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  •   Finding a New Home in Sales

    By Stephanie Stoughton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, April 26, 1999

    Name: Valarie Rayford

    Age: 32

    Job: Sales associate at Home Elements home furnishings store in Falls Church

    Tenure: Five months.

    Salary: About $52,000, mostly commissions from sales

    Family: Married to Johnny Rayford, a systems administrator for the State Department. The couple has a 12-year-old son, Jay.

    Car: 1987 black BMW

    Residence: A brick split-level home in Clinton, Md., with five bedrooms and two-car garage.

    Commute time: 45 minutes

    Last vacation: Cape May, N.J., in the summer of 1997

    Photo By Lois Raimondo (TWP)

    Did you do a double take at her pay?

    That's no mistake. Although Valarie Rayford only recently entered the retail sector – and one known for its below-average wages – she's on track to make $52,000 this year at the Home Elements store at Baileys Crossroads in Fairfax County.

    Her income reflects a tight labor market that has forced Washington area merchants to entice workers with higher pay and perquisites, as well as a gradual shift to more upscale retailing.

    Rayford had reservations about working for a retailer, saying she wasn't sure how she would be compensated. "I told my husband, 'I don't know. It's retail,'" she said. And then she laughed: "He was like, 'Are you going to make any money?'"

    It is a good question. The average individual income among retail workers in the Washington area is $38,400, so Rayford is faring better than most of her colleagues. But in other ways she is representative of the retail sector, which is dominated by women in two-income families. The median age in Washington's retail work force is 33.

    Working with home furnishings was a good fit, she said, because she had harbored an interest in interior designing. And she said she realized almost immediately that she would have little trouble selling at Home Elements because it has added a wider variety of home furnishings catering to mid- to upper-income consumers that share her own tastes.

    The retail chain, owned by the Rowe Cos. of McLean, now offers detailed vases, patterned chenille blankets, and small sofa pillows stitched with conversation-piece slogans such as "Yada yada." At a cafe section, customers can treat themselves to coffee, sodas and candy.

    Like many workers in today's economy, Rayford has changed jobs several times over the past decade. She worked for Cable & Wireless USA in McLean for six years before being laid off in 1996.

    She started a day spa with a friend, but last fall, while browsing in the Home Elements store in Falls Church, she noticed a help-wanted sign on the front door. "It was the only resume I sent out," she said.

    Although retail employees typically find work close to home, Rayford said she was willing to endure the longer Beltway commute to work for a company that kept her interested and rewarded her for her dedication.

    But though retail wages may be improving, the long and odd hours haven't changed.

    Rayford rises at 6:30 a.m., and in an hour she gets dressed, prays and then makes sure her son is dressed properly for school. She often works from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., but during a recent week, she had two 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. shifts. Her weekends are dedicated to customers, because that's when they shop, so her days off end up being during the week.

    There's an upside to the schedule – at least Rayford thinks so. "I'm home alone, so I can organize what I'll do during the day," she said. "I really enjoy it."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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