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In 2007 Caitlin Kelly was a laid-off journalist in need of job. She sent out dozens of resumes in her field, before taking a part–time retail sales job at a popular clothing store inside a mall. Her salary was less than $12 an hour, but she wondered how hard it could be to hang up jackets and operate a cash register. She describes the physical and emotional pressures on retail sales workers and what she calls the hidden dysfunction within the nation’s third largest industry. We talk about the struggle to find meaningful work in a tough economy.
- Caitlin Kelly Journalist
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Overqualified and underemployed, it's the familiar plight of many in today's economy. After losing her job as a journalist mid-career, Caitlin Kelly felt fortunate to land a part-time sales position at a nearby mall. In a new book, she describes what it's really like to work in the world of retail, a world she describes as full of underpaid workers and overpriced goods. The title of her book is, "Malled." Caitlin Kelly joins me in the studio for an insider's look at life behind the cash register, a life perhaps many of you have experienced or are curious about. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Caitlin, it's good to have you here.
MS. CAITLIN KELLYGood morning. Thank you so much for having me.
REHMTell me about your career as a journalist before this shift took place.
KELLYIt was a terrific career and I was really enjoying it. I've been a journalist since college. I attended the University of Toronto. I'm Canadian originally and had worked for three major papers, had freelanced for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, all the big places. I was doing great. The recession hit journalism really hard, much earlier, as journalists know, than really the rest of the economy. So when I lost my staff job at The New York Daily News, which was a terrific job, well paid, really exciting running around New York City on stakeouts and crazy, crazy stories. You know, the tabloid kind of thing. I lost my job and it was really challenging. I was freelancing for The New York Times on a regular basis, terrific. The section was killed overnight and a third of my income disappeared overnight.
KELLYAnybody in your audience who does any kind of freelance or contract work knows, you lose that much income that quickly, that's a problem.
REHMWhat about health insurance and the like?
KELLYI'm very, very fortunate. My partner, my sweetie, Jose, works at a newspaper that is still doing well and we have health insurance through him, so I'm very, very fortunate and that's a great question because it's so expensive.
KELLYAnd some people do get health insurance from places like, I believe, Starbucks provides health insurance for part-timers and Barnes and Noble does. There are companies even for part-time retail workers that will give it, but I was very lucky to have that in place. That could have been really frightening.
REHMSo you lost your full-time job, you lost your freelancing job. What did you do next?
KELLYWell, I got pneumonia. (laugh). That was really sobering. I'm laughing...
KELLY...but this was really -- many of your listeners will identify. You reach a point in your life, you truly hit a wall. You have an epiphany and you say, something has to change. We're not where we were, this is not where I want to be, this is where I am. What was happening, again, in this economy, lots of people are going through this.
KELLYWhatever work you have, you don't dare stop, you don't dare slow down, you don't dare call in sick. It doesn't matter what you do, you can't afford to lose a minute of income. So I was writing for The New York Times. I was so sick that night, that I literally had to hold my head up and I was trying to report on Anita Hill, who was giving a presentation. And I got home that night and the next morning, I said to my sweetie, with whom I live, Jose, I think we need to go to the hospital.
KELLYAnd I had a 104 temperature. I was so ill, they thought I had lung cancer. The spot on my lung was so huge from pneumonia and I lay in that bed and I said, okay, sweetie, things are going to change. And I said to myself, get a part-time job. I was proud, I admit it. I had been a journalist since college. I had never needed a part-time job since I was a lifeguard in high school. You know, whatever we do for a living, you know, you think, this is what I do, this is my identity, I'm good at this. Well, the economy is like shifting sand right now.
REHMSo you started putting out feelers. What did you do?
KELLYWell, I was freelancing for a while and honestly, it's very old-school and I'm sure your listeners will laugh at this. I didn't do Craig's List, it wasn't tweeted, it was an ad in the newspaper, it was very old-school. I just thought, I'm going to start looking for retail and it was complete luck. I opened the newspaper, The New York Times, that's my local paper, I live in New York. And the North Face was opening a store near where I lived and I thought, you know what? This is incredibly lucky. It's a 10-minute drive from my house. I'm lucky I have a vehicle and I can drive. It's a brand I know and like. I'm an athlete and a traveler, that's an interesting fit. What have I got to lose?
KELLYGo try because a new store means they need people right now. They're not going to put you off for months. They need to staff that store.
REHMAnd it was in a mall?
