Friday, July 15, 2011

5 Questions for "Malled" Author Caitlin Kelly

If you're familiar with the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, you're probably aware of her book, "Nickel & Dimed." Ehrenreich did an experiment to see if she could survive working minimum wage jobs in various cities. Caitlin Kelly’s "Malled" is NOT one of those books.

Caitlin Kelly was a successful journalist and author. She did many exquisite pieces as a freelance writer, and for the Daily News. She had sipped tea with the queen, wrote a story on the DNA testing of 9/11 victims, and she has experience as an editor. As the journalism profession began to constrict, she found herself laid off after one of her most productive years ever; she eventually did something she never thought she would do, get a retail job.

Kelly took a job with The North Face at an upscale shopping center outside of New York City. Her book describes her transition into the retail world and having to use a different set of people skills, her frustration in dealing with the store and corporate management, and her research on the world of retail. “Malled” raises the question about the quality of our shopping experiences, exposes the low wages and the abuse of retail employees, and also talks about the extra mile that retail veterans go to serve their customers.

You weren’t sent to do this for an undercover writing assignment, and this was nothing that you had actually planned on doing; you really went to work in retail to pay the bills. You mentioned that during the year you were laid-off that you actually had one of your most productive periods. You have an impressive resume as someone who interviewed the Queen of England and did some very exquisite pieces in your journalism career. How much of a shock was it to go from a person in that position to going to work at The North Face? 

It was a shock, as much to go from an industry I know, and have worked in since college, as to drop from a good salary to a minimum-wage job. I was naive enough to think that any work done well and cheerfully would be respected, but quickly discovered how dismissive some customers can be when they assume you have no better work options than a low-wage position. I didn't mind the work at The North Face, but I really disliked the way many of were treated for simply doing that work. I liked that the North Face job required emotional skills from me that journalism did not.

What led to you writing a book about your experiences while working at The North Face? 

I wrote an essay for The New York Times, a column about work called Preoccupations, in which I compared retail to journalism -- and preferred retail, for a few reasons. The essay drew 150 emails from all over the world, so it clearly hit a nerve! I spoke in Manhattan on a panel about a month after that, and there was an agent's assistant in the audience who suggested I write a memoir. My new agent agreed and we sold it to Portfolio in September 2009.

As someone who has worked in retail, one of the interesting research points that I thought you made was based on the idea that you get what you pay for when it comes to people who work for you. You mention the high turnover, employees being paid less, and the quality of customer service going down. Do you think this is becoming more common? 

I really find it counter-intuitive -- pun intended! -- to underpay your front-line, customer-facing staff who very much help drive corporate profits yet pay them pennies, rarely give raises and offer little chance for promotion. Very few people will tolerate such conditions, and then companies just hire a whole new crew and burn them out. It's no way to run a business, yet it's very typical of large-scale retail. In a terrible economy, companies can be even more abusive, so I see little chance of improvement until things pick up again. If then!

You mentioned that you had applied to be in management and you were turned down. Were you ever given any idea as to why you were turned down? 

I was given no reasons why I was not even interviewed for a managerial position. I had asked repeatedly. I suspect because I would have been managing former co-workers and that might have been uncomfortable. If I had specific weaknesses preventing me from being considered for it, these were never addressed or discussed with me.

What has been The North Face’s response to your book? 

The North Face refused comment when the Associated Press called them about Malled. An employee at a store in another state told me the company required every staffer to sign a document promising not to discuss the book with customers.

Many thanks to Caitlin Kelly for allowing me to interview her. You can find out more about "Malled" and Caitlin Kelly by visiting

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