Dollar Store Economy:
Reproducing Inequality within the Organization of Retail Service Work
Tracy L. Vargas
In 2011, the New York Times declared that the United States was “awakening to a dollar-store economy,” with dollar stores raking in record-breaking profits through the 2008 market meltdown and jobless recovery (Hitt 2011). The looming shadow of economic precarity has spurred a culture of fear-induced bargain-hunting, with dollar stores capitalizing on anxious consumers looking to stretch a buck. Today, the dollar store industry is an 80-billion-dollar business and growing rapidly, with approximately five dollar stores for every Wal-Mart and an estimated 40,000 nationwide by 2020 (Baxter 2015; Jamieson 2013; Loeb 2013; Squire & Kilgore 2014; Thomas 2012). With approximately over 1,000 new dollar stores opening each year across the country, research conducted by Kantar retail consulting firm has found their customers to be among the poorest of consumers (Peterson 2014). While the median household income of Walmart shoppers ($53,125) generally aligns with the U.S. average, dollar store customers earn an estimated $8,000 less annually.
Roughly 1 in 10 Americans are employed in retail, meaning that millions rely on the industry for their livelihoods (Bouie 2017). However, the growth of online shopping has spurred what news outlets are calling the “Retail Meltdown of 2017” or “Retail Apocalypse,” one of the biggest waves of retail closures in decades. Transformations in mainstream shopping have forced thousands of malls and mainstream retailers like Sears, J.C. Penny, Macy’s, and Kmart to close thousands of locations nationwide (Thompson 2017). This demarcates a historic tipping point for retail employment in the US, with tens of thousands of low-wage workers now unemployed. The New York Times writes: “More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October , about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all of the people employed in the United States coal industry, which President Trump championed during the campaign as a prime example of the workers who have been left behind in the economic recovery (Corkery 2017, p. 1).” Ongoing debates have been preoccupied with the future of blue-collar industrial labor and predicting the future for “dying” trades historically performed by white males in the Rust Belt. Washington’s silence amidst the extensive job loss in retail, work disproportionally performed by women and people of color, is exemplary of which workers count in Trump’s America (Ruetschlin, Demos, Asante-Muhammad, & NAACP, 2015).
In times of economic transformation and upheaval, dollar stores remain the cockroaches of retail, not merely surviving but thriving. According to Forbes, they are one of the few retail sectors responsible for consistent financial growth from the 2008 economic recession up through today’s retail apocalypse. In fact, numerous analysts recommend dollar store stocks as the only retail stocks to own during times of economic precarity or crisis (Dennis 2017; Spittler 2017). It is of little surprise that dollar stores continue to thrive amid the current apocalyptic retail climate, given that they’ve defied barren landscapes of poverty for decades. Drawing in impoverished and economically anxious consumers looking to stretch a buck, they offer cheap commodities and processed foods at rock-bottom prices, the majority of which are manufactured in the Global South under abysmal labor conditions (China Labor Watch 2010; Hulme 2015). Like cacti, they’ve grown to dominate deserted urban and rural neighborhoods across the country by extracting the little wealth available from nearby communities. Driving down labor and infrastructure costs whenever possible has been a key strategy for accumulating capital through low pricing (Peterson 2017). Despite the razor-thin profit margin on most goods sold, dollar stores have ultimately reaped super-profits over the past 20 years through. Meanwhile, the sever exploitation of their workforce, 60 percent of which are part-time workers earning close to minimum wage, has gone generally unrecognized. Store Managers, whose current salaries average between $31,638 – $44,704 annually, regularly report working between 60-80 hours each week and are exempt from receiving overtime pay (PayScale 2017). Retail juggernaut Walmart has received the bulk of attention by journalists, academics, and activists, critiqued for its sweatshop commodities, poverty wages, and “Wal-mart effect” on local communities (Bianco 2007; Ehrenreich 2001; Fishman 2006; Lichtenstein 2010; Moreton 2010; Norman 2004; Quinn 2005). Preoccupied with Walmart’s grandness, the steady propagation of dollar stores across the U.S. landscape has glided under researchers’ radar. In fact, until this point, no previous sociological research on them has been conducted. This is a significant oversight, given both transformations in the retail sector and ever-growing economic inequality. It is for these reasons that I have conducted an ethnographic investigation of dollar stores for my dissertation research.
