“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” now out in paperback

Some Broadside readers know that I’m also the author of a memoir of working retail. From September 2007 to December 2009, I worked as a part-time sales associate selling outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, a multi-national brand.

I never set out to write a book about this, even though several writer friends insisted from the outset that I should.

When the recession hit, I suddenly needed a steady, even small, part-time income to supplement my writing.

When a new store opened up, a 10-minute drive from my home in a suburban New York town, I applied — being athletic and a world traveler, I knew I could easily relate to North Face’s products and shoppers.

I earned $11/hour, with no bonuses or commissions.

I was 50, had been laid off from the U.S.’s 6th.-largest newspaper with a healthy salary, and had never worked a sales floor. My manager, a former military man who had served in Mogadishu, was five years younger, and the assistant manager was half my age.

It was, in every way, a whole new world.

But I proved to be good at it, and sold well. When I asked my boss for a raise, he looked embarrassed and told me he’d already given me one.

How can you get a raise you don’t notice?

When it’s 30 cents an hour.

So “Malled” — which includes many interviews with retail veterans nationwide — is also a book about working for poverty-level wages in the U.S. during the worst recession since the 1930s, in an era of growing income inequality. Our store was close to the homes of some of this country’s wealthiest people, the hedge fund managers and I-bankers who live in Greenwich, Darien and Westport, Connecticut.

From a recent piece in The New York Times:

If we’re to get people out of poverty [we need] more jobs that pay decent wages. There aren’t enough of these in our current economy…

This isn’t a problem specific to the current moment. We’ve been drowning in a flood of low-wage jobs for the last 40 years. Most of the income of people in poverty comes from work. According to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau, 104 million people — a third of the population — have annual incomes below twice the poverty line, less than $38,000 for a family of three. They struggle to make ends meet every month.

Half the jobs in the nation pay less than $34,000 a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“Malled” has won some nice reviews: Entertainment Weekly called it “an excellent memoir” and USA Today said “a bargain, even at full price.” It’s in bookstores and for sale on amazon, where its 78 reviews are deeply divided. (If you enjoy it, please add a positive review!) It’s also available, of course, as an e-book.

Many retail veterans, both managers and associates, have since written to thank me for telling their story, saying that “Malled” echoes their experience.

Retail is the U.S.’s third-largest industry, largest source of new jobs in this recession, but typically offers only poverty-level wages for part-time work.

One of the reasons it’s so poorly paid is that the skills required — which include patience, empathy, compassion, humor, attentiveness and a good memory — are often dismissed, by shoppers amd by senior retail managers, as not being skills at all.

In fact, retail workers perform emotional labor.  Their ability to relate quickly and easily to strangers, and to convert them from browsers to shoppers, isn’t something everyone can do well. And studies have shown that great salespeople move merch, not fancy ads, celebrity spokespeople, cool store design or deafening music.

“Malled” was nominated for the Hillman Award, given annually to works of journalism “in the service of the common good,” and tells many stories, from the Foxconn workers making Apple products committing suicide in China due to terrible work conditions to the CFO of Costco explaining how his company pays some of the nation’s highest wages, typically $15 to $18/hour.

I’ll be speaking about the book, and selling copies, at 2:30 Sept. 2 at the Decatur Conference Center Auditorium, at the Decatur Literary Festival, the nation’s largest independent book festival, in Georgia and at 6:00 p.m. at Neiman-Marcus in White Plains, N. Y., on Sept. 6.

On October 30, I’m addressing a retail conference at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Here’s a radio interview I did for WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, replayed last September as one of the year’s best and here are the the first two chapters, free.  If you like what you find, I hope you’ll also “like” its Facebook page, “Malled the Book”.

If you’re a blogger, I’d love to do  a guest post or a Q and A about any aspect of book-writing/publishing, with a book giveaway!

Have you ever worked retail?

How did you like it?

18 thoughts on ““Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” now out in paperback

  1. Working retail you truly get to see the best and worst of people. Working the holiday rush at Gap was probably the worst job I’ve ever had. My last retail job was actually pretty good; I worked my way through a post-grad program there. But I remember how happy I was on my last day, knowing that I’d never have to work another retail job again.

    Will definitely check out your book. Congrats!

  2. Hi, Caitlin

    Looking forward to your book – congratulations.

    I worked in retail a lonnngg time ago, full-time for seven years. It was a different world then and a different type of work. My retail experience was also low-pay, but it provided me with some other valuable skills, some of which I’m still using today.

    I’d be very interested in comparing notes.


    1. You make a good point about retail teaching useful skills. I attended a seminar yesterday with 29 people to hear a Harvard Business School professor share her research on retail work; the “no skills” argument is one that gets tossed around a lot. We both know what retail work demands many different skills and simply labeling it “no skill” is just corporate’s way of justifying awful pay.

      It has helped me a great deal in selling my own writing. If I can sell on a store floor, I can sell my own stuff. It helped me de-personalize that process.

  3. For last ten years I’ve been in law enforcement previous to that I spent most of twenty years in retail from c-stores, to mall operations, to gas/minis and more as cashier, sales associate, store manager, and finally franchisee. I listened to your radio interview it was great and now I’ll have to go buy book!

    I did enjoy greatly my experience in retail at least partly. The opportunity to interact with customers and the employees was great fun and the required record keeping, audits, inventories,resets, and merchandise deliveries are all part of the job. You’re right, the employees at a location do band together and will also developed connections with others in nearby retail stores.

    The part I didn’t like can be summed up in one word. Corporate. They tend to be condescending, rude, and hell-bent to prove their own ignorance (classic definition not slang use) of the retail by criticizing their locations about the day to day conditions under which the store level employees work. Not every individual at corporate level is totally incompetent but there are a lot of them making decisions that they not practical experience to guide their thinking. For example, a national c-store sent point of sale signage to all the stores in the chain at that time the number was about 3000 nationwide if I remember correctly, stating that customers could get a “Jumbo Hot dog and Breakfast Sausage for $.99” I called my area rep and said “People are going assume that they’re getting both items for $.99.” to which I was instructed to post the sign anyways. so I called corporate and explained it them their response was an angry ” Put up the sign!” 3 days later we received an overnight delivery or a sticker to change the “and” to or, “so” did the 2999 other locations. This is far from the only example. But rather than turn my reply in a blog posting. I’ll end ranting here and say Great Post!

    1. Thanks for sharing…In the seminar I attended yesterday, it was shared with us that something like 50 percent of signage/plangograms never get used at store level. This is one good example!

      1. Only 50% of signage and plan-o-grams well thank god for that…. 😉 The biggest problem the industry has, I personally believe is that the folks in corporate level can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that retail outlets actually bring in the money and that ultimately pays everyone’s salaries. To that end they tend to perform this aggravating dance of “I’m the boss” which really amounts to nothing more than nit-picking and grand-standing…

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