KELLYIt was in a loathed mall (laugh). I do not like malls.
REHMDo you have any idea how many people applied for the same job you did?
KELLYThat's a great question. I can tell you that -- I was actually very shocked and this was also very indicative of the economy at the time. This was August of 2007, long before the economy tanked, which happened really in the fall of 2008 and they had an open call. We would go to a hotel room and people would sit in chairs, so I could see my competition. What struck me was how few people there were. That was really striking to me.
KELLYNow, I need to qualify for your listeners who are all around the country, I live in a very -- it's a prosperous suburb of New York City and frankly, I think a lot of local kids, who anywhere else would have said, great, a job at the North Face, I'm in. People were not applying. There were people my age and older, who were clearly even then desperate, and I could see that in their body language, I could hear the interview in the same room.
REHMBecause the laying off was occurring at that level?
KELLYI think it was. I think it was happening at that level.
KELLYBut it was clear to me, and I need to be very candid, my manager told me, and I like him tremendously, we're still friends even all these years later. He said, I was desperate. There were not a lot of applicants because where I live, even $11 an hour, I'm sorry, it is terrible money. You have to pay to park at the mall. I had to pay to go to work. I had to pay $9 to park for the length of my shift. I lost an hour of labor for the privilege of going to work.
KELLYThank you (laugh).
REHMHad you ever worked in retail before? Why would they hire you?
KELLYGreat question. I had worked in a drugstore when I was 17, not very long, and sullenly, as many teens will do. I had never worked retail. I had been a waitress. The reason they hired me -- and I really thought about this really carefully and this is something I want to share with your listeners. I think this is really kind of a practical tool for people who are thinking, what can I do? I've lost this great job and I need to get another job and it's not in my field.
KELLYAnd I knew that my resume would be useless. Nobody wants an overqualified 50-year-old journalist to work retail. I knew that, so I sat down and I thought, what are my transferable skills? Well, I speak French, I speak Spanish. I'm a world traveler and I do a ton of sports. And what do journalists do? You do it every day. You make people comfortable within seconds. That's what you do in retail. So I went in with a one-sheet resume and said right up front to the manager, sweetheart of a guy. In the book, I call him Joe. Joe, listen I don't have any experience and I say it on the resume. I'm not going to mislead you, but I think I can bring you some value and here's what I think I can bring you. And I got the job. Now, he said he was desperate, but he didn't have to hire me.
REHMHow many people did he hire?
KELLYWe had 15. Fifteen, so not a large staff. The store wasn't huge and that included two assistant managers and the manager and only three full-timers and that's very typical of retain.
REHMSo you were part-time?
KELLYPart-time, I was.
KELLYOh, no, no, no, no.
REHMNo sick leave?
REHMIf you didn't come to work, you didn't get paid?
REHMOkay. And what kind of training did you have?
KELLYWe actually were very well-trained and that's something that I can happily and fulsomely praise the North Face for and it's very rare. We were given four six-hour days of training. And as I say in the book, that was a real surprise to me. I remember, and forgive my snobby attitude, I thought, what are they going to talk about for 24 hours? How complicated can it be? Well, the North Face sells a lot of product. So day after day after day, we would try on the boots, try on the jackets. There are 45 different versions of Gore-Tex. We were trained in the technical aspects of it. We did a little bit of how to sell. And I think my least favorite moment, and this would happen to anyone in retail, was a woman who flew in from LP, loss prevention, who said and it's in the book, we know that you're likely to steal.
KELLYWe will see you on video.
KELLYWe will catch you and we will prosecute you. Don't think you'll get away with it. And I thought, boy, welcome to the company. What kind of an attitude is that? Now, statistically, she's right. The highest amount of theft in retail is from the employees.
REHMFrom the inside. I had no idea.
KELLYNobody does, but I'll tell you why, because they're so angry, because the wages are low, because the hours are terrible, because you work split-shifts. All the things we're talking about today. They're miserable and they don't have the power to change it. They need the job, they've got to show up. The manager says, go home at 2:00, come back at 5:00. What are you going to do for childcare? They don't care.
REHMCaitlin, I'm not going to excuse that by -- you know, I'm not going to excuse theft by saying, well, they're unhappy people.
KELLYNo, absolutely not. And I'm in no way, let's -- I want to be very clear. Absolutely, there's no excuse, but I think it's important for customers, as many of audience are, to understand that when we buy something, we're basically paying a sort of tax.
KELLYSort of call it the misery tax.
KELLYAnd I throw that back, frankly, on the major retailers to say, you know what? Bump up your wages a little bit. Yes, they hire carefully. They screen, they do interviews. Sometimes they do drug tests. I mean, they have their own methods of trying to screen out the bad apples. We had a few in our store. I can't get into details on the air, but we saw it in our own store.
REHMThat must have been surprising to you?
KELLYIt shocked me, it shocked me. Partly because in retail, you become quite close to people. You're spending a lot of time. Let's face it, you're not doing the most intellectually challenging work. You're doing a lot of folding and stacking and sweeping of the floor and you get to know your co-workers and you get to like them because if you don't, you don't stay. I was really shocked. The person -- again, I can't get into details, but the person who was fired was somebody who seemed charming and lovely.
REHMCaitlin Kelly, her new book is titled, "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." Do join us. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. Caitlin Kelly has had a fairly unique experience, but maybe in this economy, becoming less and less unique. She was a full-time journalist from the time she graduated college and then saw her usual way of living slip away from her. She turned to the retail business and went to work for North Face in a mall near her. Now, many of you may have lost your jobs, may have turned to retail, may have lost your jobs in retail because we know that the retail end industry itself has been suffering, but I'll look forward to hearing from you by phone, by e-mail, on Facebook or Twitter.
REHMHere is a message from Maria. She says, "I started when I was 19 as a part-time sales clerk, then moved my way up the ladder to sales manager. I was making a ton of money, loved my job, but honestly, had no life outside work. When I turned 30, I resigned and went back to college. It was a very difficult adjustment. This was seven years ago and I'm still adjusting." And like you, Caitlin, you loved your job, too.
KELLYI very much did. I very much did when I started. And the book is critical and the book has concerns and challenges that we talk about that are really important to discuss.
REHMBut what was it that you liked so well?
KELLYI liked a lot of things. I'm a people person. By definition, as a journalist, if you don't like people, you're in the wrong business. I loved the variety of my customers. I had a Boy Scout heading off on a camping trip. He was a sweetie. We talked about summer camp. I had psychologists from Chile. I had jet pilots who said, my feet get cold standing on the tarmac waiting for my corporate boss. Do you have wool socks? I loved the variety of my customers.
KELLYI loved sharing my experiences. I've traveled to 37 countries, so somebody came in and said, we're going to Peru for Christmas and I said great, (word?) for altitude sickness, let's get you some warm sweaters. I loved that the things that I was passionate about, I could share with customers. They loved it because I got excited about the things they cared about.
REHMAnd what was the thing you like least about your job?
KELLYTruthfully, and this is very common in retail, the lack of respect. Customers are shocking in the lack of respect that they show the person who stands behind the counter wearing a plastic badge or not because they know that that person is at the bottom of the wage scale.
REHMGive me an example.
KELLYThere are many. I'll try to make it brief. There was a man -- I'm a very tough person. I am not a tough, mean person, I'm a very resilient strong person. You don't last in journalism for 30 years without it. And when a man was so needling and so unkind and so relentless, I ended up going in the stockroom and crying. I sat in the dark on a chair and I cried, not over him, but over the day to day to day needling. And he kept poking at me and saying, well, how do you make your money? Are you on commission? In this sort of strange aggressively bullying way, in front of his son, who was about 20.
KELLYAnd I tried to be polite and I tried to be calm and I said, we're not on commission. We have a sales goal that we have to reach every day. I was trying to be respectful to him, which clearly, was a one-way street. And finally he said -- and this is a man wearing triple-ply cashmere. We had very wealthy customers. And he looked at me and said, I guess the bonus is you get to keep your job.
KELLYAnd I thought, you're disgusting. You're just disgusting. How is your day better because you've just bullied me? It's not uncommon and my co-workers saw it all the time as well.
REHMThat has got to be the hardest thing to take.
KELLYI'll tell you what's interesting. It depends on who you are. And I can tell you, I've had a couple of reviewers describe me as whiny, which is fine, I'll take it. What I saw in retail was interesting. I saw two reactions and I think they're interesting. One is you simply start to tune everybody out. You laugh it off, you develop a very thick skin and really you don't listen very carefully to what anybody says, which might be wise. Or you, as I did, become quite bitter and burned out and you leave. I think it's pretty binary. The people who are able to last are somehow able to completely slough it off.