Carving the first of hopefully many inroads, my workplace ethnography centers on understanding dollar stores’ organization of work and social relations within its service tringle. The term ‘service triangle’ is a concept first developed by Leidner (1993) in her foundational study of fast-food and insurance sales workers. It refers to the triangular interaction exchanges and power struggles between managers, workers, and customers. I decided that working myself as a dollar store employee was the most effective way to delve deeply into workers’ lived experiences and participate in the relations I was interested in. Beyond being the first academic research on dollar stores in the U.S., the unique sociological value and contribution of my dissertation centers on demonstrating the links between the organization of service work and the reproduction of inequality. While the dollar store first appears as a savior, particularly for poor workers and customers in impoverished communities, it is a beguiling mirage. As my findings will illustrate, the dollar store is at the helm of labor degradation, discrimination, and precarity. By better understanding its management ethos, daily operations, and how these impact intra-class relations on the service floor, academics, labor activists, and policy makers will be better equipped to hold corporations accountable.
Focus of Study
Service Work and Intra-Class Relations
Much of the recent sociological research on service work has focused on examining class distinctions between poor employees and their more affluent customers in high-end service settings. These researchers have observed and participated in inter-class “distinction work,” or the “making”/ “doing” of social difference that unfolds during high-end service encounters (Hanser 2007; Kang 2010; Sherman 2007; Williams 2006). One specific mode of distinction work regularly identified in inter-class customer service has been “boundary work,” or interactions and processes of difference-making between the classes (Lamont 1992). Analyzing the construction of these boundaries during service interactions has helped sociologists to better understand collective identity within, and differences between, the social classes, demarcating the gulfs in status and power. These various modes of inter-class boundary work show that class inequality is regularly legitimated and naturalized through high-end consumption and the provision of luxury services.
At the core of examining inter-class service relations is contrasting poorer workers against wealthier customers, resulting in somewhat distorted representations of service employees. Identifying and defining these subjects by antithesis, by who and what they are not in comparison to their more privileged clientele, constricts understandings of the working poor. Equally important, there are currently no sociological studies of service work that explicitly investigate intra-class relations between poor employees and poor customers. The closest inquires of this nature have been sociological studies of poverty (Newman 1999) and race (McDermott 2006), not service work. Even when work ethnographies have included service encounters between low-wage employees and similarly classed customers (Kang 2010; Hanser 2008; Williams 2006), findings and analyses primarily focus on the differences between workers serving the “lower” and “upper” classes and main arguments are geared towards the higher end of the social hierarchy.
By sharp contrast, my dissertation research is an ethnographic examination of intra-class service relations at dollar stores. Like previous service work research, my analysis explicates the organization of work to examine how expressions of class inequality manifest during every-day service encounters. However, rather than seeking to analyze difference-making and processes of cultural boundary formation between low-wage service workers and more affluent customers, the focus of my study are intra-class service relations that take place amongst impoverished workers and customers. The dollar store is an ideal economic and social space to study class inequality, seeking a nuanced and visceral understanding of these service relations. At the onset of my research, I was particularly interested in observing possible expressions of solidarity amongst and/or boundary formations between poor dollar store employees and their customers.
