Want to work selling Apple products? Expect peanuts

Apple Inc.
Apple Inc. (Photo credit: marcopako )

Here’s a long, detailed and depressing story from today’s New York Times about how badly Apple pays its front-line workers:

America’s love affair with the smartphone has helped create tens of thousands of jobs at places like Best Buy and Verizon Wireless and will this year pump billions into the economy.

Within this world, the Apple Store is the undisputed king, a retail phenomenon renowned for impeccable design, deft service and spectacular revenues. Last year, the company’s 327 global stores took in more money per square foot than any other United States retailer — wireless or otherwise — and almost double that of Tiffany, which was No. 2 on the list, according to the research firm RetailSails.

Worldwide, its stores sold $16 billion in merchandise.

But most of Apple’s employees enjoyed little of that wealth…

About 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year. They work inside the world’s fastest growing industry, for the most valuable company, run by one of the country’s most richly compensated chief executives.

If you read the whole story, you’ll find one more tale of dashed illusions, of bright, eager and capable employees who thought — oh, honey we all did! — they were, you know, different. They’d make the impossible leap into management, a good salary, commission and/or a big raise.

Retail is the third-largest industry in the U.S. and the fastest-growing source of new jobs.

Shitty jobs. Part-time. Low wages. No benefits. No commission. No bonus.

Most importantly, and most confounding to anyone who still believes America is a land where hard work is rewarded with opportunity to rise, frontline retail jobs — no matter how sexy the product — typically offer little to no chance of upward mobility within the company whose huge profits your cheap labor enables.

As one worker told David Segal of the Times:

Like many who spoke for this article, Shane Garcia, the former Chicago manager, talked about Apple with a bittersweet mix of admiration and sadness. When he joined the company in 2007, he considered it a place, as he said, that “wanted you to be the best you could be in life, not just in sales.”

Three years later, his work life seemed tense and thankless. He had little expectation that upper management would praise or even notice his efforts.

Sales employees, Mr. Garcia and others noted, deal with stresses all their own. Though commissions are not offered, many managers keep close tabs on sales of warranties, known as Apple Care, and One to One, which is personal tutoring for a fee. Employees often had goals for “attachments” as these add-ons are called — 40 percent of certain products should include One to One, and 65 percent should include Apple Care.

Retail is a game of bait-and-switch, of metrics used against low-wage employees to prove they’re productive to keep their job — but never worth much more money.

I lived this world, as a part-time sales associate, working for The North Face, an internationally known brand of outdoor clothing and equipment for 27 months. I earned $11/hr, with no bonus or commission, no matter how much merchandise I sold. Like Apple workers, we were measured by things like sales per hour or UPTs (units per transaction.)

Yet, no matter how much merch we moved, we never made a living wage.

Like the Apple workers in this story, I also quit, (grateful to have boosted my writing income high enough to free myself), also deeply disappointed in the enormous gap between that brand’s sheen and the thankless grunt work of selling their stuff.

I wrote a book about it, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, out in paperback July 31 (also available, now, as an e-book). You can read the first two chapters free, here. It’s been compared to “Nickeled and Dimed” for its unvarnished look at low-wage labor in America and was nominated for the Hillman Award, given to “journalists who pursue investigative reporting and deep storytelling in service of the common good.”

Since initial publication, in April 2011, I’ve received dozens of emails from retail workers, past and present, managers and associate alike, telling me how accurate my book was in describing the hell of much retail work. I got the latest only a few days ago, from a Canadian woman my age, working in a women’s clothing store:

We make a small wage (no raise) and are expected to purchases clothes from our store that can cost us 2 months wages.  Most of us (sales associates) just buy our clothes at thrift stores.


The Times story has clearly hit a nerve.

As I write this, 513 comments have already been posted; in the time it took me to finish this post, that number rose to 548…

Have you worked retail?

How was it for you?

7 thoughts on “Want to work selling Apple products? Expect peanuts

  1. I’ve read about Apple wages (or lack thereof). I’m amazed they’re not taken to task for it by the media more frequently.

    I’ve had very short stints of working in retail, mostly during holidays when I was in high school. Pretty sure retail workers here in Oz are paid more than you are, in line with our much higher costs of living, but man, the conditions you describe and those of various articles I’ve read over the years, makes me think you can’t pay retail workers enough wherever they are!

    1. I know from reading blogs that retail workers are paid more in Australia — I read a minimum wage of $15 for part-timers and $20 for full-time. Unheard of wages in the U.S., where the cost of living is hardly cheap! The highest hourly wage I’ve heard of is about $25 an hour but that was for a super-upscale shop in NYC.

      People have this fantasy that working retail is easy — because they are still relatively easy jobs to get. As you saw, it’s an extremely demanding job, physically and emotionally (while being, for me, dull intellectually). Putting with with abuse from customers is completely enervating. The average tenure in US retail? 50 percent of workers are gone within 90 days! No surprise to me.

  2. theadroitarborist

    I really liked this line.
    ‘…that brand’s sheen and the thankless grunt work of selling their stuff.’
    It, sadly, just comes down to dollars and cents, to the bean counters.
    There is such a disconnect these days between raw goods and finished product.
    And about how much work it took to move it along each stage.
    Is pride in workmanship dead?

    1. Thanks…The greatest problem with retail selling is that it’s considered low-skill to no-skill, because everyone else in the domestic supply chain is usually a full-time employees and visible to middle management. Part-timers (most retail sales staff) are considered disposable — a word I quote in Malled — which is a shitty way to treat anyone who boosts your company’s considerable profits.

  3. My wife and I run an ‘Apple free house’ (100% Microsoft/Android, in fact) for a variety of reasons. The perception we have of Apple’s corporate image through the media is one of them. So is price/performance – which pretty much dictates it for me, as a writer. But as you point out, all this is purely symptomatic of a much wider issue to do with business culture in general.

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