KELLYThere's a fellow in my town who works in the dry cleaners. He's a lovely man named Jose. We chatted as I was writing the book. And he said to me, I have two personalities. When customers are getting nasty, I become Rafael. I become another person. People find ways to cope because if you don't, you really can't last.
REHMThere's also talk in your book about how quickly people leave stores like North Face that are in malls. What is it about malls?
KELLYPeople leaving -- do you mean the people who work there.
KELLYMalls, I think -- again, I can't stand malls personally and no offense to people who really enjoy them. I think it's an industrial model. I talked about this a lot with other retailers in my book. I interviewed three local merchants, one man, one store, 200 square feet. Not a huge corporate behemoth with Wall Street breathing down their neck going, profit, profit, profit, profit, profit, where's the profit?
KELLYThese enormous companies are under extraordinary and relentless pressure from Wall Street investors to show that they are making more money all the time. So what happens is, when you work in a store in a mall, you, without perhaps realizing it, are stepping into this industrial machine. And the next thing you know, you're being ground up and spit out, or not, by the pressures that the company is placing on your manager, on your assistant manager. And guess what? You on the floor are the final link.
REHMTo sell, sell, sell.
KELLYAbsolutely. I had a sales goal every day. I would walk into the store and there was a piece of paper and we each had this and it was some sort of magic eight ball. I never knew what the number would be. You know, it was a Tuesday, it was rainy and it was $400. Or maybe it was a Wednesday and it was sunny and it was $5,000. I mean, there seemed to be no logic and nobody would ever explain to us because why would we need the information to understand our job to do it better? And the biggest sales goal I ever had was more than $5,000, but that was in seven hours. That's a lot of merchandise when it's not a $1500 handbag, but it's a $30 pair of socks, it's a $150 jacket. You have to move a lot of merchandise and quickly and efficiently.
KELLYWe weren't pressured. I really liked my manager a lot because nobody stood over me. I sold really well, luckily, so maybe he stood over other people, but I was able to sell a lot because I could engage people in conversation. I listened, I just seem to be a fairly good natural sales person, thank heaven, so I not only met my goals, I frequently doubled or tripled them.
REHMOne of the people you talk about in the book is Joe Bartley. Tell us about him.
KELLYOh, Joel Louick (sp?) and Jim Bartley. There were two people that I found completely compelling. Joel and Jim were gentlemen in North Carolina. I've been in touch with them since. I'm delighted that we're still in touch. Joel and Jim worked in IT in North Carolina and one made $140,000, very significant amount of money, and one made $90,000, lots of money. They both lost their jobs. They were men in their 50's. They both had two children. Like many, many people in this recession, they got caught in basically the force five gale that was the recession. They went into a job hunting group and that's where they met, that had 50 people. In six months, it had 400 people.
KELLYAnd one of them, it was Jim, was working as a soccer ref. Now, the guy's in his 50's, so he's running up and down a field and as he said to me, Caitlin, I was chewing Aleve. I mean, my body was falling apart. You can't be a soccer ref in your 50's. And one day, the two men looked at each other and said, we're done. We're going to split the overnight shift at the grocery store, $8 an hour.
KELLYThat's a bit of a drop from $140,000.
REHMIt's happening all over the country.
KELLYPeople are doing what they have to do.
KELLYAnd doing it well and doing it with a good spirit. A job is a job. Gas is $4 a gallon where I live. You have to get the money somewhere and hopefully, in a legal fashion.
REHMBut you did draw the line at cleaning toilets. I thought it was interesting that the management had let go the cleaning crew.
KELLYWell, there never was one (laugh). I would love to say they let them go, but there never was one. From day one, we were expected to sell, stock, clean the floor, clean the store, clean the toilet and be security. There were no security guards. Now, many of your listeners would go into a store today and there'll be a security guard at the store. You know, he's a rent-a-cop and no offense to the people who do it, but they are hired and paid by the hour. No, no, no. That was our job. So in addition to all the things we had to do, we had to -- and this was quite challenging -- keep a close eye on the customers to make sure they didn't steal.
KELLYNow, I'm a middle-aged Caucasian woman and sometimes it was very difficult if I was standing not really close. I try to be discreet, I try to be professional, but I had to keep an eye on people or I would be in trouble. So if I was near occasionally an African-American man or woman, sometimes I could see they were very angry and they'd leave the store because they felt I was watching them. And I wanted to say to them, listen, please, it's not you, this is the company's demands. If I don't do this, I'm in trouble. So frequently you're going to see behaviors in retail stores that you don't like as a customer? Let me tell you, the associate probably doesn't like it, either, but he or she doesn't have the power to not do it or they lose their job.
