Up front: February 2013

Shop till you drop

Napolean derided England as a “nation of shopkeepers” — though he later said he meant that as a compliment — and from the annual rankings of North Carolina’s largest private-sector employees we’ve compiled for 23 years now, I’d say we’re well on our way to becoming a state of salesclerks. Retailers compose a quarter of this year’s list, and the people on their payrolls make up nearly a third of its combined workforce.

I asked Associate Editor Erin Dunn, who was in charge of compiling this year’s ranking and co-authored the cover story that accompanies it (page 48), what she thinks the implications of this are. She did so by sharing some personal and family experiences.

“I took my first job in June 2001, reporting to work at a Kroger store. The country’s largest grocer, based in my hometown of Cincinnati, was a logical choice since my older sister was a part-time cashier there. It was also one of the few places that hired 15-year-olds. After my first summer bagging groceries, I was promoted to running a cash register. By the time I left in August 2004 — just before enrolling at UNC Chapel Hill — I was something of an oddity.”

Most high-school students stayed only a few months and rarely a year. But the job proved to be a good fit for her. “The main benefit was flexible hours — I had a busy extracurricular schedule that included varsity fast-pitch softball, and Kroger let me work only one day a week in the spring. I also enjoyed the regular customers — one older gentleman used to sing me an Irish song based on my name — and the sense of self-reliance.

“I made friends with the full-timers and learned to appreciate the value of earning my own money and how to spend and save it. I was required to be a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, a point of some contention among us high-school students since we paid about $5 a week for dues but saw few benefits. Our store’s break room was littered with pamphlets, some decrying working conditions at Wal-Mart, Kroger’s largest competitor, which has few union workers. But I didn’t think about what a career in retail meant until spring 2011, when my mom started a job in a Kroger bakery.”

Her mother had stayed at home raising five kids until the youngest turned 10, then worked part time in a school cafeteria. Shortly after Erin graduated from high school, she went back to being a dental assistant, her career until she had her second child. “The pay wasn’t great, but it was a decent job until the economy tanked and her employer decided to retire at the end of 2009. She spent a year looking for work and seven months in Georgia helping me care for my newborn son before returning home and gritting her teeth to accept any kind of job she could get.”

Nearly 56, she’s now a cashier in the same store because the rheumatoid arthritis she has had since her mid-30s (and some lazy co-workers, she tells Erin) made the bakery job too difficult. “But her hours are uncertain, and her pay is low. She gets just one week of paid vacation and squeaks by because of alimony payments from my dad, a mail carrier.”

It’s part of the new service economy, Erin concludes. “Many aging workers like my mom are afraid they’re too old to compete or don’t have the time for more training. They will increasingly take dead-end jobs because it’s the only way they can imagine remaining somewhat independent. Is this good for our economy? Maybe so, at least in the short term. But I can’t help but think we’ll end up shouldering the burden for these workers sooner rather than later.”

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