Service Work Triangle
A second strand of service work literature that my dissertation informs is research on the service triangle of managers, workers, and customers. In service work, the customer is a third, and often powerful player (Bolton & Houllhan 2005, 2010; Lopez, 2010). Leidner’s (1993; 1996; 1999) foundational research on McDonalds fast-food workers and insurance agents has illustrated how the power dynamics of service work create “a three-way contest for control between workers, management, and service recipients,” the basis on which complex alliances can form (p. 91). Workers and customers may align together against management, customers and management against workers, and/or workers may team up with managers to exert control over customers. Although Leidner’s interest alliance framework has been central to the sociology of service work, it has been critique for viewing them as overly situational and unstable, obscuring structural patterns of interest, conflicts, and power within the service triangle (Bélanger & Edward 2013; Korczynski 2009; Lopez 2010; Taylor & Bain 2005). These scholars argue that a thorough and in-depth understanding of service triangle relations within a given industry requires consideration of the social structure that shapes it, specifically the employment relationship. From this perspective, managerial control and customer demands are intertwined and form a mutually reinforcing effect that often puts pressure on service workers. Therefore, the service triangle should not be regarded as equilateral, but variable in shape, with complex sets of social interactions evolving not at random, but structurally grounded within the organization of work.
A related shortcoming in service triangle research has been a failure to clearly distinguish and develop distinctions between frontline service managers (FLSMs) and upper-management (Bolton & Houllhan 2010). While both levels of management wield power and influence, critical differences between them are seldom considered. Upper-management are largely middle-class positions that pay considerably better than FLSMs, hold more responsibility in establishing and enforcing the organization of work, and primarily dictate their orders via technology from distant command centers. FLSMs, on the other hand, are typically lower-paid on-site management positions that oversee and directly engage with workers and customers on the service floor. In service triangle literature, these two levels of management are usually lumped together, with the few studies that do acknowledge FLSMs separate from upper-management “guilty of marginalizing the role of the frontline service sector manager… Stripped of human qualities, the FLSM appears ghostlike in a range of managerial and critical accounts” (Bolton & Houllhan, 2010, p. 379).
In consideration of these shortcomings and oversights, my case study makes unique contributions to the service triangle literature. Given the veritable destitution within the dollar store, class is generally held constant, making the organizational power dynamics within the service triangle more discernible. From this vantage point, I uncover patterns within the interest-alliances framework at the dollar store — that is, the repeated behaviors, interactions, and expressions that form cooperation and/or conflict amongst poor FLSMs, workers, and customers. However, my research complicates previous theorizations of the service triangle by showing how service interactions are partly shaped by the organization of work and dictates of upper-level management. Literature on the service “triangle” has become overdetermined by the manager-employee-customers triad, neglecting upper-management as the invisible fourth actor. By contrast, my research carefully discerns between FLSMs on the service floor and distant upper-management whose presence, I find, is most tangibly felt by monitoring and surveillance practices. I critically question how upper-management’s governance over the organization of work influences service triangle relations within the dollar store, identifying emergent patters through numerous micro observations, encounters, conversations, and formal in-depth interviews. My findings suggest that the service “triangle” (3 sides) framework, by definition, obscures the more complicated sets of actors and relations that characterize the retail shop floor.
Research Questions and Methodology
My dissertation is animated by a series of interwoven questions about service work, class, and poverty. First, from the specific standpoint of low-wage retail employment at dollar stores, I ask how the organization of work influences intra-class service relations amongst the poor? What interest-alliances and/or divisions between FLSSM managers, workers, and customers characterize the dollar store service triangle? What are the distinctions between FLSSMs and upper-management, and how might these complicate previous understandings of the service triangle? Finally, how does the service encounter shape understandings and representations of the poor?
To answer these research questions, I selected ethnography as the most appropriate method of inquiry. The sociology of work has been steeped in a rich history of ethnographic research that has provided deep and contextualized understandings of work, workplaces, and occupations. In the service work literature, ethnography has been the gold standard for investigations into the organization of work, the service triangle, and class relations (Bolton & Houlihan 2005; Burawoy 2013; Hanser 2008; Leidner1993; Sherman 2007; Smith 2001; Williams 2006). It has also been the preferred method for researching the lived experience of poverty, offering new perspective and correctives to previous sociological understandings and opening the door to more nuanced and systematic theoretical work (Anderson 1999; Duneier 1992; Newman 1999; Small & Newman 2001). Ethnographic scholarship on poverty is also one of the most hotly debated of fields. Researchers often critically challenge mainstream theoretical constructs and explanations of poverty within academia itself. Wacquant (2014) has written forcefully on the importance of deep immersion while in the field, terming this form of immersive ethnography “observant participation,” “carnal sociology”, or more recently, “enactive ethnography.” Whole-heartedly engaging in the phenomenon you are researching creates “a fruitful path toward capturing the cognitive, conative, and cathectic schemata (habitus) that generate the practices and underlie the cosmos under investigation” (p. 1). As I discuss in detail in my Methodological Appendix, conducting immersive ethnographic research within my dollar store fieldsite involved a sacrifice of self and will subjugation to powerful structural forces.
