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Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Jun. 21st, 2011 | Comments 0 | Make a Comment   

Caitlin Kelly's memoir of a brief career in retail, Malled, begins with an Elizabeth Gilbert-like crisis of faith. Kelly, like Gilbert, is a writer with years of glam globetrotting assignments behind her. But unlike Gilbert, Kelly doesn't seek salvation in a global journey - she stays close to home and gets a job at the mall.

Although Kelly's writing life led her to interview celebrities and stay in luxury resorts, it had a darker side. She tells of the alienation, poor pay and endless hustle of the writing life. After sending out resumes for jobs in adjacent fields and getting no response, she enters the world of retail, taking a job at The North Face in a local mall.

Instead becoming a tourist in foreign countries like Gilbert, Kelly's new part-time mall job makes her a tourist in the retail world. The subtitle, "my unintentional career in retail" is a bit misleading; she only works one day per week and while she is good at the job, it's clear it won't be a new career for her.

What Kelly learns in two-plus years of retail work is that life at the mall is far tougher than it may appear to be. Using her journalistic instincts and curiosity, Kelly uses her new job as an opportunity to explore the changing world of the American mall. Venturing beyond her own store, she also looks at the world of luxury retail and the life of the salesperson in Europe, where retail is often more of a career than a stepping stone to something better as it is here
in the U.S.

Here, retail jobs turn over at an astounding rate, a full 50 percent of employees either quit or are fired within the first 90 days with nearly 100 percent turnover within a year. And yet, retail remains a growing sector of the American job market. The disconnection between poorly paid, poorly trained workers and the expensive products they sell remains a problem to be solved in the retail marketplace.

There are some echoes of other works here like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed in America and Deluxe by Dana Thomas. Later in the book, Kelly takes a look at the manufacturing process for some of the pricey goods she sold. Part of the risk of reading books in this vein is that they do let you peek behind the curtain and see life on the other side of the counter (or the cash wrap as Kelly tells us it is called in the retail field).

It's not always a pretty sight but learning more about the life of a salesperson might inspire all of us to be a little more gracious when shopping. The maxim that the customer is always right isn't a license for boorish behavior. In the end, it was the endless parade of "customers from hell" that eventually led Kelly to end her sojourn in retail and turn back to the world of journalism.

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