Here’s a book review I wrote for Epinions in January 2010. I am reposting it as/is.
I once had a stint working as a retail sales associate. Luckily, I worked in a mens’ shirt store, where the customers didn’t tend to be too demanding. I spent about seven months doing that job until I was blessedly delivered from retail hell by a stint in the Peace Corps. I think my little taste of working retail was enough to last me the rest of my life.
Freeman Hall, author of Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store– Confessions of a Tortured Sales Associate (2009), did not have as much luck as I did breaking away from retail slavery. Hall, who is very much an out of the closet homosexual, writes that he loves stylish clothes. Working in retail was one good way to be able to afford them. After all, the one fabulous perk of working retail is an employee discount. Of course, Freeman Hall never planned to spend years working in retail. His real ambition is to be a screenwriter. But he still has to pay the bills and he wants to look good doing it.
Hall goes to hell
So Freeman Hall heads over to the personnel office of a big department store he refers to as “The Big Fancy”. He is hoping for a job in housewares or maybe men’s clothing. He gets a job selling handbags. Not purses, mind you– Hall explains that the “p-word” is akin to the filthiest expletive at The Big Fancy– but handbags, very expensive designer handbags made by Kate Spade, Coach, and Marc Jacobs, among other big names. These are the kinds of bags that run hundreds or even thousands of dollars. And Freeman, who is the only male sales associate in handbags, gets a commission for every single one he sells.
But– in order to make his commissions, Freeman Hall must deliver excellent customer service to every one of the many different types of strange and difficult people retail stores attract. Hall has all sorts of irreverent names for these people, all of whom are women and regular shoppers at The Big Fancy. There’s the Nasty @$$ Thief, the Snot Monster, Picky B*tch, Discount Rat, and, of course, Shoposaurus Carnotaurus, just to name a few.
Hall must deal with some very distasteful and somewhat shockingly bizarre scenarios, as well as obnoxious co-workers. In one disturbing chapter, he writes about covering someone in the swimwear department while she went on her lunch break. While Freeman and another woman were in swimwear, they were visited by a skinny woman who had taken six swimsuits into a fitting room to try on. Later, the woman came out of the fitting room without her swimsuits. Freeman and his colleague were annoyed, thinking she’d left the suits in a pile on the floor. If only the pile she’d left had been that simple to clean up…
Hall also writes about about the store management’s many wacky ways to keep the associates sales pumping. For instance, Hall explains the eight flights of stairs he and his colleagues must climb and descend before and after every single shift. The eight flights of stairs were a feature at most of The Big Fancy stores in the United States because the store’s founder wanted sales associates to get their exercise. Sometimes management would decorate the stairwell or pipe obnoxious music in it to help the associates gain enthusiasm. They would also hold ridiculous pep rallies in an attempt to boost sales along with attitudes. Apparently, their efforts to boost spirits fell far short of their goals.
I’m of a mixed mind about this book. First off, having once worked retail, I had an inkling about Hall’s experiences, although his were much more bizarre than mine ever were. Some of Freeman Hall’s stories are hilarious and he does have a delightfully snarky way of expressing himself.
On the other hand, some of his descriptions of his customers and co-workers came across to me as very mean spirited. After awhile, that aspect of this book grated on my nerves. Now… don’t get me wrong… I have worked retail and been a waitress. I know how hard it can be to work in a service oriented job, particularly when it involves spending money on luxuries. People can be brutal to sales associates, treating them like slaves and talking to them as if they’re less than human. Oftentimes, managers and co-workers can be just as bad as the customers, making an already stressful work environment even worse.
But there must have been something else attractive about that job besides the employee discounts, because Hall stuck around for a number of years, collecting his anecdotes for this book. He never really explains what it was, besides paying his bills and buying designer clothes, that made him sell handbags for as long as he did. I guess, in a way, this book is sort of like the ultimate payback for the way Hall was treated as a retail slave. I guess I can’t really blame him for writing this book, which is sort of a retail version of Waiter Rant a book I recently read by Steve Dublanica.
I predict that a lot of people who have worked retail will relate to this book and laugh out loud reading it. I also predict some people will get tired of the endless carping jokes and wish for a little more humanity. After all, while a lot of us have worked in retail, almost all of us have shopped retail. As I read this book, I sort of cringed, wondering if I had ever inspired a retail worker to come up with a mean spirited nickname for me. I also wondered, in the wake of Hall’s often very snarky rants, why I should feel sorry for him, especially given the fact that so many Americans would love to have a job… any job. And lots of people in retail would love to have a customer… any customer.
I did like this book, but I can’t say I loved it. Maybe I’m just getting too old to read stuff like this. I probably would have loved reading this when I was still in my 20s. Freeman Hall has a gift for storytelling and some of his descriptions are hilarious. I could practically hear him talking through his very colorful words and vivid depictions. But in the end, I think I was overcome by the constant crassness, which is why this book gets four stars instead of five. My mother would be so proud to finally see this day come.
And here is a link to Retail Hell Underground, a place where there are many hellish stories about life working in retail.
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