Book Review: Malled by Caitlin Kelly

Malled by Caitlin KellyThis is a non-fiction book about the author’s foray into the world of retail. The book is subtitled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.

When journalism wasn’t a steady job anymore, Kelly earned some extra money by working as a sales assistant in an outdoor clothes store. She was in for some surprises.

Tomorrow, I’ll be interviewing Caitlin Kelly about her experiences as a shop assistant. Below is my review of the book.

Malled: What it is about

In 2007, Caitlin Kelly loses her journalist job at a newspaper. As a freelance writer she has earnings coming in from other writing jobs, but she decides a steady income, however small, would be very welcome in her household.

She applies and is hired as a sales assistant in an outdoor clothes store, in a shopping mall. There are good and bad things about the job. Most colleagues are friendly and pleasant, everything is shiny new in the (brand-new) store – which is all very different from the newspaper job that she had before.

But soon she realizes that there are many demeaning and unpleasant aspects to the job: standing on your feet for hours on end, being filmed by a security camera all the time, dealing with difficult customers, and finding out that no one cares whether the job could be carried out better with some improvements in the store or stockroom.

Her main grievance in the book is that the higher management spends so much money on advertising and sponsoring while better paid  (i.e., happier and more responsible) staff would make such a difference in number of sales. With the very low wages that the sales staff earn ($8 to $11 per hour) it’s no wonder that they aren’t very motivated to do a good job, and that staff turnover is almost 100% per year.

She also argues for better organised stock rooms because many potential sales don’t happen because the staff can’t find the requested items in the badly organised stockrooms. But management isn’t likely to listen. If the sales staff isn’t happy, they’re welcome to leave.

In the end, over two years after she starts working at the store, Kelly quits after she has to deal with one abusive customer too many. (What she’s doing now, you can read it my interview with her tomorrow).

The book is organised chronologically, from the job interview, her years at the store, through to her last day at work. The text is supplemented with information from interviews and other research.

Malled: What I thought

This book made for a fascinating read even though I don’t really enjoy shopping much. Non-fiction can be dry and a struggle to read, but not so this book. It reads almost like fiction.

I was appalled by many of the things that Kelly described about her job: only a single break in an eight-hour working day, where employees are not allowed to sit down at all (except during the break). Safety hazards in the stockroom, with boxes and clothes racks cluttering the floor space and unlabelled boxes placed at dizzying heights that can only be reached using a scary, and heavy, stepladder.

And the disinterest of management regarding improvements for their staff! I can go on for a while, but Kelly has already done this, in a very interesting way.

Caitlin Kelly does blow her own trumpet every now and then. She was keen to tell the reader of her own (good) standards of dealing with the customers and with her colleagues. This was a little annoying but it also showed a standard of work ethic as you may expect to find in store employees (but usually don’t). She put in a lot of effort to try and do a good job and this contrasted nicely with the disinterested way her manager dealt with her complaints and suggestions.

This book should be read by those in charge of retail companies. Better still, these people should go “Back to the Floor” to see for themselves what the work is like for their employees. But since they only care about their spreadsheets, it’s unlikely they’ll do either. (Back to the Floor was a UK TV program in which executives spent a week on the work floor of their own company, after which they generally called for drastic changes in working conditions – of course, without the backup of the managers who had not been back to the floor).

Read it if you are interested to see what’s really happening behind the counters of the stores where you love to shop.

I got this book: from the publishers Portfolio/Penguin free for review (hardback)

I read this in: English, the original language

Number of pages: 226

First published: 2011 (April)

Genre: non-fiction, retail

Also interesting: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, dealing with the poor treatment (expendability) of workers in the food industry

About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

18 Responses to Book Review: Malled by Caitlin Kelly

  1. Cindy says:

    Interesting insight into a side of retail I never considered before.