To ethnographically investigate low-wage service work at dollar stores, I relied upon two complementary data collection techniques: participant observation (PO) and interviews. I began collecting my PO data in the Fall of 2014, engaging in six months of covert PO working as a part-time dollar store sales associate for a well-known corporation I refer to as “Dollar Basic.” Obscuring my role as a researcher was essential in order to be considered for this position and gain full access to my fieldsite. The corporation strictly enforced a media policy that store-level employees interpreted as a nondisclosure agreement. Managers and workers firmly believed that they could be immediately terminated for providing outsiders full access to the store or information about Dollar Basic’s operations. Every employee, including myself, was required to sign this agreement. I was also instructed by my store manager, on more than one occasion, not to discuss my job with outsiders and instead refer them to PR via the corporate phone number. Therefore, conducting my fieldwork covertly was a necessary step in achieving my research objectives and protecting dollar store employees from the very real threat of retaliation. Furthermore, not disclosing my role as a researcher until I exited the field offered a more genuine experience of the job. As an insider, I had access to the behinds-the-scenes conversations, relationships, and interactions that outsiders were barred from.
After my initial interview with a Dollar Basic hiring manager I was placed in my fieldsite store. The “Downtown Dollar Basic,” as I call it through my chapters, was located within a Northeastern deindustrialized city classified as “distressed” by the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. It serviced a mixed race, socially marginalized, impoverished population of urban residence and city employees. Each week I worked anywhere between 18 – 40 hours for the hourly wage of $7.75 an hour and relied on Medicaid health insurance, given that the healthcare option offered through Dollar Basic came at an exorbitant cost. The bulk of my work in the store consisted of operating the cash register, stocking inventory, assisting customers, and cleaning.
To supplement my participant observation, broaden my perspective, and further unravel the complexities of retail service work at dollar stores, I also conducted fifty in-depth interviews with Dollar Basic employees from across the U.S. in-person, via phone, and online. These interviews permitted me to consider how my own work experiences intersected with, and diverged from, a wider sample of Dollar Basic employees. They also allowed me to probe a bit deeper into the lived experiences of identity in terms of poverty, race, gender, sexuality, age, and geographic location. Seeking in-person interviews with my fieldsite coworkers was my first order of business. I chose to “come out” as a researcher individually to each of my coworkers and my manager by a casual in-person conversation. Ultimately, five out of the seven employees at my fieldsite participated in an interview with me. I recruited additional Dollar Basic employees by snowball sampling off my coworkers, posting flyers in neighborhoods within a 70-mile radius of my fieldsite, and using social media.
Ample research has previously identified the use of on-call scheduling and various manipulative labor practices aimed at increasing profit while obscuring exploitation (Haplin 2015; Lambert, Haley-Lock and Henly 2012; Luce, Hammad & Sipe 2014; United NY & Center for Popular Democracy 2013). At Dollar Basic, I found the organization of service work, including its tasks, speed, and volume of production, to be heavily controlled by upper-management. FLSMs and workers were subject to despotic managerial techniques that established innumerable rules, policies, and surveillance strategies. FLSMs relied on a matrix scheduling computer program that ensured maximum productivity with minimal dollars spent, standardizing low pay, short-staffing, and precarious scheduling across the entire network of Dollar Basic stores. As the only salaried employee in each store, FLSMs (who averaged $34-36,000/year) were presented with the “choice” of working long hours (60-80 per week) to fill scheduling gaps or allowing their store to languish.
New employees received minimal training and direct supervision. Access to the employee handbook was only available online and seasoned employees were so strapped for time there was little incentive to train new workers. As a result, dollar store employees gradually learned the details of their job by making mistakes, then being corrected by coworkers or upper-management. Discovering the work rules by breaking them left employees vulnerable to sanctions and termination. While the primary responsibility of Dollar Basic workers was “serving others,” only 1-3 employees typically staffed each store. Amid such constraint, the fluid demands of customer service often conflicted with the rigidly prescribed daily work goals set by upper-management. The attention of workers was constantly divided, often in contradictory directions. This resulted in understocked shelves, long register lines, messy aisles, and overall chaos. Poor workers and customers clashed regularly on the service floor, blaming each other for deplorable store conditions, berating one another’s personhood and behaviors, and firing culture of poverty stereotypes as ammunition. This tension was more prominently experienced in Dollar Basic locations that, like my Downtown fieldsite, serviced a higher proportion of poor and non-white residents. Upper-management referred to these blighted and stigmatized stores using the coded term “metro markets.” Compared to Dollar Basic’s “model stores,” typically found in white and more well-off neighborhoods, “metro stores” were branded as troublemakers by upper-management. Consequently, they were more drastically deprived of resources than “model stores” and experienced higher rates of shrink, broadly defined as any loss of money or inventory and attributed to a wide variety of factors. These tactics are consistent with the practice of ‘consumer redlining,’ or a retailer’s systematic neglect of stores in poor communities of color (Reich 2016).
Like the impoverished customers they serviced, many Dollar Basic employees depended on food stamps and other forms of public assistance to subsidize their needs. I found that the shared experience of economic hardship facilitated momentary expressions of employee-customer solidarity and empathy between poor workers and customers. However, understaffing, low payroll, and just-in-time scheduling overburden the 1-3 workers operating the store each shift with many responsibilities. This rendered them incapable of consistently carrying out all their assigned work goals and remaining in compliance with work policies/rules. Furthermore, FLSMs and workers were held fully accountable for store shrink. Dollar Basic insisted that the bulk (70 percent) of shrink was internal and caused by store employees. Therefore, FLSMs and workers were treated as objects of suspicion and positioned squarely in the crosshairs of technological surveillance. Register statistics, the Shrink Chart (a 13-foot-wide poster of store/employee data), and CCTVs were some of the primary tools used to exert upper-management’s control and implicate workers. In Chapter 5, I build off Erin Hatton’s (2012) conceptualization of the liability model of work to argue that the organization of work at dollar stores results in the process of employee criminalization. Hatton claims that since the 1950s, many companies have shifted away from viewing their employees as assets and instead consider them to be profit-limiting liabilities. My research findings illustrate the liability model of work in action, where employees are treated as profit risks and imbued with culpability. The process of transforming workers into suspects was embedded within Dollar Basic’s very organization of work and fostered by corporate policies and surveillance practices. This evidence suggests that work, and especially low-wage work, is not a cure-all antidote to criminalization, but rather can be a site where criminalization is enacted and reproduced.
Because workers were held inexcusably accountable for store shrink, many Dollar Basic employees felt compelled to “prove” their innocence and morality by taking matters into their own hands and catching shoplifters. Even lower-level store employees, including myself, were pressured by FLSMs to approach and challenge suspected shoplifters. My Downtown fieldsite was locally known as hostile territory for employee-customer confrontation, which erupted multiple times each day through the lobbing of accusations, intimidation, searches and seizures, and criminally prosecuting as many petty thieves as possible. Such actions went directly against company policy, which avoided the issue of customer theft by making it workers’ responsibility to deter, not confront, shoplifters. Since Dollar Basic failed to establish any standard protocol for identifying or apprehending shoplifters, each store was left to their own devises.
