I wrote this piece back in 2014. A friend’s comment about working her “retail slave job” and her reminder about being nice to salespeople made me dig it out and post it here today.
When I heard the customer’s angry voice on the phone, I laughed instead of feeling nervous, the way I usually would. She’d asked me about the store’s holiday hours. I said the store would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving and stay open for 25 hours straight, until 10 the following evening, Black Friday.
“I won’t be there,” she said angrily. “That’s disgusting.” I laughed and replied, “Well, I can’t say anything more, but I’m with you.” And I didn’t even mention that all employees were required to work a 12-hour shift during those 25 hours, because she hadn’t asked about that, and I doubted she would care.
I spent the last 23 weeks working in a part-time retail job, in what struck me as appalling conditions. Last spring I went looking for another job to supplement my income and keep pace with the high cost of our son’s college tuition. I showed up at what I thought was a “job fair.” I didn’t realize right away that it wasn’t a “job fair” at all, but a lure put out by this high-profile retail store that sells pricey, high-end goods. The false pretense should have been my first clue about the company.
“Tell me about your retail experience,” an earnest, beautiful young woman said to me that day, before it dawned on me that there were no other employers present at this so-called “job fair.” My last retail job was 41 years ago, when I rang up Afro picks, 10-cent skeins of embroidery thread, and 2-cent chocolate covered mints on a heavy old cash register at J.J. Newberry’s in the Mid-State Mall. It’s been awhile, I said evasively. Nonetheless, she took my resume.
A few days later, I got a call and a job offer to be a “sales associate” for an hourly wage that I’ll call modest. Why not? I thought. I needed extra money to cover the times when writing or research jobs lagged, or when payment for a job I’d finished languished, unpaid, a common occurrence among freelancers. Tuition bills don’t wait.
Aside from the fact that the job was stressful and underpaid, I was repeatedly struck by the ongoing demonstrations of how very little the employees were valued. The most graphic example of this was the requirement that every employee find a manager and open his or her bag or backpack before leaving the store for a meal break or at the end of a shift. Although a background check was part of the hiring process—which should reveal priors for shoplifting or stealing on the job—this policy showed that everyone was presumed to be a thief.
And presumed to be a thief on your own time, because employees had to clock out before showing their bags. When the store was busy, which was almost always, a manager was often not available for several minutes, forcing employees to cool their heels, unpaid, while they waited for this daily inspection and humiliation.
There was never a “thank-you” or a “job well done” to the team of sales people. There were, instead, repeated hectoring, warnings, and threats of “documentation,” which I guess is the new corporate speak for what used to be “written up.” We were sternly advised to “remember that this is a luxury brand, and to revisit the dress code.” I loved the irony of this reminder and felt like scrawling on the memo posted in the break room: “Ain’t nobody buying luxury clothes on these shit wages.”
Opening my paycheck was a regular exercise in dismay. Long days, arriving home dirty and frazzled after 11 p.m., even after a week when I’d been scheduled for 39 hours, the check was meager, especially after I deducted having to pay to park each time I went in.
There was a weak and patronizing display of corporate benevolence during a storewide sale. During the sale, which lasted for nearly a month, all employees were scheduled for very long hours. The steady stream of customers, some of whom were very unpleasant—designer bitches from Newport Beach, you know who you are— and the incessant ringing of the phones made for extended, stressful days.
Management provided the worst, cheap junk food in the dirty break room. I guess this was supposed to signify appreciation for the extra work and stress, but to me, it demonstrated the reverse: cheap sugary sustenance so people could work longer, and the idea that the employees were low-income and uneducated, and would like this horrible, prepackaged food.
“This is all junk,” one young man said dolefully one day, surveying the random pile of ramen, Pop Tarts, Red Vines, and microwaveable mac and cheese which, unaccountably, sat next to a large can of Lysol.
As you shop throughout this holiday season, please think about the people who work in these retail settings. First, please mind your manners, and don’t get impatient or shout at the people working in these stores. What you probably don’t know is that too few people are scheduled to cover each shift. It’s not that the retail workers are lazy, indolent, or go slowly in order to create long lines and interminable waits, it’s that the corporations want to shave labor costs.
Take a good look at the person who rings up your holiday toys, decorations, clothing, or greeting cards. He or she may not have seen a doctor or dentist in years, because retail jobs are part-time and offer no benefits.
As you browse the aisles, remember that retail companies schedule their employees for multiple shifts when the store is busy, and then abruptly cut hours or send employees home when store traffic slows down. There’s no warning or predictability to these boom-bust cycles of part-time hours. When hours are suddenly sliced, these low-wage workers hock their belongings, dip into what meager savings they may have, cadge extra money from family or friends, or use credit cards to cover these income gaps.
There’s no commission on anything they sell, they are rarely given a word of encouragement or praise, their break room is dirty, and any “incentive” or reward is likely to come in the form of store gift cards, funneling the money back into the corporation, of course. If the corporation offers a retirement plan, the low wages don’t allow workers enough of a margin to contribute to it.
Do enjoy your holidays. ‘Tis the season, after all. But be nice to the people who are helping you in the stores, and remember that many of them work two or three jobs and barely squeak by. And by the way, it won’t kill you to put something back neatly on the shelf, in the box, or on the hanger after you look at it. The more you toss things carelessly aside, throw them on the floor, or separate them from their packaging, the longer a low-paid worker has to stay after hours to clean up your mess. Your extra kindness and courtesy won’t result in a raise for anyone and can’t fix the dismal state of retail employment, but at least you can make someone’s day slightly less discouraging.