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The best place to read this book is a shopping mall. To be more precise, read it in a coffee shop on a public holiday when they run out of the food you want, be pushy and try to con you into buying overpriced food you don’t want which you don’t end up buying, and serve your drink cold. As you feel your disappointment growing at the beverage that seems to have a 15 per cent charge thrown on it because it’s still the Easter weekend, turn to page 72 of Caitlin Kelly’s Malled and read about how those on the other side of the register “were all equally screwed”. “It creates its own sad solidarity.”

Malled (as in maul, not pal, for those Strayans who reckon they pronounce it properly when they don’t) offers an insight into a world many of us choose to take for granted, dismiss unthinkingly or have deliberately blanked from our memories. It is the world of retail, the business that acts as a weathervane for discretionary consumer spending, for the economy more broadly, and the mood of cranky, frustrated housewives who have to vent their pent-up frustration on somebody and it might as well be the person behind the counter. Retail is big business, as Kelly points out with facts and figures on the US industry. But it’s also one that exploits cheap labour. We’re fairly familiar with the idea that the products are produced cheaply in places like China and Vietnam and Cambodia, but the cheap labour market in the US and the crap retail associates put up with has been less widely exposed. Kelly brings this side of the equation to life with the personal, breezy touch of a seasoned features and magazine writer. (She has written for many major publications over decades.)

My favourite shopping mall, Taman Anggrek in Jakarta. Note the ice skating rink on the "third" floor (second from top). Thanks to Suharwan's photostream on Flickr.

As someone who did the rite of passage working in Kmart, a bookstore and restaurants as a teenager, what shocked me most was how little the retail associates in the United States of America were being paid. Kelly, who had been fired from the Daily News in New York, wanted a steady part-time job while also earning erratic money for freelance writing. She earned $11 per hour. This was not the lowest wage in retail in the US. Now, I know the tax system’s different, I understand that the cost of living is different, and I understand that the Australian dollar is unusually high right now, but the minimum wage in Australia is $15 per hour. That’s the federally mandated minimum for adults. Casual employees get a 21 per cent loading. Permanent part-time employees get pro rata sick leave, etc. (Of course, people work for cash a lot cheaper in Vietnamese-run takeaways, a decade ago I got $6 per hour but I was finishing high school and it was pocket money.) The repetition and the boredom Kelly tells us of, stacking and hanging and folding and sorting and cleaning, I was more familiar with. In the toy section at Kmart I would spend an entire shift straightening Lego and Barbie boxes and walk around and repeat the process like those who paint the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But that they put up with rude and abusive customers, uncaring bosses, broken and inadequate equipment for pay cheques that were so small was staggering. As Kelly points out, that means those in retail often have no choice in their employment, or that it is the best of limited options. (There are exceptions, which she explains, where people meant to be in retail are in rare jobs that rewards them appropriately.) Service suffers because the associates are not motivated and are unrewarded and undervalued. The customers suffer for it. No doubt profit suffers for it. In short, everyone suffers.

A portrait of the author, Caitlin Kelly.

Malled reads like a long magazine piece. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Occasionally it feels over-extended, and there is a bit of repetition, but more often it breezes along very smartly from one interesting anecdote from her years on the sales floor to interviews with experts that illustrate broader points about the industry. The charm is that it is personal yet illustrative of the wider industry without getting bogged down in macro-economic theories.

Yet even as she is chatty and engaging, quite a few barbs are inserted along the way to widen the eyes and make the reader take notice. “Bloodstains on the merch? Not an option.” That’s an example of the friendly writing style that permeates the book even when writing about working so hard her hands were dry and cracking and bleeding. She writes of retail nightmares and deaths, horror customers and murders. There are examples of bitterness and bitchiness and callousness in the book, but it is not written as a rant against the industry. Kelly also points out the positives, explains what was enjoyable and appealing about the job at The North Face and the coworkers she loved best (although names have been changed). She writes of how she fell out of love with the job without any malice, although there is disappointment at the way retail associates are treated as expendable. That is the book’s purpose, to make us think twice about the people behind the counter and the crap they have to put up with.

So, read this book over coffee in a shopping mall. Look around and listen. Overhear the fact the barista in her early 20s wants to get a job at a law firm. Just remember, they are people too.

UPDATE: Even though you can figure out where to buy it for yourself, if you choose, here is a link to Malled‘s page at Amazon.com.

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