Main Argument & Significance of My Study
Poverty scholars have proclaimed the need for more carefully analytic ethnographies that “situate observations within critical analysis of neoliberal ideology at the local level” (Fairbanks & Lloyd, 2011, p.5). In the case of Dollar Basic, I found neoliberal ideology operating through its liability model of work, where disposable workers were regarded as risks to the company and treated as a threat to proﬁt (Hatton 2011). This organization of work appeared to be largely determined in the isolation of company headquarters using technical formulas, economic algorithms, and risk management strategies. In the name of modernization and efficiency, Dollar Basic’s market-centered configuration of labor positioned workers as risks to corporate profits. However, upper-management’s liability model of work, I argue, cultivated a culture of mistrust within the dollar store, fracturing possible affinities between poor employees and customers.
Customers often appeared disgruntled and impatient with the slow service and deplorable conditions of the store, openly labeling employees as lazy, stupid, and careless. Meanwhile, FLSMs and workers, who were held entirely accountable for profit loss/shrink by upper-management, exercised their daily frustrations on customers. Employees purposefully provided inferior service to shoppers they deemed unworthy and deservedly indigent. These hostilities were typically directed towards those perceived as having a “spoiled identity,” such as the unemployed, welfare recipients receiving cash assistance, halfway house residents, alleged addicts, the mentally ill, people of color, those with accents/Spanish-speaking, single mothers, and even the physically disabled and elderly (Goffman 1963). In revenge/retaliation, customers incessantly criticized and rebuked workers, instigated verbal and sometimes physical battles, reported workers to management, wrecked store shelves, opened/spilled products, and shoplifted. Therefore, any brief moments of employee-customer solidary were greatly overshadowed by the ongoing efforts of mutual social distancing, differentiation, and denigration. I argue that these efforts were directly, though not exclusively, spurred by the organization of work on the shop floor at Dollar Basic.
Efforts of the poor to deflect stigma from themselves and onto a faceless “other” is not a new finding. However, the dissemination of stigma through face-to-face customer service interactions and its connection to the organization of low-wage service work is. Numerous studies have illustrated how the poor affix negative labels and attributes onto “others,” deflecting and passing off stigma using conversational descriptions and depictions (Anderson 1999; Purser 2009; Newman 1999; Wacquant 2008). This phenomenon has generally been viewed as a reflection of broader cultural tends, yet my findings, I argue, illustrate how the organization of low-wage retail, in part, abets and reproduces intra-class disparagements and stigma in volatile face-to-face encounters. While I do not contend that its origins are completely grounded in the organization of work, my findings do offer evidence that work is a site where the politics of poverty stimulate both material and cultural reproductions of class inequality. Importantly, corporations like dollar stores, which profit off the poor, have great incentive to reproduce the very economic and social conditions they thrive within. In my dissertation’s Conclusion, I build off Rick Fantasia’s (2001) argument that under neoliberalism, as the real exploitation of workers has greatly intensified in the workplace, the consumer has largely taken over the role of principal subject and object of economic practice. My project demonstrates this proposition by revealing how dollars stores are sites that encourage people to act on their identities as consumers as opposed to their identities as workers.
Dollar Basic’s service triangle tensions and how they are linked to the despotic control of upper-management indicate a labor regime formed not just around the desire to maximize productive capacities, but a real and consequential fear of the poor. As a solution to the fear-inducing fiscal risks associated with profiting off poor workers and customers, corporate’s Taylorist strategies are infused with punitive surveillance that permeate the organization of dollar store work. The extreme measures and protections that my research depicts are intended to defend the company from its own egregiously deprived workforce while holding them inexcusably responsible for the behaviors of poor customers. In other words, low-wage employees are positioned as disposable scapegoats in this “risky” marketplace.
As a researcher and ethnographer, it has been important for me to openly recognize my biography, positionality, and situated identity through the practice of reflexivity. Within sociology’s long history of ethnographic scholarship, reflexivity has had a twofold meaning. One refers to the researcher’s awareness of an analytic focus on her relationship to the field, while the other attends to the ways cultural practices involve consciousness and commentary on themselves (Berger 1991; Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992; Pollner & Emerson 2001). I entered my fieldsite with my own presuppositions and experiences, so the representation of reality I present in this dissertation is embedded with my own practices, habits, and subjectivities — some I am cognitive of and others are taken-for-granted.
