In 2007 Caitlin Kelly found herself unable to get enough work as a journalist despite the fact that her résumé was brimming with articles she did for The New York Times, The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Glamour, and many more national publications. So how did she end up selling high-end outdoor wear for The North Face? Times are that tough.
The book she has written about her own experience and that of others is Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retailing. It was published in April by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin, and focuses on well-known retailers such as Nordstrom, J. Crew, Williams-Sonoma, WalMart and Best Buy.
Kelly will be at Warner Library at 7 p.m. Thursday for a reading and question-and-answer session.
“People always have a lot to say,” Kelly said of the readings, “since everyone shops and can identify with this book. Many have worked in retail, too. America is a nation of consumers.”
The book is being published in China, too, in translation, and may end up as a sitcom on CBS. A veteran Hollywood scriptwriter, who worked on Murphy Brown among others, is writing a script.
“If they like it they’ll shoot a pilot. There hasn’t been a Hollywood show set in a store,” Kelly said. “I get e-mail every day from people who are not only associates but managers as well, who are saying ‘you’ve got it right, you really understand what I’m going through.’”
Kelly lost her job as a reporter and feature writer for The New York Daily News in 2006 and just couldn’t get anything else in the field. “Twenty-four thousand journalists lost their jobs that year, a lot my age (nearing fifty) who are experienced and therefore seen as expensive.”
Passionate about her work, she’s frustrated by those who question whether she took the sales job simply to gather material. “I didn’t do it just to write the book!” she said. “I don’t do stunts. It offends me (when people say that.) I once worked on a tall ship for five days and that was to write a story, but this was 27 months of my life. I needed the money. There’s this assumption that anyone can get a job (in their field) but I couldn’t. When no one responds to my resume or answers my calls, what do I do? If you don’t understand why I made that choice, you don’t have my work ethic, my values, or my bills.”
In Malled, she talks about the big stores, interviews retail consultant Paco Underhill, upscale local retailer Jack Mitchell, Costco CFO Richard Galanti, and sales associates from around the country. She spoke with three local merchants, Aqueel Ghouri of Tarrytown Pharmacy (now closed); Hassan Jarane of successful , now in the process of expanding; and Gregg Goldberg of .
“Retail is like the color blue because there are so many variations within it,” she said, “it can be turquoise, navy, teal. Retail can vary from working in a store your grandfather founded, as Gregg does, with just a few people as staff, to the giant national stores. Gregg answers only to himself, and doesn’t have the excuse of the big stores that they can’t raise salaries because of insane, relentless pressure from Wall Street to show consistent profit.” She is adamant that productive sales associates deserve more pay and all of them deserve more respect.
There are positives about the retail business. Kelly spoke of Waldy Peralta, who went to work for when he was still in high school. “He was gay and Hispanic,” she said, “and rejected by his family. Gregg became almost a surrogate Dad. It’s not like an office, it’s small, and a boss relies on his staff. And we can forget these people and local stores that are so important to us…Tarrytown local stores would always be my first choice, then the big stores only if they don’t have what I need. Gregg’s prices aren’t higher, he’s smart. If Tarrytown were just a bunch of mall stores I wouldn’t live here. I’m glad it’s not. Relationships make life interesting. Even if you have beautiful merchandise yet your staff is rude, I’m not buying.”
She deplored the callousness of WalMart. In a Black Friday stampede in 2008, one of their employees was killed in the crush of bargain-hunters as the store opened for the beginning of the Christmas season. “OSHA fined WalMart $7,000, pocket change for a company that spent millions on lawyers to fight this case. They have blood on their hands. I would never shop there. They completely lack morals but nobody’s boycotting them,” Kelly said.
Chapter One of Malled can be downloaded from her website, www.caitlinkelly.com, or at http://www.malledthebook.com/ and copies of the book will be available at the reading for purchase. This is her second book. The first, Blown Away: American Women and Guns, focused on “female felons, law enforcement officers and military, legislators and lobbyists, Olympic athletes” and millions of women who’ve bought guns for self-defense and for hunting. Other stories include “women who’ve shot or been shot, or who have lost loved ones to firearms-related homicide or suicide.” She spoke of the horrors she’s heard about in the course of her work, stories that won’t go away. Excerpts from both books and many of her articles are available on www.caitlinkelly.com. One exclusive interview was with Patty Varone, the female bodyguard who was with Rudy Giuliani on the morning of September 11, whose job it was to keep him safe that day.
“My interview with Brian Lehrer on WNYC was rerun for Labor Day,” Kelly said. “I was really honored that they included me.” Hear it online through her website (click on “author”) or at www.wnyc.org. Kelly recently gave the closing keynote in Minneapolis at the Retail Customer Experience Conference, where she spoke as “the voice of associates who don’t usually have one.”