Typically, consumers don’t give a lot of thought to the ubiquitous sales associate, even though retail is the nation’s No. 1 occupation. And neither did I — until I signed up for what I called “my little retirement job” following a long career as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. I took a gig at White House Black Market at Oakbrook Center, an upscale women’s clothing store in an equally high-end mall in Chicago’s western suburbs. Rarely have I seen so many work so hard for so little.
The fact that retail is low-paying will hardly be a news flash to anyone. But it was an eye-opener to learn first-hand just how abysmal the compensation can be. At $9.50 an hour, I could make twice as much babysitting, with better snacks, Netflix and no wardrobe requirements. And while the compensation in retail is increasingly low, the stakes have never been higher.
At a time when there is much hand-wringing over the decline of brick-and-mortar stores, companies are banking on the customer experience to set them apart from e-commerce. In this new retail world, it’s up to us “girls” — and we are mostly girls — to save this giant industry, which employs 1 out of every 10 Americans, by delivering more pleasant, luxurious service, on unlivable wages.
Merchants can’t risk messy shelves, missing sizes or long lines at the check-out, especially for what is expected to be the strongest holiday season in years . With the wave of closings this year, from Sears to Lord & Taylor, we had to step up our customer service. Do you need another size? We’ll bring it to you. Want it in petite? We’ll hunt it down at another store, and it will be shipped to you, free of charge. You need a “smoking hot” dress for your ex’s wedding? Challenge accepted.
Such attentiveness means sales staff regularly ask clients to step out of the dressing room, so we can check the fit of a garment. But it’s also a key strategy to increasing units per transaction (UPT), which the company views as an incredibly crucial metric. That means that while you’re slipping into those jeans, I’m already scouring the racks for a top, a jacket and a belt. If you’re trying on a glitzy cocktail dress, I’ll appear with a pair of plum velvet pumps, coaxing you out of your Nikes. Ostensibly, it’s to give you a better idea of the total look, but it’s also a way to add $150 to the sale.
A UPT of three is considered good; a four is outstanding. The time I hit a nine was as exhilarating as any page-one story during my newspaper days. (I even saved the cash register receipt.)
The attention doesn’t end when the client leaves the store. To build brand loyalty, the company encourages associates to follow up with big spenders by writing thank-you notes, even providing stationery and a manager-approved script.
All this effort pays off, at least for the company. One co-worker has a customer so faithful that she stops in every Saturday, without fail. She might buy one item or five items, but she always buys something. While that devotion is unusual, I see the genuine affection between longtime clients and associates daily. Maybe that’s why our store, even with so much competition (Banana Republic, Zara, Ann Taylor) just around the corner, is always among the top 10 grossing White House Black Market stores in the country — a point of pride for our staff of 30.
I’m lucky to be in a financial position where I can afford to work 10 hours a week for $9.50 an hour. Commission is on a sliding scale; selling $201 of merchandise will get you $1 in commission, while a $500 sale nets you $5. Even in my best weeks, I rarely clear $100 after taxes (and that’s before I give most of it back to the company with my own purchases, even with my employee discount). But unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t depend on this job to survive. Those who do are always a broken tooth or a flat tire away from financial disaster.
There are other indignities, too. Working a five-hour shift earns a 10-minute break — not enough time to visit Starbucks, a mere 80 steps from our front door. Upon leaving at the end of the day, all employees must open their bags for inspection, which is typical for the industry, according to experts, but not for me. Never before have I held a job where I needed to ask permission to get a cup of coffee or submit to a search. The scrutiny was demeaning.
While it’s easy to dismiss the “girls” as low-wage, unskilled labor, they are among the hardest-working folks I’ve ever encountered. This job requires an impressive array of skills: personal, physical and diplomatic. We steam racks of clothes, wrestle sweaters off mannequins, vacuum dressing rooms and haul out the trash; we make sale after sale with smiles on our faces and heels on our feet; we handle customers trying to return obviously worn garments and others who need a shoulder to cry on.
So why not take those same talents to a more lucrative field? Because my co-workers love clothing — the thrill of unpacking the latest shipment, of finding beautiful things in an often ugly world. For now, they’re willing to be paid in cachet rather than cash.
As a seasonal hire, I’ll be gone in January, leaving it to others to keep malls afloat. My bank account isn’t much different than when I started, but you should see my closet.
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