In consideration of this acknowledgement, it has been important for me to question the ways in which my own social location, experiences, and understandings have influenced me prior to this project, in the field and throughout the writing process. In this section, I lay out a brief biography of myself and contemplate how it intersects with my selected project. The deep ethnographic immersion ethnographers strive for attempts to minimize the distinction “between researcher and member, observer and observed, enquiry and object” (Pollner & Emerson, 2001, p. 131). Importantly, living the life of a dollar store employee for six months was not so far-fetched for me, but rather like stepping into an alternative reality. I could easily imagine, had I not pursued higher education, working as a low-wage service employee for a company like Dollar Basic.
I am a white heterosexual Christian female raised in a rural community historically out of touch with, and generally apprehensive towards, people unlike themselves. Growing up the only child of working-class parents, I witnessed and experienced the ongoing struggles of rural white people trying to hold on to what little they have (Hochschild 2016; Kefalas 2003; Sherman 2009). I believe that the strong passion I now have for studying, experiencing, and gathering accounts of low-wage labor first developed during my childhood years. In the mid-1990s, at the age of twelve years old, my father was laid off from his “good” job as a steel mill foreman. Rumors circulated for years that workers’ jobs were at risk, until the day it was announced that the U.S.-based company had been bought out by an international corporation from Sweden. There were limited employment opportunities for out-of-work mill workers in our rural community, so my dad eventually accepted a job as an elementary school custodian and boiler technician. Backsliding in this way shattered my father’s sense of worth. Even today, when I ask him about this experience, he continues to reinvent and reshape the pieces of his narrative like a mosaic, trying to make sense of it all.
In the summer of 2003, after graduating high school, I worked full-time alongside my dad and several other members of the custodial staff. I found that the visceral experience of performing my dad’s work brought a new and profound understanding of him. I also became interested in how people who had, what some might call, a “shitty” job carried on surviving and tolerating their work, perhaps for decades. My father’s new wage as a custodian was considerably lower than that of a steel mill foreman’s, so it forced my stay-at-home mom to seek work outside the home. In her mid-forties with only a high school diploma, part-time retail work was one of her only options. She started working as a cashier, moving between several discount retail chains and continuously searching for better wages and working conditions. On evenings when my mom got home from work, she would openly vent to me about her day and discusses topics such as paltry raises (10 cents a year), being unjustly disciplined/written up, coworkers being fired for any or no reason, and daily hassles with unsavory customers. Her tales were outrageous yet normalized. Mom eventually remained a cashier at the Salvation Army clothing store for 10+ years until her retirement (another example of poor worker-poor customer dynamics). During this period, she recorded many work stories and events in notebooks. When I asked why she bothered, she told me she was documenting “proof” and wanted to preserve the events in case she was ever asked to recall them by management. I believe journaling also helped my mom emotionally process the abuses she experienced.
While attending Syracuse University, I initially tried to distance myself from my working-class background. As the first person in my family to graduate college, let alone enter a PhD program, imposter syndrome quickly set in. Over time, with guidance and encouragement from mentors like Gretchen Purser and Don Mitchell, I came to realize that my past provided me with an invaluable perspective. I also fully embraced my interest in studying low-wage labor. It’s important that I share how this dissertation project, working as a dollar store sales associate and living that life, has been eye-opening and emotionally transformative. On my first day of work, minutes before I entered the doors of Dollar Basic, I recorded sitting on a park bench across the street and watching customers go in and out of the store. My clammy hands pinched the pen tightly, pressing into the notepad. The pounding of my heart reverberated through my tightened chest and up into my throat. Instinct was telling me to run, and I fantasized about standing up, walking back to my car, and driving off. It was at that moment, with the alarms in my body sounding, that I recognized the deeply sown fears I had — of working crap jobs that I hated, of backsliding after college, of becoming my parents. Believing I had been completely “for” low-wage workers up to that point, I was abruptly confronted with my own pride, arrogance, and fear of being “seen” as poor, lowly, a failure. My ethnographic research on dollar stores forced me to live out these fears daily and provided a heaping dose of humility. While uncomfortable, at times even excruciating, it has ultimately been freeing.
