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November 30, 2011

Susan Miller: Seeing the holidays from the other side of the counter

ANDERSON, Ind. — Black Friday is a memory, but for millions of retail workers, the season is just getting started. Over the next month, these individuals will be stuffing bags, checking stockrooms and assembling gift boxes at a pace unmatched any other time of year

As Christmas gets closer, the pace will intensify. Add in expanded store hours, customers expecting the most for their hard-earned dollars and the demands of corporate headquarters to keep store operating costs lean, and you have a recipe for a very stressful job.

Despite surging online sales, 90 percent of all transactions still occur in person according to retail analysts. Who are these people on the front lines of retail? Have you ever wondered what it is like to stand in their shoes during the holidays?

I’d almost forgotten the perils of working in retail, until I read “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and interviewed its author, Caitlin Kelly.

Before the Great Recession, Kelly was a journalist writing for publications like The New York Times, Glamour and The Smithsonian. As the economy soured and her assignments began to dwindle, she longed for a steady paycheck, the company of colleagues and what “seemed” like an easy job.

Kelly worked more than two years for North Face, a retailer of outerwear, selling to shoppers ranging from Boy Scouts to surgeons; construction workers to serial adventurers. Her experiences recanted in the book will surely resonate with those who ring up sales, track down sizes, and wrap it all up in the face of deep customer queues.

Retailing is tougher than it looks. Even in a tight job market the industry’s annual turnover rate is 100 percent. Retailers know there will always be someone eager to fill the space of a worker who leaves.

What drives such turnover? One dirty little secret is that most stores don’t hire cleaning staff. The person ringing up your sale at closing time usually stays another hour to dust shelves, run the sweeper and pick up coffee cups and teething rings cast off by shoppers.

The corporate welcome veneer is thin. Behind the gleaming storefront, unruly stockrooms are often dark, crowded spaces with floors littered with sensor tags and packing debris.

Trust is even thinner. Employees are on-camera at all times and must open their purse in front of a manager when they leave for a break or the end of a shift.

Then there are the customers who sometimes use employees as psychic punching bags. They’ve all heard the line, “the customer is always right” and sometimes they abuse it.  Kelly’s book recounts how she covered stories in war zones, but only a rude customer was able to make her cry.

Today, you’ll probably buy a tank of gas, a cup of coffee or possibly a Christmas gift. How about smiling at the person on the other side of the counter?  It just might be the best gift you give.

You can read a free chapter of “Malled” at

Susan Miller is owner of Ewing Miller Communications, an Anderson-based marketing and public relations firm. Her column appears in the Herald Bulletin on Thursdays. Write to her at

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