As millions of Americans brave shopping malls this holiday season, they will inevitably come across a migraine-inducing temper tantrum in the toy aisle, or perhaps a belligerent argument between a customer and a cashier.
Why are these scenarios ubiquitous in retail stores throughout America?
This is one of many questions about mall culture Christine Williams, professor of sociology, explores in “Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping and Social Inequality” (University of California Press, 2005), which reveals the unsavory realities of race, gender and class in a minimum-wage work environment.
During research leave from the university, Williams spent two six-month stints working as a cashier, stocker and sales associate at two big box toy stores: “The Diamond,” a unionized high-end shop full of brand-name children’s apparel and $100 stuffed animals; and “Toy Warehouse,” a discount outlet store located on the outskirts of town.
Despite the differences in clientele and atmosphere, the sociologist found disquieting similarities between the two stores: gender and racial profiling among supervisors, clerks and customers.
In one example, she describes how she was assigned to work as a cashier with all the other white and light-skinned females, while her African-American co-worker was confined to stockroom duties.
Through her fly-on-the-wall observations of the retail work environment, Williams examines how the political economy of shopping impacts American culture, and the ways consumption patterns contribute to the disintegration of workers rights.
Will our nation’s shopping culture ever change?