Sunday, August 17, 2008

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Shop

Perhaps you've never heard of Sigrid Olsen, and perhaps you've never bought a Dana Buchman blazer at Macy's. The former brand has recently been terminated by its parent company and the latter has been demoted from middle to working class.

Retail is down. Retail, so they say, is as good an indicator as any of the state of the economy. Retail is a major form of American entertainment, more important that movies or restaurants, and its health is a mirror of our health: Retail is where we enjoy spendthrift holidays that lead to massive credit card debt that leads to massive losses that mirror those of the housing crisis. Forget about the housing crisis, which is experienced singly. Retail is where we can collectively experience the death of the middle class.

May it rest in uneasy peace.

Locally, J. C. Penney ran a sale advertised as "Florida Tax Relief." On a weekend morning, the event was jammed, even as its signage (lurid orange) was risible and more in keeping with a fly-by-night discount furniture outlet. Penney's even took advantage of new technology and the modern ways of social interaction to publicize this event: They took it to Craigslist. There, in the events section, Penney flunkies posted grammatically dubious notices advising that the sale was "... a great savings for a slumping economy. You will easily spend 3 to 4 hundred dollars on back to school purchases. Save yourself 7 dollars on the 100!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

This was an important message for the lower-income families who jammed the parking lot at 8 on a Saturday morning, even if the exact calculation behind the assumed total purchases was not in evidence. Anyone, they seemed to be saying, could do this math.

A month earlier, hundreds of shoppers lined up outside the Apple store at Orlando's Mall at Millenia. They were waiting for a chance to buy an iPhone, Apple's 3G, three-in-one wireless gizmo.

The rest of the mall was empty. Inside Neiman Marcus, it was impossible to bypass the eager sales assistants in the beauty section, who that day were spiffing a fragrance from Acqua di Parma called Mirto di Panarea. Mirto di Panarea features notes of myrtle and Calabrian lemon, leans towards the rustically masculine, and promises that it is "evocative of moments of escape, relax (sic), and well-being."

Try turning that back on the sales staff, who were in anything but escapist mode. If not the Mirto di Panarea ("You could buy it now and give it at Christmas," one suggested), how about an in-depth skin care consultation or a revolutionary new mascara whose packaging resembles Japan's Shinkansen?

Over at the Florida Mall, things were different. The Florida Mall is a hybrid that houses both Saks and Sears. The food court of this mall was jammed with teenagers and mothers with strollers, but Saks, which was soon to report a 5.3 percent drop in same-store sales for the month of July, a greater decline than had been predicted, was barren. As with Neiman Marcus, salespeople stood around numbly, barely glancing at the people who used Saks not as a destination but as a funnel into the mall. A heavily pancaked representative for the New York-centric fragrance line Bond No. 9 proferred that his company's wares were not meant to be worn--or purchased--singly. To that end, he said, his penciled eyebrow arching, one was meant to mix the bouquet of Chelsea Flowers with the abstraction of Silver Factory. Or, he sighed, in any combination of the customer's creative devise.

According to Business 2.0 magazine, Orlando is the "No. 1 Hottest Job Market." Other publications follow suit, but what the headlines fail to qualify is that Orlando is a hot technology hub, and one that requires very specific skills in order to find employment. Or perhaps one is meant to intuit an ellipsis: Orlando is the No. 1 hottest job market if you are a software engineer. We've seen something like this before, in Silicon Valley.

Granted, all those tech jobs in the 45-65K range might mean the potential for some disposable or frivolous income, but Florida lags behind other economic supercenters when it comes to salaries. One need only to spend a summer in Florida to understand the negative financial impact of the monthly utilities, where $400.00 spent on air conditioning is achieved with only moderate usage. The good news is that Florida has jobs, the types of jobs that give the impression that the middle class might survive after all, even if the non-tech openings fall far behind on the pay scale and are to be found in the minimum-wage service industries.

Sigrid Olsen was a middle-class brand. Its demise can be traced back nearly 30 years, right back to the Reagan presidency. Sigrid Olsen lost her business because of big business that drives the consumer to Wal-Mart, a model enterprise that undercuts the American economy while depriving its workers of fundamental guarantees like being paid for the hours worked.

What Reagan did was to bust the back of the middle class, resulting in such low wages that a middle-class brand like Olsen's became beleaguered as consumers were forced into the big-box stores, which in turn continued to lower prices and make pay cuts to balance things out. After a cheapening revamp, Dana Buchman was sent to Kohl's, a chain store that according to a local mailing is presently offering new workers a 29.5-hour workweek. That means two jobs for a single person and four for a couple, even without taking children into consideration. Kohl's starts its sales associates at about fifty cents over minimum wage. In Florida, this translates into a new hire grossing less than a thousand dollars a month. Benefits? you ask. You should be thankful for something opening at all in this economy, never mind health insurance. Dana Buchman may turn a profit at Kohl's, not based upon former customers but upon new ones, who may have aspired to the line but were formerly unable to afford the clothing when it was sold at Macy's.

Macy's itself has fallen into the discount-labor trap, while at the same time insisting that salespersons sell a certain percentage of proprietary credit that makes far more profit than the apparel. A highly experienced salesperson in a non-commissioned area may make as much as $9.50 per hour, putting Macy's into the same category as Kohl's and giving workers little reason to differentiate between the two. Is ten years of experience only worth two dollars more?

Insidiously, retailers are now practicing attitude modification. By calling a worker's attention to a what is universally known as "competitive" pay, they undermine the worker's better judgment. If there are no jobs at all, isn't eight dollars an hour better than nothing? Does anyone advertise non-competitive pay? Much as with dollar stores--and here in rural Florida we have our share--the differences can be measured in pennies.

The termination of the Olsen brand is just another sad tale in a long line of sad tales that stretches from coast to coast, from mall to mall. Apparently we now no longer need or want quality, because our government deems it so. We want profit, but not for ourselves. A chicken in everyone else's pot. We need Sigrid Olsen and we need a Newer Deal, because we've been dealt a bad hand. Without them we will become a nation looking for hope that costs 99 cents or less.


enc said...

It sounds like a pretty brutal market, across all jobs/industries, unless you're a software engineer.

I wonder how many SEs would choose Florida over California?

K.Line said...

S: This post is unbelievably good. Insanely good, but so frickin' depressing I don't know what to do with myself. I will be thinking about it for the next few days, be assured.