Campus

Working ‘Till College Do Us Part

When May is coming, all college students can think of is the potential for adventure, fun and sleep during their summer months. No more homework or projects or whatnots.

Well, at least until your internship starts, you get hired at your summer job, and finding the time to split between your friends at home, from school, and all that family you missed out on during the school year. Suddenly, you’re sick of your own summer. When’s the right time to quit?

For each person this question differs. Obviously the money aspect plays a big role and everyone’s fiscal responsibilities vary according to need, want and current stature. So this question is very personal for many. If you need to keep working or work hours on end during the week, quitting your job early may not be the write solution for you. However, as long as friends and family, a good book or show to binge online surrounds you, you’ll get a little break until the academic calendar offers a little solace.

However, if you do not fall under that category, there are many variables you need to take into account.

Are you happy at your job?

This is a question that has many parts. Are your coworkers nice; are your bosses understanding; are you paid well enough for your task? If your answers to these questions are astounding yeses, then you may be happy to keep working. Considering how rare that is, enjoy it while it lasts. But if you’re counting down every hour from the moment you get in, your bosses haven’t listened or respected your requests, the pay isn’t worth the treatment and work you’ve completed, then maybe you shouldn’t stay there all summer. How many times have you been able to see the friends and family from home since starting work? Have you actually taken time to relax before the academic grind begins? Did you go on an adventure of sorts? Don’t loose your summer to a job.

Leave time to relax, to craft, to see friends, to explore, to do anything your young collegiate heart desires. You’ll be working when you’re back in school. If you can afford it and need it, take some time for yourself.

How much time you need is up to you. If you hate your job, need some more money, but don’t want to loose your time at home to this paid task, why not quit a little before. A week, depending on how many things you want to do. Two weeks if you’re traveling or visiting friends and family. If you need that much time for the amount of events you want to complete this summer, do it. Take a month if at all possible.

Just remember to try and follow protocol. It’s never a bad thing to have another work reference or experience on your resume for the future. So try to at least give two weeks notice, more so if possible. Bring it up when you have their full attention. Tell them how grateful you were for this opportunity, even if you hated every second of it and are imagining the fanfare when you walk out. Explain that you need to start focusing on getting back to school, means it had nothing to do with them or your feelings towards them. And give an exact date of when your last day will be. Then, there will be no confusion of when to start the trumpeters.

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Globe, Style

Fast Fashion: Who’s Really Paying the Price?

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Werner Wittersheim, “Köln / Cologne (Germany): Primark” under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

The brown paper bags are ubiquitous. It is impossible to walk down Washington Street or anywhere in the Downtown Crossing area without seeing them. They can be the size of a lunch bag or the size of a suitcase; either way, the hands they are held in swing them back and forth, content with their purchases.

I’m talking about the Primark bags.

Since Primark opened it’s first US store in Boston this past September, it’s been bringing in crowds of fashion savvy bargain hunters, with lines going out the door to get in on weekends. The different sections of women’s, men’s, children’s and home means there’s something in the store for everyone. And it is so irresistibly, miraculously, unbelievably cheap. It’s placement in America’s college city is perfect, considering it’s the exact price-range for a college student’s budget.  (I admit, I even have fallen victim to “Primania” and actually wrote about it.)

But all of this money-saving goodness doesn’t come without some sort of catch. The reason these clothes can be priced the way they are is because the people who make them don’t get paid nearly enough for their labor. While we may want to brush this off as “That’s just the way it is,” the issue is much more serious than that. The overworked laborers and unacceptable working conditions amount to a deadly equation. Using Primark as an example, a factory in Bangladesh where their products were being made collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.  Primark had to add a page to their website explaining their “ethics” after the Rana Plaza incident.

This is a problem bigger than Primark itself. “Fast fashion” was propound by stores that have been in the US for a while. In every major mall, there is at least one H&M or Forever 21; sometimes both. These stores have started a “retail revolution”, turning the traditional department stores on their head because of their low prices and quick merchandise turnaround. No one can compete with the ever changing array of displays that seem to happen on a weekly basis inside a Forever 21 or H&M.

