The wearying, growing toll of “emotional labor”

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)

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)

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!

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?

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?

“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?

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.

Nice.

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?

Crayons and paper and pens — oh my!

Art Show - DSC 0035 ep
Image by Eric.Parker via Flickr

This week I did one of my favorite things ever.

I ordered personal stationery for myself, and another set for Jose and I, at Scriptura, a lovely shop in New Orleans where I last bought these things in 2004. Some stores are so perfect you can’t wait to go back, and this is one. You perch on a cane stool at a wide wooden table and their helpful staff spend as much time as you need — while the letterpress printer from 1906 clanks away in the back room.

Now that’s my kind of shopping: personal, attentive, quirky, historic and stylish!

Mine will be white cards with a lime green border, my name printed in a soft orange. Ours are kelly green (!) printed in navy blue. Total cost, just over $100. Score!

I stocked up in Chicago in November at Blick, a 101-year-old store that was totally intoxicating. I bought felt pens with brush tips, an art book, several great binders to hold my loose recipes.

There are such lovely papers to be found, everywhere I travel. Toronto has the Japanese Paper Place, Florence offers gorgeous marbled papers at Il Papiro and the art supply section at Paris’ BHV. Ooooh la la!

There are few things that make me so completely happy as knowing I have lots of gorgeous paper, pens, watercolor, pens, brushes, and my camera…beauty just waiting to explode out of my fingertips.

When we have dinner parties, I make individual place cards for everyone. At Christmas, I make and send out some of our own home-made cards as well. This year was a fun photo I took of Jose — who is not a huge hulking guy — carrying in our tree on his shoulder. Another year it was a photo he took of two canoes, one red, one green.

I grew up in a home full of creativity and feel bereft if I don’t have ready access to the tools of making stuff. My Dad paints, sculpts, works in silver, oil, etching, engraving….The only medium he doesn’t work in, ironically, is photography (although he was a film director for a living.)

We traveled across Canada by car the summer I was 15, sleeping in motels or our tent, and he filmed and I drew. I treasure my drawings from my travels as much as my photos: a temple in northern Thailand, a glass of Guinness in the Aran Islands, a sculpture in Paris, a courtyard in Queretaro.

Drawing, and painting, makes you sloooooow down and really look at whatever it is you are appreciating.

Here’s a fun New York Times story about one of my favorite art supply shops anywhere, Lee’s, on 57th. Street in Manhattan.

Do you love art supplies?

Have a great source to share?

Want The Writer’s Life? Here’s My Week…

English: Scout at Ship's Wheel by Norman Rockw...
Image via Wikipedia

So you want to be a freelance writer?

For many people, it’s a cherished dream: work at home, no commute, wear PJs til noon, no crazy boss or office politics!

I’ve been writing for a living for 30+ years, and have been freelancing, this time, since 2006. Here’s what my week this week — typical in some ways, very unusual in a few others — looks like:

Sunday

I normally don’t work on weekends but I’m facing multiple deadlines and have to interview people this afternoon — including boys ages 8 to 11 for a story for Boys’ Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts, for whom I’ve been happily writing for years. With no kids of my own or nephews, I need some great quotes from these boys, one of whom has a shrieking sibling in the background during our conversation. I email several clients to track down late payments and invoice a few others.

I check in with the Hollywood scriptwriter who’s been writing a pilot script for “Malled” for CBS for months. It’s now, finally, with the network executives who can give it a green light — or not. How weird it might be to have a television character based on…me.

Monday

Eight hours at the hospital getting every bit of my body tested for upcoming hip surgery.

I’m home by 4:00 p.m., worn out from listening carefully to so much complex information. Terms like “blood loss” don’t help my nerves.

I still have to finish up my Boy Scout story; invoice Reuters.com for an op-ed I wrote last week; try to find out the status of two stories I pitched to The New York Times (for whom I’ve been writing since 1990.)

Working freelance means wearing a dozen hats at once: marketing, coming up with ideas, finding editors to buy them (at the right price!), billing, pitching, researching, interviewing, reading, writing, finding sources and — the worst! — chasing down late payments. One client screwed up so badly I still haven’t been paid for a story that ran in November.

So, like every freelancer I know, I hustle for work constantly — and use a line of credit to pay every bill promptly. My bank charges 19 % APR (!) and $12 every time I use the overdraft protection, which these late payments force me into.

I can only afford, finally, to get this surgery because I’ve saved enough to take 4-6 weeks off entirely for my recovery. Freelancers have no paid sick days!