I’ve strived to represent poor dollar store service employees and customers as best I can while recognizing my role in this production of knowledge. Being both an employee at Dollar Basic and a frequent observer/customer in 40+ stores has provided me with a valuable and necessary dual perspective. My frequent participation in both sides of these service encounters has reinforced my data on and depiction of dollar stores. Bank account records attest that I’ve spent nearly $1,000 at Dollar Basic over the past few years. If money talks, it would not claim that I’ve been seeking Dollar Basic’s collapse and ruin, but quite the opposite. My biggest strengths in representation, I believe, have been my ability to understand, relate to, and represent low-wage workers and customers. I experienced unique feelings of belonging throughout my fieldwork and, in some meaningful ways, a sense of community, authenticity, and connection stronger than with my own academic cohort in sociology at SU. On the other hand, I believe that my greatest weaknesses/blind spots have been the effects of race and gender. As a white female, it was more difficult to discern how the dollar store was experienced by non-white and male workers and customers. While in-depth interviews helped to unearthing these experiences, they are only able to shine light in so far.
Overview of Dissertation Chapters
In Chapter 2, I lay the foundation on which my data and analysis rest by providing a review of relevant literature on low-wage service work, the service triangle, and discount retail. I have opted to postpone discussion of my research methodology and its challenges until my Methods Appendix in order to delve more swiftly into my data and findings. This maneuver is a common tactic in ethnographic writing and functions to create more space for detailed discussion, reflexivity, and fluid dialogue on the process and pitfalls of my research. Therefore, Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present my findings and analyses based on my PO and interviews.
Chapter 3, The (Mis)Organization of Work: Alchemizing Disparity into Dollars, details the fundamental organization of work at Dollar Basic and assesses how it influences everyday intra-class service relations among poor employees and customers. I argue that on the service floor, upper-management’s low provision of payroll and resources, when combined with its rigid employee demands and prescribed outputs, regularly clashed with the fast paced and fluid demands of customer service, generating chaos on the shop floor and tension between poor employees and customers. Chapter 4, The Customer is Always Right: Exercising Consumer Entitlement Amidst Poverty, explicates how the various perils and crises grounded in Dollar Basic’s disorganization leads poor customers to mock, disparage, and degrade dollar store workers. I argue that poor customers’ identity as consumers and preconfigured notions of customer entitlement allow them access to a form of power and privilege, elevating themselves over dollar store employees. My findings, I argue, challenge literature attesting to the undisputed moral value of formal employment by illustrating how innumerable poor customers deem dollars store work/ers as repugnant and beneath them. In chapter 5, Employees or Suspects? Transforming Liability to Criminality, I demonstrate how dollar store employees are monitored with pathological intensity by a web of contradictory work policies, rules, and technological apparatuses that position them as “risks” and transformed them into suspects through a process I call ‘employee criminalization.’ I argue that upper-management’s liability model of work is at the root of major tensions and distancing that erupts during service exchanges between poor workers and customers while also demonstrating that work can be a site where criminalization is enacted and reproduced. In Chapter 7, the Conclusion, I summarize my dissertation as a study that reveals how the organization of low-wage service work, in part, reproduces and exacerbates intra-class disparagement, inequality, and stigmatization of the poor. I reiterate how despotic Taylorism and punitive power buttress Dollar Basic’s liability model of work to influence service relations and abet the material and cultural reproduction of inequality. This has significant implications for companies that profit off poor employees and customers, who have great incentive to reproduce the very economic and social conditions in which they thrive. I provide suggestions for future research, as well as tangible examples of how specific corporations, organized labor, worker centers, and policies have, and can, better represent service workers while striving to improve the organization of service work.