One woman’s account of retail hell

It’s not exactly the corporate ladder, but many of America’s employees spend some time working in retail.

When the economy turned south in 2009, author Caitlin Kelly found her freelance writing gigs shriveling up, one by one. In an effort to stay afloat she began working at in The North Face at her local mall.

She wound up encountering the struggles, fears and frustrations 15 million American workers feel every day.

Her latest book — “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” — chronicles her two years as a frontline retail sales associate and diagnoses a broken system of low-wage/high-expectation, emotionally taxing work.

“Retail looks like it’s low-skilled. It’s not. That’s why I wrote the book. I came away with a lot of respect for a job that demands a high degree of emotional and intellectual skill,” says Kelly, from her home in Tarrytown, New York. “It’s a low-wage job, which to a lot of people means it doesn’t take a lot of skill. It doesn’t mean that. It just means it pays badly. There are people behind counters with Ph.D.s and MAs. And even if they don’t have a college education, they’re still bringing an A-game. But they don’t get the corporate respect.”
 
On the inside

Kelly bristles at a common theme in the criticism of her book: Namely, that her perspective is that of a privileged outsider.
   
“Define privilege: I’m not wealthy, I live in a one-bedroom apartment, I have an old car. If I was that privileged, I wouldn’t have taken a low-wage job and stayed in it for 27 months,” she says. “People have said, ‘Oh, you’re whining.’ You know what? You go do that job for a while. Go get emotionally abused for the next 27 months and see if you come out all perky and shiny.”


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