These rapid demands, combined with the lightning lifespan of current fashion trends, mean companies produce stock at incredible speeds. In order to keep up with demands, companies switch suppliers based on whoever can manufacture the fastest. This means compliance with Western workplace standards get lost in the process.  In “The Myth of the Ethical Shopper”, reporter Michael Hobbes discusses the stark difference in time clothing gets made now:

“These days, there’s no such thing as cycles, only products. If a shirt is selling well, Wal-Mart orders its suppliers to make more. If headbands inexplicably come into fashion, H&M rushes to make millions of them before they go out again. This flexibility means that factories have to compete on the number of clothing lines they can produce and how quickly they can switch from one to another. Chinese manufacturers that once made four products at a time now make 300. Locke profiles a Honduran supplier that used to have around two months to prepare orders for Western brands—buy fabric, cut T-shirt shapes out of it, sew them together, send them to stores. Now they get one week.”

(This Huffington Post long form piece goes into great detail about the labyrinth that is overseas worker exploitation.)

Yet, the scope of this issue can be overwhelming for a girl who just wants a cute, cheap dress for Friday night. Whenever I see conversations about the morality of buying certain products online, the phrase “There is no ethical consumption under late capitalism” is often repeated. Meaning, the market is out of the hands of a regular consumer. But I don’t think this fact has to mean people accept this system as the way things must be.

The number one question people always ask when confronted with this issue is “What can I do about it?” Besides giving money to non profits that may or may not even help those in sweatshops (see ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ controversy), there is little that the average consumer can actually do. One buying practice that I’m certainly glad has become socially acceptable is going thrift shopping or buying consignment. While the original piece itself may have been made overseas, it’s good to use an item for as long as possible. Avoiding new purchases whenever you can is not only ethical, but a big money saver. Seriously looking at an item before checkout and asking yourself, “Do I really need this?” can go a long way.

My only other suggestion would be to embrace the normcore lifestyle. Normcore (a portmanteau of normal and hardcore) is the idea that fashion should be simple. Its pieces are timeless, classic articles of clothing that could be worn in any era, because they are unbranded and plain colored. Going normcore may be the one true fashion trend that stops this madness, because it is decidedly anti-fashion.

It’s a lot to take in, but the next time you see someone holding that brown paper Primark bag, reconsider if you’d want to be holding one yourself.

Opinion

The New Mall Culture (And Tips for Surviving It)

Changing fashion trends and the rise of online retailers has changed malls from the malls we grew up seeing depicted in 90s teen movies. Despite major rebranding efforts from wildly popular malls from the 90s and 00s, stores like Delia’s and Abercrombie & Fitch seem to have missed the mark with teens today. This year, Delia’s closed all its stores and Gap announced its plans to reduce their number of stores by 175. It seems teens would rather shop at thrift stores and Forever 21 than buy a shirt branded with the Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch logo. American retailers appear to be struggling to maintain steady business as fashion trends and methods of shopping drastically change.

As an employee of the same mall on the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts for the past four years, I have seen the decline in foot traffic. Even with the allure of no sales tax just over the New Hampshire border, malls seem to have transformed from suburban gathering places on weekends to now being the destination for sporadic trips at best. I have gone from working in a children’s clothing store where it seemed like my main job was to keep kids under control to now working in a high end women’s clothing store, where a pair of pants cost more than what I make in a day, and my main job is to entertain bored housewives with small talk.

Tips for surviving retail employment:

  • Make friends with employees at the other stores. It can lead to discounts and insider scoop on upcoming sales.
  • Similarly, befriend the employees of food stands and food court restaurants in order to receive discounts. (For me, I know becoming friendly with the people at the pretzel place has worked in my favor.)
  • Bring a book to make it through the lulls when no one in the store is intellectually stimulating.
  • Turn the bizarre coworker and customer encounters into inspiration to further creative projects.
  • If not inspiration for writing, at least let them become funny anecdotes to tell your friends.
  • Embrace the diversity of stores within the mall, as well as the diversity of the different employees that work at each store. It can lead to a very eclectic environment.
  • Learn all you can from working at a supposedly “dead end retail job,” because customer service skills look great on a resume. (Not sure how to do this? Check out my article about it here.)

American brand stores, such as Gap, J. Crew, and Abercrombie & Fitch, have reported slumping sales. Instead, consumers are spending their money at foreign-owned, fast-fashioned retailers, such as H&M and Zara. It seems American malls filled with American stores may be on the decline without a lot of hope to make a rebound. Only time will tell.

Even though working at a mall has had it ups and down, from the larger than usual paychecks after working long holiday hours to the irate customers who are more full of self-loathing than anger towards the store, I will always hold on to a bit of nostalgia towards the suburban American mall. After all, it provided me with employment throughout my teen years and bizarre inspiration for countless years to come.

