Book Review: Retail Hell by Freeman Hall

March 5, 2011
Title: Retail Hell
Author: Freeman Hall
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2011 
Source: I purchased this book.

Retail Hell: How I Sold My Soul to the Store-Confessions of a Tortured Sales Associate by Freeman Hall is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time. 

I understand it so well because I have worked in retail and I know exactly how accurate his account of miserable days spent in retail can be -- even in a luxury department store. Hall worked at "The Big Fancy" (apparently Nordstrom's) for many years and has a dead-on talent for skewering the pretensions of managers and the obnoxiousness of high-end customers. I admit that if I hadn't worked in retail I might not get the humor -- customers defecating in fitting rooms and insane store managers -- but it's so true!

He appropriately calls his store manager Suzy Satan. 

There are no rules but:
A confusing lecture about sales requirements came next. If we didn't sell more in commissions than our hourly rate, we ended up doing something they called Misfire. Apparently it was the equivalent of committing murder at The Big Fancy, and if we did it three times in a row, we were viewed as "Ineffective Sales Associates" and considered "not a right fit". Termination was initiated. Suzy Satan announced all of this with a smile that had to be hiding something wicked.
Hall was quite probably the first man to sell handbags in Los Angeles. He sells extremely expensive luxury handbags selling for thousands of dollars. Yes -- it's handbags, never purses:
Handbag instead of purse. Sounded easy enough. But until that point I'm pretty sure the word handbag had never come from my mouth. In my world of ignorant maleness, the clunky contraptions women stuffed full of whatever were called purses. Not handbags.
He lovingly details the phoniness of management -- how they pretend to love salespeople but really despise them. A sign at the employee entrance reads: THROUGH THESE DOORS WALK THE MOST IMPORTANT PEOPLE IN OUR COMPANY -- but this sign appears after employees must climb the EIGHT flights of stairs just to reach the employee entrance before beginning a full day of work.

I was literally shouting with laughter as I read some of this book because it is so true. His accounts of his initial orientation (training), when a manager showed a drawing of a sun to the new recruits, contains such heartwarming phrases as "You are the center of the sun. How bright you shine affects everything."

Hall also describes "morning rallies" (that's what the morning meetings are called) and he is spot-on accurate. His department manager/cheerleader also will give her own personal pep talks to her staff:

I'm holding this meeting because we have a lot to work on here, people. We missed our month twice in a row. There was a 22% decrease in January, a 13% decrease last month. You know how Suzy feels about third strikes. I absolutely cannot allow this department to miss another month. The unemployment rate in Los Angeles is at an all-time high, and I'm sure I can find plenty of hungry people to sell handbags and get me increases."
Of course, retail sales almost always decrease in January because the holidays are over, but retail managers conveniently never remember that. Retail -- where you never do anything right. Retail -- where associates fight and claw to get the customers and the sales and you are constantly pitted against one another for your metrics and sales goals, and where you are constantly threatened with losing your job. Ever wonder why retail associates in "nice" stores always look so miserable? Read this book.

The only thing that Hall rarely mentions is the obsessive drive for retail associates to open store credit cards with high interest rates. Perhaps it was not that bad at the time he worked in retail. Retailers now will fire people who do not open enough credit accounts -- how hard you work doesn't matter.

Now be warned: Hall can be snarky about the customers and management, and his language is quite harsh -- if you don't like cursing, you might be offended. I admit that I really was tired of the excessively graphic language and felt that much of it was unnecessary.

You can read Freeman Hall's blog at Retail Hell Underground.

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