A few years ago, Caitlin Kelly found herself in an all-too-familiar position these days: unemployed and short on cash. So after losing her job as a reporter for the New York Daily News, she headed to the mall, where she landed a part-time position selling outdoor clothing and gear at the North Face. In her new book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” ($25.95, Portfolio/Penguin), she chronicles her two-year stint on the sales floor, dishing on everything from crazy customers to the sometimes baffling policies under which many retailers operate.
What surprised you most about your time in retail?
I was shocked sometimes at how rude customers were. I worked at a mall with a very upscale crowd. There were a lot of terribly wealthy people. They would come in and they wouldn’t literally snap their fingers at me, but they left me a little open-mouthed.
Did you expect it to be so physically demanding?
There were nights when I’d go back and forth to the stockroom 20, 30, 50 times in a seven-hour shift. I would come home, and sometimes it was hard to get from the elevator to the apartment door.
What kind of sales skills did you pick up?
I’m much less scared of approaching people. It’s really basic: You can’t sell if you don’t approach.
How did you handle the control of the retail environment?
I didn’t like being on camera all the time or having to show the contents of my handbag every single time I left the store. I understand why they monitor employees so heavily, but it sends a really awful message. If you’re essentially an honest person, which I think most of us are, it’s really annoying to be watched and monitored and videotaped.
What did you learn about the value of face-to-face interactions?
Why am I in the store, when I can buy online? I want an experience; I want something social. I find when I’m in a store as a shopper, I really appreciate somebody who’s actually giving me attention. And I think great salespeople are going to be even more important in this economy. If the person in front of you isn’t making your day better, walk out. That company doesn’t deserve your business.
Retail has an incredibly high turnover rate. What do you think could be done to improve that?
The obvious answer is to pay more. That’s what really surprised me and made me very demoralized. I was highly productive and sold a lot of merchandise for the company. When I asked my boss for a raise, I was given 30 more cents an hour. I don’t say pay everybody $15 an hour, because not everybody is worth $15 an hour. But they don’t look at the numbers and say “Here is the 5 percent of our sales force who are by far the most productive; we’re going to give them raises, bonuses, commissions because we want to keep them.”
Sales associates often have to deal with angry or demanding customers. Did you learn anything you could apply to tough work situations down the road?
I learned to depersonalize it. People would walk into the store already in a really bad mood, and you just happened to be the object of their hatred for the next 10 minutes. You just cannot take all that stuff personally. If you did, you would have a nervous breakdown.
What should we all remember the next time we’re customers at our favorite stores?
I think people just don’t know how hard the job can be. You can have a Ph.D. and I defy you to run a cash register on Black Friday and keep a smile on your face. It takes a whole different level of skill.
Written by Express Contributer Beth Luberecki
Photo by Jose Lopez