REHMHow many times did you interact with any executives?
KELLYThat's a great question. Surprisingly, more than I thought. We had a district manager who came around probably every two or three months. To his credit, he knew my name, he would say hello. There were only 15 of us in that store and he was only then supervising maybe four stores. So, you know, he should know our names. Occasionally, his boss showed up and one day the boss -- I mean, it got five levels up and it was truly as though, you know, the King of England was arriving and the coach and the horses (laugh). I mean, it was really scurry, scurry, clean, clean, clean.
KELLYI mean, the store was clean...
KELLY...but it was like, oh, my gosh. So we met them occasionally, but truthfully, there was not much interaction. It was clear that we were very low level. They weren't rude or unpleasant, but we were interchangeable.
REHMHow much interaction did you have with your own fellow employees?
KELLYIt depended on the day. If we were really busy, very little because you're busy selling. And because you have an individual sales goal -- and this speaks to collegiality or lack of -- it would be important to meet the goal. So if I had spent 15 minutes, half an hour -- God help me, sometimes -- excuse me, sometimes an hour selling a garment, that was my sale. And sometimes I needed to sort of walk it to the cash rep and say, sweetie, 431877 -- that was my employee number -- that needs to be entered so I get the credit for the sale. On slow times, we would have a nice chance to chat and you'd be folding sweaters with somebody -- it was sort of like women washing their clothing at the river in a rural economy. You would have a time to really get to know one another.
REHMAnd of the 15 who began with you, how many stayed six months?
KELLYI have to say -- and it's a real credit to my manager -- a lot of us stayed a long time. I left after two years and three months, which is a really long time. A third of us were still there. And I really give him a lot of credit for managing us well. I think it speaks to a number of things. I think he managed us well, although we had challenges, everybody does. We liked each other. The store was clean and well-lit. It's a good product, people like it. Even in the recession, our wealthy customers were still buying and maybe the economy was so bad people were scared to quit.
REHMCaitlin Kelly, the book we're talking about, brand-new, it's titled, "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Before we open the phones, Caitlin, one last question and that is considering everything that you experienced, weren't you one of the lucky ones, that is, to have a job?
KELLYAbsolutely. No question whatsoever. And I appreciate that you ask that. When I was hired in September of '07, my manager said, I'm hiring you because you have skills, but because I'm desperate. I may not have gotten that job even a year later. And most retail companies will not interview face-to-face. They make you take a computer test, they make you go online. I'm not sure I would've even been hired.
REHMInteresting. Let's open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Sayville, N.Y. Good morning, Barbara, you're on the air.
BARBARAYes, good morning. I have a background in retail. I had started out at Macy's San Francisco Union Square and it was a union store at the time. This is going back to the late '70s. And later on, I got into outside sales where I was still dealing with retail stores and had advantage from that point. And then I opened up my own store. And after years of that, I have sold it and went on to Nordstrom's in the Pacific Northwest in a mall atmosphere.
BARBARAAnd I think one of the things that contributes maybe to some of the poor conditions for the employees -- and at that point, I was in management and it was -- I have to say, it was an absolute dehumanizing experience -- I'd say that part of the problem is when they did away with unions in the service industries. That -- at that point, I was walking into it -- and this was in the late '90s when they were trying to give compensation packages to the old timers that were still part of the union contract.
BARBARAAnd as a management person, it was not unusual for me, particularly during the holidays, to work until 12:00 at night, walk five blocks at that hour to my car because we were not permitted to park in the parking lot at the mall because there wasn't enough room for the customers to park. And then, as management, to have to return the next day to work at maybe 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning in order to do inventory before beginning my retail day. And I always found it so ironic that above the doors of the employee portion of the store and before I went out to meet the public, was a sign about -- and the adage that they're so proud of, of course, the customer always comes first.
KELLYSo true. Absolutely true. And I appreciate what you're saying. When you say that it's dehumanizing, that's really, really my point that I make in the book chapter by chapter. I actually have a chapter called, "This Job Can Kill You," and I talk about the physical trauma that some employees have encountered. Some have been killed on the job, some have been permanently injured on the job. A woman who worked at, believe it or not, Starbucks has permanent hearing loss from working at Starbucks, which is a place many of us admire. And the one point you've made beautifully, and I appreciate this, you as the manager -- forgive me -- was probably making a fairly decent salary at that point.
