Dress Barn, Shopko Go Bust. How About 'Buy Everything Day'?
Today it was announced that Dress Barn would be closing all 650 of its stores and its business in general. This has been happening a lot lately, as people have begun to do most of their shopping online rather than in stores. Shopko, a department store chain, recently announced it would be closing all of its stores as well.
Then there's the mall store Charlotte Russe, which closed all of its stores in March. I actually worked there in high school, and at Contempo Casuals, which later became Wet Seal, and which closed all of its stores last January (though it's still online). Many other "mall stores" are also either closing entirely or closing a huge chunk of their stores.
Dress Barn was a terrible and oddly insulting-sounding name for a store. The fact that it survived for as long as it did with marketing that bad actually speaks very well for the store itself. If it were not doing an incredibly good job providing many women with what they wanted, clothing-wise, I do not think they would have survived this long. While I can't speak to that personally, since the last time I lived in an area that had one I was 14 years old (though I did get a very nice purple crushed velvet baby-doll dress there for my grandparent's anniversary when I was in 8th grade), a lot of people today are talking about how much they appreciated that they could get nice work clothes there for a reasonable price -- and also in a wide range of sizes. That's awesome. There should be more of that, not less.
But the real problem isn't just people losing a store they like. It's the fact that all of the people working at those 650 stores no longer have jobs–about 6,800 people in total. (And 18,000 employees are losing their jobs at Shopko, which often served towns of 3,000 to 5,000 people, too small for any other store where you could buy, say, socks and a toaster.) And the way things are going, it's going to be pretty hard for them to find jobs in the same line of work. The vast majority of these people, also, are women.
As bad as retail can be in some ways—not-so-great labor practices, mean customers, aching feet—it's really not a "bad" job. I genuinely, genuinely, love shopping for people, and I am good at it. I love looking at a person, running around a store and grabbing things I know will look great on them, and then having them love those things (my spatial relations skills are out of this world, I don't need or even want to know your size—everything fits differently anyway, so just trust me, ok?). I like doing window displays. I like spacing hangers. I like just being around clothes. I would rather work retail than work almost any other job besides writing. Sometimes I even think about picking up a couple shifts a week at a store just because I actually just like doing it.
Retail is a job you can do even if you did not go to college, and as much as pay might suck for sales associates, it's not hard to move up the ladder in the smaller stores (unlike, say, in a store like Walmart with a ton of employees). And as you move up the ladder, your pay increases and you really can earn a reasonable middle class living. It's really one of the few jobs that allow people to do that.
There's gonna be a lot of variety here because a lot of VMs are VERY part time and many have more than one VM job.
Depending on the store, you can make a decent living even as a sales associate. The average income for a sales associate working on commission at Neiman Marcus is $42,558. The men who work on commission in the women's shoe department at Neiman's (YEP, just the men. It's a whole thing, because rich ladies like to buy their shoes from nice looking men) are rumored to make high six-figure salaries.
Losing these jobs is a scary thing. We can't function as a country if there are not enough ways for people without college degrees to have jobs that are both somewhat enjoyable and satisfying and which also pay them enough to live on. We are running out of jobs that people without college degrees can have that don't totally suck.
It's not just online shopping that's to blame, I think it's a combination of things. I was working retail during the recession, and it was not easy. People were cutting back a lot and stopped going shopping as much in general. They got out of the habit. And by the time they felt OK about spending money again, online shopping had blown up and they just did more of that. It was probably especially a thing for people who didn't live in urban areas and didn't have a lot to choose from, locally. I know how that is! I grew up in a small town and it was legitimately hard work to find things that were cool or different.
But I'm gonna say something I never thought I'd say, given my strong anti-capitalist/never-pay-retail-for-anything-on-principle streak. GO TO THE FUCKING MALL THIS WEEKEND. Or just, the next time you need to do some shopping, do it in person, at an actual store. At a chain store, at a small, independently owned store, whatever. Sure, it's fine to buy some things online here and there for things you probably can't find in a store, better if you can buy things directly from someone who made the things themselves, but doing it all the time is hurting people. The prices of things online are the same, for the most part, as they are in brick and mortar stores, and when you shop at a physical store, you're spending the same amount of money *and* helping someone keep their job. In fact, because of shipping and handling charges, you might be paying less.
I also happen think it's better for people, psychologically, to physically go places instead of doing everything online. Going to Marshall's is pretty much my favorite form of therapy, and a computer can never truly re-create the experience of spending an hour in the candle aisle. I also think parents who have teenagers should drop said teenagers off at the mall on the weekends sometimes, so they can get some in-person socializing in, instead of doing all their socializing from their phones. And malls should also not ban teenagers from hanging out there, because that's gross, rude, and self-defeating (and yes, usually racist).
It's becoming a question of ethics. Kant's categorical imperative holds that one should "act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law." If everyone only did all of their shopping online, retail jobs would not exist, and I don't think the loss of these jobs is something any of us think is a net good for society.
In a world where our actual votes barely count because of the stupid electoral college, the vote you make with your dollar can be the most important and effective vote you cast.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse