“Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail” — On Sale Today!


My new memoir, which tells the story of retail work in America, is out today from Portfolio. It’s been getting terrific reviews — Entertainment Weekly calls it “an excellent memoir” and Herb Schaffner, a columnist for Bnet compares it to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed”, calling Malled “reality journalism at its best.”

I’m thrilled by the reception it’s gotten, with interviews and reviews, so far, from USA Today, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and Marie-Claire. I’ll be a guest on NPR’s Diane Rehm show, with two million listeners, on April 19; on Marketplace and on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on April 20.

I’ve also been invited to write a guest post for the Harvard Business Review blog.

My goal in writing this book is to make retail work — and the 15 million employees who make their living doing it — better understood. We all shop! The American economy, even in a recession, relies heavily on consumer spending, but we rarely talk frankly about what that demands of those workers, many of them part-time, with no benefits, earning low wages with little chance for raises or promotions.

I worked as an associate in a suburban New York mall, with some very wealthy customers, from September 2007 to December 2009, so this is also a portrait of the deepening recession and other workers who are taking low-wage work to make ends meet. I interviewed many others, from Costco CFO Richard Galanti to consultant Paco Underhill to best-selling author and owner of five elegant clothing stores, Jack Mitchell.

Like me, like this blog, “Malled” pulls no punches. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes dark, always honest.

And, yes, there’s plenty of outrage!

Wal-Mart has so far spent $2 million fighting an OSHA order and $7,000 fine to make their stores safer during sales  — after an associate in their Long Island store was killed when shoppers stampeded over his body.

Is this really what we want for our low-wage workers?

The sad thing is that such treatment is considered normal. In 1892, F.W. Woolworth disdained the notion of paying his workers a living wage — his business model, discount goods, simply didn’t allow for it.

I hope you’ll check it out at malledthebook.com, where you can read the introduction and Chapter One free.

You’ll also find there a listing of my many upcoming readings and events, most in and around New York City and some in Toronto; I’m talking at 10:00 a.m. on May 28 on the downtown campus of my alma mater, The University of Toronto.

The book also has a Facebook fan page; I hope you’ll “like” it and spread the word! If you enjoy “Malled”, I’d love it if you’d write a review at amazon.com

And here’s a funny/spot-on flow chart on what it takes to get a book published…

Retail Reporters Keep Getting It Wrong: My Black Friday Report

In a mall... a funny fair... crazy!!
Image by Antoine Hubert via Flickr

Every day, I read the business section of The New York Times and I read The Wall Street Journal. I listen to NBC Nightly News, BBC World News and PRI’s business show, Marketplace. The received wisdom is: people aren’t shopping, people are only buying what’s on sale, people are only buying hot, trendy items like fake hamsters.

Not at our store. I’m forbidden from giving specific figures, having signed an NDA when I started working there, but in our wealthy neighborhood — with shoppers streaming into the mall from big bucks enclaves like Scarsdale, Greenwich, Cos Cob and Darien in their shiny new Range Rovers, Escalades, Mercedes and Lexuses (Lexii?) — they’re spending plenty. I had a four-figure sale to a woman heading off with her family on a ski vacation in Switzerland, the largest single sale I’ve ever had.

It was the usual Black Friday madness, our entire staff working together re-making every pile of sweaters every five minutes like some retail Augean stable. The place looked like a plague of locusts, albeit bearing fat wallets, had swept through.

I worked 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., getting off easy; one of my co-workers, a single mom with a long bus commute, had to wake at 3 a.m. to get to the store by 6 a.m. Our breaks were 30 minutes, not the usual hour (unpaid) but our boss supplied boxes of pizza and bottles of soda to fuel us through it all. We now know enough to drink as much water as we can and lube up our hands with moisturizer many times a day; we get dehydrated and handling clothing all day sucks the moisture from your skin. Sometimes it gets so dry it cracks.

Many shoppers asked if we were having a sale and, with only a few things marked down, harrumphed and left. That’s nothing new, though. We’re asked every single day for every form of discount: military, students, teachers. Who does do this? Not our company.

Working a sales floor, even part-time, affords me an interesting perspective on this recession and on who’s spending and why. I tell you one thing: people with money are whizzing through it as though it’s 2005, not the second full year of the worst recession in 70 years. The wealthy are so insulated, with their 8-carat diamonds and Birkin bags and four-ply cashmere. Whoever’s hurting out there, it ain’t them.

21.4 Million Visitors Isn't Enough? iVillage Re-Vamps

Two women seated on bench, interior
Image by George Eastman House via Flickr

iVillage is re-vamping its site, determined to gain even more than the 21.4 million visitors it saw in July. That’s not enough?

I’ve never visited and likely never will, even though they now promise “really usable tools that help women manage their day to day life,” offering readers tips on food, health, beauty, family and home. At the risk of insulting a wildly successful business model, I already have the tools I need: cookbooks, a checkbook and accountant, years of experience making my own decisions, piles of smart books and magazines I read for pleasure when I have time, a few trusted friends at different stages of their lives I turn to for advice.