The anesthesiologists’ office warn me that a typical bill for my two-hour operation is $3,800, of which our health insurance will pay, at most, $1,000. I’m in no mood to wake up facing a $2,800 bill. One more thing to try not to worry about.

Tuesday

Into New York City for a haircut. Next week my husband, (a professional photographer and editor), will take my new headshot, which I need for my websites, blog, book events, speaking engagements and other professional gigs. I get asked for it a lot, and everyone who runs their own business should have a good, recent, flattering one.

I’ve tried to clear the decks of work almost completely, so I can go into this major operation without worrying I will disappoint someone or miss a deadline. I still have two paid blog posts left and five days to get them done. I’ve been trying to sell a story about the surgery, but no one has bitten. (Yet!)

Wednesday

I fly to New Orleans, where I’ll attend a cocktail party at a conference of retail business owners. I’m excited but nervous. I hate turbulence and my last flight (home from Chicago in November) was horrible. I enjoy doing public speaking, but writers generally like to have our words speak for us, and giving a great speech isn’t a natural or obvious talent. Last year I hired a terrific speaking coach whose advice and tips made me much more confident.

Thursday

At 1pm eastern time, I join an hour-long conference call of 15 fellow writers all across the U.S. who serve on the board of the American Society of Journalists And Authors, a 1,400-member group that advocates for writers’ rights, improved working conditions and pay. I’ve served on the board for five years and am leaving it in July. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m pooped. At 3:30, I’m speaking on the topic of how to hire, manage and motivate low-wage employees, something I learned firsthand when I worked for 27 months as an associate at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, and which formed the basis of my latest book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Friday

Play day! New Orleans is one of my favorite cities to visit. I’ve been there twice before, once in the spring of 2002 to interview men and women for my first book, about American women and guns. It makes a city a very different place when you’re there to work and try to get to know even a little of the political and economic structure and whose opinions matter most there.

Twelve Shopping Tips From A Mall Insider

— Say please and thank you to associates and managers. They’re working long hours with fewer breaks and are trying their best.
First 4 digits of a credit card
It's not a license to kill! Image via Wikipedia

— If you can’t find what you need, don’t punish the staff or manager by yelling or being rude. They didn’t choose the store’s inventory nor do they control the amount of goods available.

— If you’re eating and drinking as you shop, please do NOT leave your food and drink bottles or cups on tables, shelves or the floor — where they will spill, make a mess, be dangerous and ruin the merchandise. Ask an associate, nicely, to throw it away for you, which they will (or should) gladly do.

— If an associate helps you, ask their name so you can be sure they are credited with that sale. Each one typically must meet a sales quota per shift; without those sales credits, their managers have less proof they’re productive, (and won’t be inclined to offer them post-holiday jobs.)

— If you don’t see what you want, ask if there’s more in the stockroom — but if the wait is a long one, don’t wander off. During the holidays, the stock room can be pure chaos so even the hardest-working associate can’t help you as fast as they would like.

— When an associate asks you if you want a store credit card, don’t bite their head off. Management insists they do so. It’s not because they want to!

— Don’t assume that an associate is on commission, (most are not) and is trying to sell you something to earn more. Most do have a daily sales goal to meet, and it can reach four figures.

— If an associate tries to sell you more than one item — even if you didn’t ask for it – it’s also because they’re required to by company policy.  Each associate is measured by this standard, called UPTs.

— While you’re shopping, stay hydrated and fed. The more exhausted you, and your kids, are the less pleasant shopping is for everyone. Take breaks! Sit down. Bring a bottle of cold water and some granola bars to keep your energy level up.

PLEASE keep a close eye on your children. Stores are not designed or meant to be a combination of a garbage can and a playground. They’re dirty and full of ways for a child to get hurt, from smashing into a metal pole to grabbing a fistful of dirt while playing peek-a-boo beneath a row of coats. Associates have neither the time nor the energy to play babysitter.

— Don’t assume the store, or associates or managers, have as much access to web-based information, even about their own products, as you do. Even though it’s logical to expect, many retailers are not investing in this.

— When an associate or manager is helping you, on the sales floor or as they are completing your sale at the register, look them in the eye and listen. They need your full attention to make sure they are properly meeting your needs – and the many demands from senior management. If you’re talking on your phone or texting, you’re selfishly slowing business down for everyone else.

Caitlin Kelly is a 27-month veteran of working part-time for The North Face in White Plains, NY and author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”

Read an excerpt at malledthebook.com.

And for those who find the idea of shopping Black Friday horrifying...here’s my op-ed at Reuters.com

Originally published at The Stir at Cafe Mom.