do after 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008; I’d love to do a story and find out where they have gone. I know one, a man in his 50s, now in culinary school in Florence — but he already owned a home there and has a high-earning spouse, both of which are damn helpful if you have to re-tool, certainly in your 50s or beyond.

As the American economy continues to eject too many people from fields they’re good at and like and pay them well, and thousands of others don’t (yet) have the requisite skills for a new career, whether as an X-ray technician or software designer, it’s a very real and pressing question.

A few days ago, I had a long, lovely breakfast with a good friend, a single woman a bit older than I who needed nine monthswith excellent skills — to land her last job in our field, journalism. In those nine months, she ran through her savings.

After she went home from breakfast, she emailed me: “Laid off.”

Holy shit.

When does this stop?

Will it ever?

If I had kids, which I do not, the only skill I’d suggest they develop to its fullest is the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive economically, pride be damned. I saw an ad this morning in another diner, hiring for waitress, delivery and hostess spots. I called my friend and told her. It’s not her dream job and it’s sure not in her field and God only knows what the pay is like.

But the key word here is hiring.

In 2007, terrified after working so hard through illness I got pneumonia and landed in the hospital for three days with a temperature of 104 and needing an IV, I gave in/up and took a part-time job, selling clothing at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, for $11/hr. No bonus, no commission. Very few raises (like 30 cents an hour.)

I stayed 27 months, finally leaving December 18, 2009. I only left after I was able to replace that income with something else, then as a paid blogger for True/Slant, earning $400 a month without having to stand on my feet for seven hours. (That gig abruptly ended five months later when Forbes bought it and fired almost every one of us who had created the audience that made it attractive. Doncha love it?)

Plan B is never enough. We all, now, need Plans C-Z.

I was able to write a book about that experience, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and interviewed many others nationwide in the retail industry as well. I also got some cash from CBS, who optioned it for a sitcom, which did not happen.

It looked like a Plan B might have shown up, unbidden, as a creative consultant on that show, which would have guaranteed me a  nice four figures every month. Didn’t happen. (It’s being read now by three film/TV agents and I’m pretty optimistic someone else will pick it up.)

I’ve gained some income as a paid speaker since then, but haven’t been able to win the consulting gigs I’d hoped. (Turns out the retail industry has more “consultants” than a dog has fleas, and they all guard their lucrative turf jealously.)

So the success of any Plan B, (or C-Z), hinges on a number of factors:

– Can you segue into another industry, transferring some of your skills, at anywhere near your current earning power?

– If not, how much of a hit can you take and for how long? Forever?

– How much time have you got, really, to learn an entirely new set of skills? Days, weeks, months or years?

– Who is going to pay all your bills, and those of your dependents, as you do?

– Who’s going to pay your tuition or training fees?

– How supportive of this is your partner or spouse? What if it means, as it often does now in this recession, losing 50% or more of your previous income?

– How will you fund your retirement if this is the case?

– What about age discrimination? Everyone over 40 faces it and anyone over 55 is toast.

– How much physical stamina do you have for grueling jobs like retail or waitressing? (Foodservice and retail are the two single largest sources of new jobs in America, yet both at extremely low wages.)

– Do you need to sell your home and/or move to a new area? What if you lose that job?

Have you had to move to Plan B, or beyond?

What did you do?

If you did have to, what would it look like?

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