KELLYI saw this with my co-workers and I just felt so terrible. One of them was a single mom who lived in the city, by public transit would have to leave, you know, holiday hours, 11:00 at night, an hour and a half home. So when is she home? 1:30 in the morning getting what, four or five hours sleep, up in the morning, all the way back. She never saw her child and what was she making, $11 an hour for this. It's exhausting. So thank you for sharing that.
REHMThe idea that such responsibility comes with such meager wages is really extraordinary and yet -- and yet, I mean, there -- we read about it all the time that a company advertises and thousands of people turn up because they need those jobs.
KELLYExactly. Right now they do.
REHMThey really, really do. Caitlin Kelly and the book is titled, "Malled."
REHMAnd we're back with Caitlin Kelly, a journalist who, through various circumstances, lost her work as a journalist, turned to retail. Writes about her experience in a new book titled, "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." Here's an e-mail, let's see, from Jeff who says, "Your book sounds similar to how Starbucks changed my life. Did your employer ask you about your background and if you were going to do a story about your experience? Did you have this planned before you took the job?"
KELLYAbsolutely not, absolutely not. Many journalists do. They'll take a job, they'll do a project for a year to write a book. It was never my intention. I took the job because, like many people listening today, I needed cash. I had consumer debt, has lost my job. You know what it's like. You start to fall behind. You think, I've got to bring in some cash. Every two weeks, I need money in my bank account. And as long as it's legal, I really don't care where it comes from. I have to do something. So no.
KELLYI did write a piece that ran in The New York Times in February of '09. I wrote an essay that ran in the business section, which fulsomely praised The North Face because at that point, I was still really enjoying my work. And I talked about how retail, it was terrific. Partly because retail quantifies your value and I really like that. In journalism, somebody could read this book and say, uh, boring, hate it and somebody else can say, this is amazing, I love it. In retail, the numbers show who's productive and I love that aspect of it. So at that point, The North Face loved the piece and The Times saying, wow, what a great company. Today, who knows what they're thinking, but the book is slightly more balanced.
REHMYou were passed over for promotion.
KELLYI was. And I was really annoyed.
KELLYThat's a great question. I don't know because they didn't discuss it with me. I went to my manager -- our assistant manager was very young, she was 26. And unfortunately, with her first pregnancy, needed to go out on leave. She was having some blood pressure issues. So there was a three-month period where they needed somebody in the store and I thought, okay. I sell like crazy, everybody knows me, I know the merchandise, I know the customers.
REHMI can do this.
KELLYHere we go. And I said very explicitly to my manager and to the district manager, I would like to be interviewed. I didn't think it was a shoe-in, I knew that, but I want to be interviewed. Absolutely. No question. Never happened. They brought in a boy, excuse my language, man, 25, that's a boy in my world, from another company and then he got the job.
REHMInteresting. Do you feel he had had prior management experience?
KELLYAbsolutely. But he didn't know the product and there was that moment of saying, great, so I'm going to take some time to show you the product, to explain where it is, to explain the difference between these six jackets that I've known for three years, but let me train you, making twice what I'm making. That seems fair.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Paul in Canastota, N.Y. Good morning to you.
PAULGood morning, Diane. I have had a similar experience. I retired five years ago, after running my own successful general contracting business in New York City for over 35 years. And like the woman on your program, I'm a college graduate, I speak three languages and I didn't want to start collecting Social Security right away, so after I had been up here for, oh, a year and settled in, I started looking for a part-time job. I was only 63 years old. And one of the Big Box home stores was building a new store nearby, five miles away, and several people suggest that I apply for a job there. So I filled out their four-page application and was briefly interviewed and the young man said, oh, yeah, they're definitely going to be interested in you.
PAULYou have all of this construction experience and your language abilities and your management skills. Two weeks later, I got a postcard in the mail. It said, we're sorry, we have no openings for anyone with your background at this time. I never heard from them again. Over the next year and a half, I applied for about 18 other jobs with various kinds of companies in the area, only one had the courtesy to even send a letter saying, thanks for your application, we've already filled the position. Considering how much we hear about how desirable older, experienced, well-educated people are, my experience was the opposite. At...
KELLYThat's a great point and I was lucky. I mean, I'm hearing what this gentleman has to say and I sympathize. I think part of the problem with retail is, number one, we're in a really bad recession. The competition for these jobs, even low-wage...
