Author Interview: Caitlin Kelly, Author of Malled

Malled by Caitlin Kelly

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

Today, I’m interviewing Caitlin Kelly about her experiences as a shop assistant. My review of her book was posted yesterday.

Author interview: Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin’s story is really interesting and the book was a good read. So I was pleased that Caitlin was willing to answer some questions that I had after reading the book.

Caitlin, thank you for agreeing to talk about your book on my blog. My first question is: Did you take the retail job with the idea of writing a book about it, maybe in the back of your mind?

Caitlin Kelly, author of Malled

I never intended to write a book, even after several friends who are writers insisted from Day One it could become one. I did, just in case, keep some detailed notes for the first few months, which was fortunate, as I would have forgotten a lot of those crucial details. I took the job because I needed a steady source of income, even the $200-300 a month I made in the store. I only sold the book in September 2009 and had started working retail in September 2007.

What was the biggest eye opener for you when you started working at the store?

There were a few big eye-openers. The physicality of it: it’s hard, sweaty work! It takes stamina to stay on your feet for 4-6 hours at a stretch. I really disliked the constant surveillance by cameras. And I was shocked at how unkind some customers could be — and how fun others were.

What are you doing now? Any more retail for you? Ever?

Right now I am working hard to promote the book, doing a lot of interviews and radio and public events. I hope to write my next book about work as well. I’m speaking to retail executives and students for the next few months in New York, Toronto and Minneapolis. I’d be interested in working within retail, perhaps as a coach or trainer or consultant, but not on the sales floor necessarily. The wages, in most jobs, are just too low.

Did you gain any new skills from working at the store?

New skills….mostly being much less fearful about approaching people to try and sell them my own work or skills. I realized that, with the right attitude, many people are very open to hearing what you would like to tell them. I discovered how much I love meeting and talking to new people and we’ll see if that is a skill I can use more of.

Do you treat sales assistants any different now, after your own experiences as one?

I have two opposing views now about sales assistants, and anyone working in a customer service job (hotels, airlines, hospitals, etc.). I am now typically much more personal and friendly with them, and call people by their name if I see they are wearing a badge. I am often more curious about why they are working there and for how long. But I am also a much fussier shopper because we were well-trained in how to give good service and I know it’s not rocket science! I expect it, certainly in more expensive shops or environments, and am quick to leave or tell others that I was disappointed when service is poor; it’s clearly a reflection on management. If they refuse to train staff, customers take the brunt of it, and that’s wrong.

Thank you very much, Caitlin! All the best with your book and your future work.

If you missed my review yesterday, go and have a look now: review of Malled.

About the author

Caitlin Kelly’s new book, a look at life behind the cash wrap, is “Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail”, is out April 14, 2011 from Portfolio.

A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, she has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe.

A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she is the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor), and five journalism fellowships. Born and raised in Canada,
she has lived in the U.S. since 1988, and has also lived in England, France and Mexico.

Leeswammes’ experiences as a retail assistant and shopper

I worked as a supermarket cashier in my teens. I was a bit shy and it really helped me to learn to interact with many different types of people. Luckily, Dutch law required us to have coffee breaks in the morning and afternoon as well as a 30 minute lunch break!

As a shopper, I recently felt treated unpleasantly by a shop assistant. I had tried on a lot of items and hinted I may buy at least 2 or 3 pieces. But when I tried them one last time, in the privacy of the changing rooms, I decided that she hadn’t given me good advice, and decided to buy just one piece. And she said: “What, only ONE? And I never thought you’d buy THAT top!” and she didn’t look too pleased. In my opinion, she should have thought that, but never say it aloud.

I’d  love to hear your own experiences (bad or good) as a customer or as a retail employee!

Have YOU got any interesting experiences in retail?

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