Opinion

Real World Education in Retail

It was a typical day at work when my manager yelled at me from the fitting room to go get her a pair of scissors. Naively, I assumed I was fetching them in order to cut off tags. Instead, I found a woman stuck in a dress that was about 4 sizes too small, with the only options being to either leave her in the dress or cut it off.

You never expect your shift to include running to get your boss a pair of scissors to cut a women out of a dress, or that someone will emerge from a fitting room and hand you a live tick that they picked off of their daughter. I have worked in both children’s retail and in a high-end women’s chain boutique, and both have presented a lot of challenges. But I wouldn’t change either experience, because I feel they have given me a unique set of skills that only fellow retail workers understand.

While most college students see their retail job as temporary gig to earn money for school and spending, it can actually be a great skill-building job. I’m not just talking about the basic skills you’ll acquire such as working the register, conducting inventory, or stocking; it is also given that you’ll gain some valuable life skills that can be carried over to any job.

Here are some valuable skills that come from working retail:

Multitasking:

Retail is always a fast-paced environment. Particularly in higher-end retail, I often find myself juggling three to four clients at once, each of them expecting the same individual level of undivided attention from me. In addition to building sales and working the register, I’m expected to be watching for potential theft and making sure the store is presentable. Basically, retail workers always have to be attentive and alert. 

Self -control:

Depending on the store you work at, you may be tempted to buy its products. After hours of hearing the same sales pitch over and over, you may find that it is slowly getting inside your head and you have the sudden desire for that $250 blue leather jacket. However, when you receive your first paycheck, reality sets in and you learn to exercise self-control. And if you work in a mall and manage to not by a jumbo pretzel every shift, you have truly mastered the art of self-control and should write a self-help book. 

Organization:

With inventory constantly changing and customers messing up the floor set, you’re constantly reorganizing the store. Also, if taking of bunch of poorly-packed shipment boxes and turning them into a polished floor set isn’t organization, I don’t what is.

Interpersonal Communication:

A.K.A. talking to people without sounding awkward, interpersonal communication is a skill that I find most people lack today. Working in retail, you end up talking to people for the majority of the day. The mall that I work at has a diverse clientele, including many non-English speakers. As someone who is only fluent in English with a very elementary understanding of Spanish, often I find that my communication skills are tested when I assist clients and we both speak a different language. But it is possible to work around language barriers using context clues, physical cues, and other communication basics.

Deductive Reasoning:

I think a lot of people assume that working retail is mindless, but I have found that each shift involves a lot of problem solving. I have to anticipate what the customer needs and wants before they even ask. Additionally, finding the perfect fitting pair of jeans for a client involves a process of deductive reasoning that I have never seen inside of a college classroom.

Being Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations:

Shopping can be a very emotional outlet for a lot of people. On more than one occasion, a customer in the fitting room broke down crying or unleashed a fit of rage. Unlike in your personal life when you can simply remove yourself from a situation where someone is making you uncomfortable, you don’t have the option to leave while working — you just have to deal with it. There are definitely days when I feel more like a therapist or life coach than a sales associate, but it helps keep my shift from being mundane.

Thick Skin:

People will always be rude, and working with customers teaches you how to handle that. I have had a customer throw a hanger at me, and I didn’t even flinch; I just caught it and hung it back on the rack. Some would say that it’s because I’m jaded, but I would say it’s a typical day of work, exercising the ability to stay calm cool and collected.

Confidence:

I have learned that despite that saying we all know, the customer is not always right, and often I have to turn down customer requests. For example, people try to use expired coupons or RetailMeNot codes and try other sneaky ways to get a discount. But no matter how tenacious they are, I still have to draw the line and tell them I cannot take their expired coupons or their overdue returns. Working in retail has given me more confidence in saying “no” and upholding the companies’ policies.

Eventually you’ll learn to say “I work retail” with pride. The fact is, you should be proud. You deal with people all day, and most of them are either angry or frustrated about something and take it out on you because the store happens to be out of a size medium.

I have worked in retail for about three years now, and whenever I go into a job interview, it’s the first point I mention when talking about previous experience. Most of the time interviewers are interested to hear about what you learned working retail, and I never have a shortage of what to tell them. It has provided me with answers for questions like, “Describe a work situation where you stayed calm under pressure,” or “Tell as about a time you had to work with co-workers as a team.”

As an added bonus, you’ll have a dozen or so ridiculous work stories to share with friends or acquaintances. But if there is one thing I have learned working in customer service, it is taking absurd situations as they come at me.