KELLY...difficult jobs, is huge. Now, so you're up against the kids coming out of college who can't get the jobs, the kids still in college who need help with student debts, people like me who can't get back into the workforce. There's suddenly a whole much -- excuse me, a much larger pool of competitors than there was even six months ago, certainly two or three years ago. The second point I want to make, and this is really important, doesn't help you -- and this is very individual. I'm a very high energy person and most people looking at me, which you can't see me, usually guess me at frankly, about 10 to 15 years younger than my age. That worked to my advantage, there's no question. I don't had a clue how old I was. I think if I would have told them they would have said, really?
KELLYAnd that works. When you try to get a retail job, especially, and all your listeners need to know this, you have got to show up with a tremendous amount of physical energy. It's a stamina demanding job. And I'm not in any way suggesting this gentleman doesn't have it, but the fear and the perception and the prejudice is, you won't.
REHMInteresting. Thanks for calling, Paul. Here's an e-mail from Daniel, it's very, very interesting. He says, "In my previous career as a regional loss prevention manager for a retail electronics store, we engaged in the practice of telling employees that quote "we know, it's a fact, that most theft is done by employees" and so on, even though we knew for a fact it was not true. It's a common misconception that most retail theft is from employees and that misconception comes from the fact that almost all retail loss prevention departments spread it. We did to it because it scares the employees and because it keeps them suspicious of their co-workers, all of which helps us catch employee theft." Isn't that interesting?
KELLYCan I throw a chair in disgust? I'm delighted he shared it and thank you for letting me know that we were fed disinformation. How incredibly lovely that is as a way to manage your employees. And if you think that being suspicious of your co-workers every day is a great way to motivate them and raise morale, I'd suggest that it's not.
REHMLet's go to San Antonio, Texas. Carrie, you're on the air.
CARRIEHi. I'm actually calling because I'm an assistant manager in a ladies' retail store and I just wanted to first off agree, everything you've said so far, I agree with, but -- and I personally love my job, but I just wanted to know how many of your co-workers were like you, who were over-educated and over-qualified for the job they had? Because I know the ladies that I work with, I have one lady who speaks seven languages, I have one lady with several degrees and we get treated with immense disrespect by customers.
KELLYThat's a great question. I was, at that point, partly because I was hired before the recession, truthfully, I was the only person in my store and all the time that I worked there. I was really an anomaly. Other people, they had college degrees, they didn't have quite the number of skills perhaps or the amount of experience, so it wasn't the same situation, but I was literally in -- I'm in D.C. in the studio with Diane, which is great, and at Union Station Barnes and Noble, the manager told me, 'cause I went to chat about my book, he said, oh, almost all my associates have PhD's. It's pretty common these days.
CARRIEYeah, it's really scary and, you know, customers -- I get a lot of ladies -- we get -- our store gets the gamut from customers who are very well off to customers who are in extreme debt and it's always interesting to me the way that they treat our associates. You know, where they just go in expecting, you know, either to be watched for shoplifting or to be treated with disrespect or, you know, that we're trying to get something more out of them rather than, you know, we honestly just want to do the best we can, you know, to get a sale.
KELLYAbsolutely. And I appreciate you saying that because one of the things I really loved about retail, when it works, it's so fun to engage people and make them laugh. What is so cool about retail, and you know this 'cause you're in it and you love your job, what do you get to do in retail? You make people happy. They come in, they said, I need a jacket, size red, medium, I'm going to my daughter's wedding, cha-ching, you sell them, they're happy, they leave. How else can you make people happy in five minutes to 15 minutes?
REHMThanks for calling, Carrie. To Jacksonville, Fla.
REHMGood morning, Jim.
JIMOh, yeah, it's an interesting topic. I -- just one question I have, though. It's sort of the -- and I don't mean this in a negative way, but what is the so what of this? I mean, it's -- you know, I grew up working some very, very hard jobs, working in agricultural fields and cleaning out hog parlors and luckily, I'm in a position now where I make a lot of money and a white collar job, but there're all sorts of, you know, un-fun jobs out there and it sounds like an interesting book, describing what it's like in retail.
JIMIs there -- do you have some sort of -- I mean, what -- in other words, what is the so what of this, other than in an entertaining aspect, are you proposing that more unionization, more government control or not and are you ignoring -- I'm sure you're aware of the fact that these are tremendously helpful jobs and any kind of increase of conditions that you would put on these jobs..
