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Two sides to getting 'malled' by retail

By Caitlin Kelly, Special to CNN
The cover of Kelly's book "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail," illustrates how we often overlook sales associates.
The cover of Kelly's book "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail," illustrates how we often overlook sales associates.
  • Journalist Caitlin Kelly goes into sales
  • Retail sales associates are often mistreated by customers
  • Author: They come from varied backgrounds and deserve respect like anyone else
  • Without America's 15 million employees in retail, consumerism would halt
  • Business

Editor's note: Caitlin Kelly is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Glamour and Sports Illustrated, and is the author of ""Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.'"

(CNN) -- The American economy, even in a recession, is driven by consumer spending -- providing 70 percent of gross domestic product.

We're all in it together, but some of us still aren't having much fun.

Can't get decent service? Fed up with seeking someone to help you, let alone one who knows the merchandise? Sick of being asked to sign up for a 29 percent APR store credit card?

Well, so are store associates!

I took a part-time sales job in an upscale suburban New York mall, selling for The North Face, a popular, 41-year-old brand of outdoor clothing, in September 2007, at the age of 50, after being laid off from my reporting job at the New York Daily News.

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What I saw in my 27 months behind the cash register forever changed my understanding of the growing gap between what the service retailers expect from their low-wage workers and what they're really able to offer.

In an era of information, when shoppers easily access apps to help them find a store, service, product or price they want, some associates -- trying their very best to help them -- remain in the Dark Ages, unable to even access their own company website.

Without tools and training, even the most productive workers can't do the job as well as we'd all like. And when we can't supply the information or goods shoppers want, it's low-level workers who unfairly bear the brunt of their frustration.

Corporate decisions to reduce staff and hours to save on labor costs, a common practice, frustrate front-line workers as much as impatient shoppers. Very few major retailers spend the time or money training their staff, so customers' legitimate concerns are too often met with an annoying shrug of genuine ignorance.

Sadly, some shoppers still believe that retail work is only of interest to the uneducated and unambitious. Like every industry, retail attracts talented, hardworking and multifaceted employees.

The people standing behind those counters, sweeping the floors and folding T-shirts have kids, pets, multiple degrees and some life experiences some of us can barely imagine. Several of my former co-workers had lived and worked overseas, three were military veterans and everyone was a college graduate or soon to be one.

Retail is a $4 trillion industry, the nation's third-largest -- and its single greatest source of new jobs. Unfortunately, for too many disillusioned workers, these aren't terrific jobs with real opportunities for raises and promotions, but poverty-level traps paying $7 to $10 an hour in an era of $4- to $5-a-gallon gasoline.

I get e-mails almost daily from associates across the country confirming my experience, and those of the people I interviewed for my book. Retail sales remains a tough job of elemental economic importance.

Shoppers know intuitively what researchers from the Wharton School of Business have learned -- a terrific associate is the most crucial link between a customer and their decision to spend.

So the next time you shop, please -- as the saying goes -- think different. Why not smile, say "Thank you" and give helpful associates the respect they both crave and deserve?

Look them in the eye and use their names. Many stores -- from the grocery bagger to the bookstore clerk to the hardware store cashier -- require workers to wear a nametag, but few shoppers seem to use it.

In our store, too many customers had a hard time relating to us as people: hard working, tax paying, filled with our own hopes and dreams, whether in retail or beyond.

It's human nature: the more we give, the more we tend to get. The next time an associate does a terrific job for you -- and it's probably already happened a few times today -- make it known. Tell the manager. Send an "attaboy" e-mail or a letter to the company.

Without retail's 15 million smart, hardworking employees, American commerce would grind to a halt. We're here to help, happy to do it, and want to do it well.

The more we acknowledge and appreciate our best associates, the more satisfied the customer. As worker morale and productivity climb, so do sales and profits.

We're all in it together.

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