  2. At least the author got a book out of her experience. What about all the workers who have few or no other options? I agree with you that conditions are unlikely to change–companies probably are quite satisfied with the way things work, and likely unconcerned about working conditions for their employees.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Malled by Caitlin Kelly « Leeswammes' Blog Books Empire | Books Empire

  4. I currently work retail but I have only had my current job for six months and it was my first foray into retail. I think I would probably find this book pretty interesting!

  5. I am definitely going to read your interview. I worked on retail before and what you described on your review sounded very real to me. Another title for my to-read list.

    • Leeswammes says:

      I’d love to hear your experiences, Deborah. I will ask readers about their own experiences tomorrow, so do come back and tell us all about it.

  6. Trisha says:

    Books like this really interest me; although my interest always stops short of actually reading….

  7. Uniflame says:

    Both books sound interesting! Will add this to my wishlist 🙂

  8. Suzanne says:

    I worked in retail when I was a university student. It was bad then and I can’t imagine it being any better now. I’m going to have to check this book out and look forward to reading your interview with the author tomorrow.

  9. Lucybird says:

    This sounds pretty interesting, I think I will add it to the wishlist

  10. RAnn says:

    I liked the book at first; then I got tired of listening to her make the same complaints over and over.

  11. Mary says:

    Everything she wrote is true and as a former employee it was worse at other stores and with other managers. I think she did a great job at being objective and even handed. For this company in particular managements view towards the retail employee is completely contradictory to how they sell themselves to the consumer.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. It indeed seems there is no relation between how they present themselves to the customer and how they treat their staff. I hope this book will contribute in changing some of that.

  12. Pingback: Promoting Your New Book: What It Really Takes (via Broadside) « Cheryl Andrews

  13. Gloria says:

    I read half of this at Barnes and Noble and I was rolling my eyes. I work full time in retail and I’ve been hit TWICE by customers. I’m really beginning to hate these spoiled types who slum for a bit then get a book deal. My experiences would be twice as compelling as this woman’s. Check this out:

    I’ve been hit TWICE by women customers, one of whom I was helping.

    I’ve worked 11-12-13 hour days without a break. Yes, you read that right. I would carry food that I could eat while driving a delivery truck, or while riding, because I did NOT get a lunch.

    You work “clopens”: 7-4 one day, then 2-11 the next couple days, then you open again at 7 (or earlier).

    I’ve worked nine full days in a row, and when I finally got my two days off, I left the store at 3:30 p.m. and was asleep by 6. I lost an entire evening that I could have gotten something done because I was so exhausted.

    You get scheduled 7,8,9 days in a row, sometimes with only one day to recover.

    You can’t sit down.

    Good luck scheduling an appointment on your lunch break. If a customer comes in and needs help and you’re the only one there, or if your co-worker insists that YOU help the customer even though she could help you out, you’re stuck.

    You get to cover 2-3 departments at a time, in order to give others breaks and lunches.

    A rotating schedule: you know your days off months in advance (unless they change your schedule on you) but you could be opening one Monday, then closing the next. Which makes joining a club, or doing something on a weekly basis impossible.

    One weekend a month off.

    Kelly had it easy: she didn’t have to completely support herself, unlike myself and a lot of other retail drones. The part timers never know when their hours will get cut. It’s one thing if you are working retail for something to do, but quite another when it’s your living. I work two other jobs in addition to my full time retail gig. And yes, I have a college degree and nearly two decades of experience as a writer. Hoping to go back to school and do more teaching at the college level. I enjoy that, and seem to have a knack for it. Either that, or I hope my writing takes off. And I’d trade places with Kelly. She has had the journalistic life I wanted but never had a chance to have.

    • Leeswammes says:

      Sounds like you have a lot more stories to tell about retail life, Gloria. I don’t think Kelly “slummed it” but she was appalled by the working circumstances even from working the few hours that she did. And she wrote a book about it. Why not?

      I hope you’ll get a chance to develop your writing, Gloria. What a waste to be stuck in a job like that!

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