JIM...would increase the prices to consumers who can't afford it right now, either.
KELLYWell, let me respond to that. It's a fair question. One of the concerns is very simple. Seventy percent of the American economy is based on consumer spending. When employees are earning seven to $10 an hour and gas is $4 a gallon, they don't have any money. They can't buy things. They can't keep our shared economy going. That's one issue. The second issue, which may not be of interest to many listeners, but I think will be to many others, is the issue of income and equality. I personally find it kind of unpleasant when you have a company like mine that had $382 million in cash and cut our hours because quote "we can't afford them."
KELLYAnd one of the other concerns, which is really important from a business perspective, the Wharton School of Business, considered one of the best in American, and the Varity Group did a study and they found that the single most important factor, when shoppers decided to make a decision, which keeps our economy going, is the quality of the associate. You get what you pay for.
REHMSo the idea of respect for that person who may be selling you what you are looking for is extremely important and the folks higher up need to keep that in mind.
KELLYI think it's absolutely essential. What has become very clear to me in researching the book -- and I appreciate that question, that's a tough question and I'm glad he raised it. My book is a business analysis, it's not simply one person whining, nor other people that I interviewed whining. There are senior analysts on Wall Street and elsewhere explaining to me the importance of the associate in the supply chain. When the single greatest link in your chain that is going to sell your brand or kill your brand is the associate and you're paying them really badly, what do you think's going to happen?
REHMCaitlin Kelly and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an e-mail from Kevin show says, "About 12 years ago, I was manager of a major national record store chain. When my company started checking the credit ratings of new management candidates, I was furious and let my superiors know it. What does your guest think of this practice? I think someone with a lot of debt is no more or less likely to be a potential threat."
KELLYI have a lot of difficulty with that personally. I showed up with debt. I don't know that they did that check on me. I'm not sure that they would have revealed it. I'm just appalled by it. I don't...
REHMThey do it a lot these days.
KELLYThey do it a lot...
KELLY...I just think it's appalling. I think in this economy, many people, through structural change in their industry, got caught shorthanded, with debt and now they can't get a job and for that, you should penalize them for getting back on their feet? That's crazy.
REHMAll right. And finally, a caller here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Sean, you're on the air.
SEANGood morning, ladies. I worked at Macy's Herald Square in New York City, which is the world's largest department store. Very busy environment. And I have to say, regarding what the caller -- I'm sorry, the author said earlier, but as manager there, we cared for our employees and yes we had some people who didn't make a lot of money, but I can honestly say that we cared for the employees, we looked out for them when a customer was disrespecting them and for me, it was a great experience. I was there for three years and I enjoyed it. It was a union environment and I worked well with the union and the employees did very well when I was a manager there.
REHMYou've made an interesting point. What about the union environment, Caitlin?
KELLYWell, that's a great question and I appreciate the caller saying that, because that's a really important difference. There are stores and there are companies in this country, just as you suggest, that treat their employees really well. Most companies are not unionized, so then you're absolutely dependent on the goodwill of your manager and your assistant manager and the corporate people who are running your company and of course, Wall Street and how demanding those investors are of the company for which you are working. You're absolutely vulnerable without union protection. Most workers don't have it.
REHMAnd fewer and fewer will have it. Do you think that union protection makes a huge difference in retail?
KELLYIt's interesting. The one segment of retail that is heavily unionized, intriguingly, is the grocery stores industry and they've done very well recruiting people, so the wages tend to be higher. And it may well work if they could get people to do it. We're on a sort of a hamster wheel. If people are coming in part-time, it's hard to get them to unionize. If it's a college student coming for three months or a graduate student or a single mom trying to get back on her feet, it's going to be hard to recruit that person because they're not committed to this as a career. I think that's going to be the larger challenge for unions. I think it's a great idea.
REHMDo you think you'll ever go back into retail?
KELLYI'd love to go back as a consultant and I'd love to go back as a coach. I'd really like to help associates sell better and I think I can. I don't really want to sell myself, but I was pretty good at it and I have some very clear ideas, I think, on how we can coach the really good associates to be better. There are terrific associates out there. They're not low-scale. The assumption is they are. That's terribly wrong. They bring terrific skill and I think it's a question of upping the game of those who are struggling a bit.
REHMCaitlin Kelly, her new book is titled, "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." Well, congratulations for both your retail career and your career in journalism.
KELLYThank you very much.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Erin Stamper. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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