Entry-level retail positions exemplify dead-end service jobs. Corporate management degrades these jobs by maintaining a mostly part-time workforce that earns minimum wage and endures unpredictable scheduling, including receiving 10 hours one week and zero hours the next.
Such labor practices are pervasive in the U.S. clothing retail subsector. Workers at stores like Forever 21 and Hollister had lots to say about their low wages and everchanging work hours. They also detailed how retailers required them to represent the brand.
Studying clothing stores allows us to examine the basic bread-and-butter issues that pop up across low-wage industries, as well as the bodily demands of organizational fit that are especially salient to brand-based service work.
We interviewed people in their late teens and 20-somethings to explore how “the brand” shapes retail work in stores in the youth fast-fashion niche.
Representing the brand
Retail workers don’t just fold clothing, unlock fitting rooms, and clean up after customers. They also exude the lifestyle associated with the store brand by wearing the merchandise and styling themselves appropriately.
Twenty years ago, U.K. scholars Chris Warhurst and Dennis Nickson noticed that low-wage jobs explicitly sought workers who already had the desired aesthetic.
They developed the concept of aesthetic labor to illuminate this particular form of paid work that entails embodying the organization’s signature style.
Abercrombie & Fitch offers a robust case study. Abercrombie’s retail workers resemble the good-looking, scantily clad models depicted on the store’s posters and shopping bags.
Frontline managers recruit and assign job tasks based on looks. Appearance shapes numerous aspects of the labor process, which aims to maximize the aesthetic appeal of employees who are visible to customers.
Patricia, a white woman with blond hair, light eyes, and a shapely 5’6” figure, was recruited to work at two Abercrombie-affiliated stores. “They rate you on your looks,” she explained about store managers, “And that’s really what it’s about. They just care about how you look.”
After being directed to reveal more skin, Patricia decided to quit.
White women are at the top of the racialized beauty hierarchies within clothing stores. While they experience material rewards, namely more hours, the emphasis on sex appeal can feel demeaning.
Black women, especially those who are darker-skinned and/or have natural hairstyles, are at the bottom of these racialized beauty hierarchies.
As Liz described, these stores “want to promote an idea that they accept like all races, which is good. But then their ((air quotes gesture)) ‘Black’ girl will be a girl that is, from the looks of it, she’s probably not fully Black. She’s got the curly hair, but she’s not my skin color. She’s extremely lighter than me, and so I kind of feel like that’s their way of being, “That’s somebody that looks like you.” It’s like, no, that’s not somebody that looks like me. She’s not me at all.”
Anti-Black racism isn’t limited to beauty hierarchies. It shapes every facet of the labor process, including worker relationships with corporate and frontline managers, coworkers, and customers.
Surveillance and anti-Black racism
Black shoppers are subject to heightened monitoring while looking for jeans.
Preventing customers from stealing merchandise is one of the few areas where workers receive training. Tia, a Black woman who worked at Forever 21, was told to “kill them with kindness.” Management directs employees to intensively interact with people they suspect of shoplifting.
Several Black workers we interviewed commented that Black people are more highly scrutinized as they shop.
As if that’s not bad enough, managers force Black workers to do the racist task of closely watching Black customers. Pauline is a Black woman who worked at Hollister, the Abercrombie-owned store with a seagull logo, for over 4 years. She shared her annoyance with her white manager telling her to monitor Black customers, saying, “Yeah, and I was just like, ‘Oh, ok. Because it’s racist if you do it. But if I do it, it’s okay.’”
The criminalization of Black shoppers also affects Black workers, who are expected to wear the clothes as on-the-job uniforms.
One day Pauline arrived early for a shift and purchased a sweater that she immediately changed into for her work outfit. Even though managers regularly encourage employees to buy merchandise and wear it at work to perform aesthetic labor, the store manager accused Pauline of stealing the sweater.
The manager profiled Pauline, a Black employee, and wrongly accused her of theft. Eventually the manager apologized, but corporate didn’t intervene despite Pauline’s formal complaint.
“I was just like so insulted because I already have to deal with that when I like go to other stores. I’ve had people try to follow me and stuff like that,” Pauline explained, “but then to have my own manager accuse me of something like that—like that’s just really insulting.” As a result, Pauline quit her job.
Hyper-surveillance of Black people within clothing retail helps illuminate the racialized practices built into 21st century service workplaces.
Retail workers are constantly being monitored while also doing surveillance themselves. They’re operating within the service panopticon.
Workers never know if they are being watched from afar through video cameras, secret shoppers, and other technology. They also perform self-surveillance to ensure their performance of aesthetic labor and other expected tasks, such as using scripted greetings to welcome customers.
Surveillance and other power dynamics flow through a labor process featuring four groups: (1) workers, (2) customers, (3) frontline managers, and (4) corporate managers. Alliances and conflicts are constantly unfolding and resolving within this quadrangular arrangement.
Workers often resist corporate pressures. From refusing to push customers to buy more stuff to ignoring directives to buy more stuff themselves, retail workers are agentic humans enduring bad jobs—unlike the unthinking, coiffed mannequins in the store window.
To read more, see: Joya Misra and Kyla Walters. Walking Mannequins: How Race and Gender Inequalities Shape Retail Clothing Work published by University of California Press, 2022.
Image: Cover design Jody Hanson via University of California Press; cover photo: iStock