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Retail Realities

November 29, 2012
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My very first job was in a little dress shop in Seneca, SC called Bootsy’s Boutique.  When you’re sixteen years old, minimum wager is great, especially with a twenty percent discount.  In other words, I worked for clothes. When you are sixteen, there’s nothing wrong with working minimum wage, if you are getting a decent discount.   I bought some of the cutest things while I worked for Bootsy.  I also learned how to crochet granny squares.

The Pink Flamingo thinks it is about time this country begins discussing retail and the conditions people working within it endure. First, the average person working in retail makes about $20,000 a year, which is now considered, for a family of four, below the poverty rate. This is nothing new. When I worked in retail, after I left college, it was a minimum wage job, just below the poverty rate. Nothing has really changed.

“…But the industry that was supposed to deliver many blue-collar workers and metropolitan regions into the 21st century has, instead, created a new class of low-wage worker. In southern California, port truck drivers and temporary warehouse workers, the very people who keep the flow of goods moving, often toil for low wages and under poor conditions. Many of these workers fly under the radar because they are employed by temporary staffing agencies that funnel the region’s emerging Latino and immigrant majority into a vicious cycle of dead-end, low-wage jobs. Most warehouse occupations in inland southern California pay less than a median hourly wage of $10.50, which, for those who can scrape together a 40-hour working week, amounts to less than $22,000 per year – a far cry from the $47,000 average middle-class wage touted by regional policy-makers….”

What people don’t understand about retail, aside from the hours, is the fact that a person usually spends about 8 hours a day, on their feet, with two fifteen minute breaks, and a half hour for lunch. That is when you get to sit. I spent so much time standing in heels that the bottoms of my feet, years later, still ache and cramp if I stand for more than an hour at a time.

There is the lifting, unpacking, packing, and shelving of merchandise. You try lifting a thirty pound box of houseware supplies and see how it feels. I have. If I had my choice between two jobs, cleaning toilets, and working retail, I would rather clean toilets.

The dirty little secret about retail is the fact that it is not unionized. Sure, a nurse spends a day on her feet. She is well paid. So is someone working in a factory. They have options, insurance, and someone protecting their dignity. The person working retail is little more than dirt, to be abused, treated like they are sub-human, poorly educated, and incapable of any other work.

Sure, there is a glamor working in certain locals of a large department store, but those jobs are very difficult to get. When I was working retail, the only way a woman was able to land one of those positions, was to be willing to engage in other positions, and we’re not talking an IQ test. The front end jobs, the fun stuff went to both men and women who were willing to sleep their way to that department. I refused. I was put in the worst department in the store, where the floor was concrete, the lifting miserable, the customers rude, and hours endless.

If I had known then, when I know now, I would have become the Norma Rae of retail.

If Walmart customers were willing to pay just $17 bucks more a year, their employees could be raised up above the poverty level to $25,000 a year. Because the Walmart way is basically indentured labor, nearly a quarter of the US population lives in poverty.

Retail is not easy. I’ve been on both sides, as an owner of a small retail business and an employee.  For a small business, meeting that payroll is a delicate balance, sometimes often impossible.  You do one little thing wrong and the full weight and wrath of the feds come done on you.

When you own a small retail business, you are always looking over your shoulder, trying to find something the big guys are not selling.  You must stress customer service (which is expensive) and treating people decently.  You can’t begin to get by on “low” prices, so you search for merchandise that is unique and different.  That becomes almost a full time endeavor in itself.  Then, you must fight off spies from Walmart.  You run the risk of someone stealing your vendor list and getting your merchandise. And… that’s the easy part of life in retail!

Working in retail is not easy.  If a person is fortunate enough to work for a high end store, the salary and commission is good.  You are treated like a human being, a viable human who has something to offer the world.  The same holds true for a high end department store.  You are not a piece of meat.

If a person is unfortunate enough to work at a place like Walmart, try to find something else, quickly.  The way Walmart works where I am is subtle, nasty, and quite unfair.  When I worked in our church office, the people who most often needed help were those who were employed “full time” at Walmart.  One of the dirty little secrets of why Walmart has such a hold on their employees is the way they schedule.  If they find out an employee is looking for another job, or working a second job, they make sure that person either loses their job at Walmart, or is unable to work their other job.  In The Pink Flamingo’s humble opinion, based on years of observation, there is a very real attempt to keep employees almost indentured, nearly impoverished, and unable to go anywhere else.

The Pink Flamingo knows of a specific individual here in town who was specifically hired when Walmart opened here, about 13 years ago.  This person was hired to head a department, because of a certain skill that had provided a very decent income over the years.  Within a few months he was moved to a different department.  His previous employment had been ruined, bridges burned.  His spirit was broken.  He now works, barely above minimum wage, unable to market the skills he once had.  That’s the Walmart way.  In small towns, there is no possibility of seeking another position. People are ruined, destroyed, broken, unable to go anywhere else.  The creep along with 35 hours a week, when promised 40.  Unable to qualify for the health plan, unable to feed their families, they fall more and more behind, until they are on food stamps.

That is the reality of retail.

Anyone who is even thinking of opening a small retail shop this day and age is out of their mind.  Been there, done that, paid off my loan, have the scars to prove it,

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  • jose maria

    I just heard a friend say yesterday that while shopping at Wal-Mart this week, the employees were grumpy and rude especially at the checkout counter. Now I know why.


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