A day in the life of sales clerks

A job in one of Juneau's downtown gift shops takes poise, patience and foot lotion.

Posted: Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Here's the secret: Wear comfortable shoes.

To work in one of Juneau's downtown gift shops, you've got to master the arts of smiling, shirt-folding and keeping your cool. And standing, standing, standing.

Seasonal retail workers in the gift-shop district are a labor force largely hidden from Juneau residents who avoid downtown in the summer.

During the height of the cruise-ship season, more than 400 jobs are available for people to straighten the shelves, punch the cash registers and handle the endless flow of questions from visitors cruising through the Inside Passage. Over the course of a year, the payroll from such jobs is nearly $4 million.

That's excluding the people who work in food service and other labor categories, according to John Boucher of the state Department of Labor.

On a recent Thursday at Galligaskins, one of Juneau's largest Franklin Street shops, clerks handled rapid-fire queries from the browsing horde. Inside three minutes, Anya Merritt and Mattie Rielly answer the following:

"Where can I get a pair of work gloves?"

"What credit cards do you take?"

"I saw a picture of this shirt in an ad. Do you have it?"

"My daughter is about your build what size shirt would she wear?"

 

"Do you have children's things?"

"Will this shrink in the wash?"

This is not a job for the timid or for the easily fatigued.

"Sometimes you have to go home and just put your legs up," says Elizabeth Arnett, the store's catalog manager.

A summer gift-shop job is easy to get and uncomplicated to keep. Shifts can be flexible and the hourly pay, at $7 or more, is comparable to what other service workers make.

Still, it's deceptively hard work. Merritt, who juggled two downtown jobs this summer before returning to college in Montreal, has spent three summers at Galligaskins.

"You talk to people all day, and then you just go home and don't want to talk to anybody," she said.

Shelves must be kept neat and stocked, and cash registers require a precise touch. Clerks must know the details on each item the store carries, from jewelry to stuffed animals.

"This year, I think I've got it down," Merritt said. "It's a lot to learn."

Male customers sometimes get flirtatious, and the clerks deflect it with poise. Over the summer, they become small-talk savants. On this Thursday, Rielly handles customers from Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Mexico City and Brooklyn. They all want to tell her where they're from, and find out something about her, too.

And, because Thursday is one of the week's biggest cruise-ship days, the shoppers keep marching in.

Working the floor is like keeping up with a pack of 2-year-olds. ustomers leave the shelves in disarray, drop toys in the aisles and want lots of attention. Sometimes, shoppers go through the T-shirt stacks, obsessively folding and tidying. They almost always do it wrong, and the clerks must dart out into the aisles again, grabbing stacks of shirts to fold. o fold a T-shirt correctly, gift-shop style, each side of the shirt must be folded back, with sleeves meeting in the middle. Then there's a snappy flip-flip motion that tucks the shirt tail up and back, leaving the garment flat, neat and in a perfect square.

"They can fold in their sleep," says Galligaskins co-owner Gail Swope.

Swope hires up to 25 clerks every summer. They are mostly students, scraping together funds before returning to college or another year of high school. Others are moms working part-time, young people interested in the business of retail, and those who like the flexible hours and the bustle of downtown.

"I'll come downtown just to hang out now," said Jen Marshall, who waited tables before she got hired at Galligaskins. "Before, I would have avoided it."

Motives for taking a gift-shop job vary.

"I like the security," Merritt said. She knows that when she comes back to her hometown for summer vacation, she has a job. "No hassle. I don't even have to worry about it."

For others, it's a family affair.

Marshall's boyfriend is related to store owners Rod and Gail Swope, and found out about the job through them. Four Galligaskins employees are the mothers of students who worked the summer and then left for school. The moms came in to finish out the season, picking up where their daughters left off.

On this Thursday, after a lull of just 20 minutes, suddenly, the store is swamped with tourists.

"Here we go with the rush before everyone leaves," Marshall says, referring to the store's mid-afternoon shift change.

And the endless questions continue:

"Do you have a T-shirt for a 10-year-old?"

"Why are prices here better than in Skagway?"

"Why are prices here worse than in Skagway?"

"Do you have it in blue?"

'In red?"

"In men's sizes?"

"We memorize a lot of stuff," says Rielly, before heading off into the stacks to fold again.



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