What It's Really Like To Be An American Retail Worker

Crowded store

Photo: dbsteers via Flickr

After getting laid off from the New York Daily News, Caitlin Kelly took a job at North Face. She worked there for two years. Then she wrote a book about it.Kelly spoke with us about Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail, and what it was like working for six hours without taking a break.

“It was a powerful reality check,” she says. “I wanted to quit very badly. It’s a job.”

One of the first things she learned upon working at North Face? The dirty work is not discussed during the interview process. “I was cleaning the toilets,” she says.

And there was always drama behind the registers. “I was surrounded by 19 year olds. Young people who don’t have great work habits.” She remembers getting in fights with a “provocative young woman,” in the back room. “I am a professional and I hadn’t been around people who weren’t.”

Though 50 per cent of new hires are gone within 90 days, she was surprised to find out that firing is not a common practice. “You can’t really afford to fire people constantly. It’s counterintuitive. They only fired about three people.”

And sales associates were “expected to put up with managerial cheapness,” she says. Even at the expense of safety. “We didn’t have security staff. Once, there was a criminal in the store. No one tells you what to do.” Luckily, her manager was an ex-military member.

When she finally quit right before the 2009 holiday season, she hadn’t moved up on the corporate ladder: ‘”Our store manager and regional manager were always men.” By then, a third of her team was still at the store.

But there was one upside to the job. “At the Daily News — people didn’t like me,” she says. “Some customers really appreciated me.”

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