I admit it, I read little on-line. Nor do I get the appeal of a site aimed at “women”, when we each live through such a wide range of experiences, whether widowed, engaged, mid-divorce, single or happily married. And each woman’s relationship, with herself and others, remains unique. Isn’t the whole point of the web to create micro-niches for our own geeky little interests? How does mass work? Do you really want to be viewed, one more time, as a demographic? I don’t.

And who’s got the time to hang around a site? If there’s a narrative I hear relentlessly about women’s lives, it’s how unbelievably time-starved most working women are, juggling the demands of a spouse, kids, employer and — oh, yeah — herself, usually last on the list. Maybe I’m just not that into the Internet, but when I have free time, (maybe because my work already attaches me to a computer like a cow to a milking machine), I want to do anything but stare at a screen. The women’s sites I’ve found, and I’ve looked, say little to me. Maybe it’s who’s writing them, usually upper/middle class white women tracing the same familiar lines.

(Yes, I may likely be just as guilty!)

I’m a crappy consumer, girlwise. (Travel and items for home remain my biggest luxury.) If I spend $30 a year on make-up, that’s a lot. I use drugstore products, buy at consignment and antique shops, typically save 20 percent of my income each year. I don’t have kids or a pet or a full-time job with a long commute or a kajillion relatives whose lives I keep track of as well, all ways advertisers divine our “needs” and try to sell us products and services to fill them. Even when my income was a lot higher, I just didn’t lust over, or buy, $1,500 boots or an “It” handbag or a 4,000 square foot house filled with stuff. Women like me are a Mad Men’s nightmare. I’m no ascetic — I love jewelry and perfume and lace as much as I treasure my softball cleats, winch handle and toolboxes — but I hate being handed over on-line as one more predictably sliced market segment.

Sites like iVillage, and most women’s magazines, are mass market, de facto aimed at most women choosing conventional lives. I remain forever starved, instead, for stories of the kind of women whose lives really intrigue me: risk-takers, cage-rattlers, brave, bold adventurers. Their hair tends to be messy, their nails short and unpolished, their skin probably wrinkled from working in the sun, their most valued possessions perhaps a passport filled with visas, their health, good friends, work they value — not a smooth forehead or thin thighs.

Instead of heading to iVillage to check out their tools, I’m excited instead about Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book about women worldwide, and a new film about Amelia Earhart starring Hilary Swank, opening October 23.

What do you think of “women’s” sites and publications? Do you find them fun or helpful? Do you have any favorites?

A Pedicure, a Car-Wash, Some Fancy Honey. I Did My Bit Today for the Economy. How About You?

A picture of a wallet.
Image via Wikipedia

Get out your  wallets! If you don’t, the American economy isn’t going to recover any time soon. It relies on us consumers to keep it humming. So say all those beleaguered retailers. Buy something, damn it.

Funny thing, frugality. It means spending very little. Living within or below your means. Totally alien behavior for the past decade and so, so annoying to all those companies who need to us spend money, even if we actually don’t have it.

Today, with a payment finally in hand, I treated myself to a few of the micro-luxuries I can still afford, not put on a credit card and see immediate pleasure from. I blew $30 (plus $6 tip) on a pedicure and caught up with Helena, still fighting with her freshly-divorced husband and still sharing the house they can’t sell. Spent $6 getting the car washed and $1 to vaccum it; sorry, Wall Street, we’re not buying a new/used vehicle any time soon. Enjoyed a Chinese lunch for another $7 and blew the big bucks, $42.99, across the street at our local gourmet store, run by Hassan, a lovely, charming former commercial photographer who always presses tastes of cheese and candied walnuts and slices of ham into your weakly protesting hand. I spent my money on small, reliable, delicious pleasures, quickly and easily shared and savored — and spent my money within the boundaries of my suburban town. Tomorrow I’ll take in a bag full of shoes to Mike, the Russian man who runs our local shoe repair shop, and chat about life, and St. Petersburg, where he’s from.

What these endless doom and gloom macroeconomic reports leave out is exactly the sort of micro-level spending I bet many of us are still doing: local, personal, low-key. I loathe chain stores and malls but I still need stuff and I’m happy to put my hard-earned cash into the hands of people whose faces and names I know, whose personality andenergy and skill make my town a haven, and keep our local storefronts filled and functional. Call me old-fashioned, but I really treasure face-to-face, personal commerce. A chance to chat, be social, slow down and make an exchange not only of cash, but a smile, a hug, an idea, a memory.

I’m the consumer driving people like Home Depot mad because, a homeowner who loves projects, I’m not even buying hardware or paint these days. The only major purchase planned for late fall is a new terrace door, the cost of it equaled by the cost of the labor to install it by Michael, our trusty carpenter. But until I’ve lined up the entire cash cost of that purchase, $700, it’s not happening.

So this endless whining that we’re not spending is getting old. Probably like millions of Americans — out of work, underemployed, scrambling for freelance clients in a recession, fearful our still-employed spouse or partner can (and might) get laid off any time without warning — I’m trying to be smart, frugal and cautious. Paying down the credit card debt as fast as possible, since Amex just tossed me and many other loyal (hah) long-time cardholders out of the calm 9.9% fixed APR pool into the sharkpond of 15%+ variable.

Beyond gas and groceries, what, these days — if anything — are you buying or planning to buy?