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Inside Toyland

Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality

Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Inside Toyland
    Book Description:

    "I got my first job working in a toy store when I was 41 years old." So begins sociologist Christine Williams's description of her stint as a low-wage worker at two national toy store chains: one upscale shop and one big box outlet. In this provocative, perceptive, and lively book, studded with rich observations from the shop floor, Williams chronicles her experiences as a cashier, salesperson, and stocker and provides broad-ranging, often startling, insights into the social impact of shopping for toys. Taking a new look at what selling and buying for kids are all about, she illuminates the politics of how we shop, exposes the realities of low-wage retail work, and discovers how class, race, and gender manifest and reproduce themselves in our shopping-mall culture. Despite their differences, Williams finds that both toy stores perpetuate social inequality in a variety of ways. She observes that workers are often assigned to different tasks and functions on the basis of gender and race; that racial dynamics between black staff and white customers can play out in complex and intense ways; that unions can't protect workers from harassment from supervisors or demeaning customers even in the upscale toy store. And she discovers how lessons that adults teach to children about shopping can legitimize economic and social hierarchies. In the end, however,Inside Toylandis not an anticonsumer diatribe. Williams discusses specific changes in labor law and in the organization of the retail industry that can better promote social justice.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93949-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-22)

    I got my first job working in a toy store when I was forty-one years old. I called the Toy Warehouse¹ to ask if they were hiring, and the manager, Olive, invited me to come in and fill out a computer application. Someone else was using the computer when I arrived at the store, but after waiting for fifteen minutes I got my chance. The computer asked when I was available to work (any time!) and if I was willing to take a drug test (of course!), then administered a twenty-five-item multiple-choice personality test. Each question gave four statements or...

    (pp. 23-47)

    I don’t remember ever going to a toy store as a child. Although specialty toy stores existed in major cities like New York and Chicago as early as the 1860s, in the towns and suburbs where I lived no store had the primary purpose of selling toys to kids.¹ I remember hobby stores that sold electric train sets and model-building kits, sporting goods stores where you could buy bikes and baseballs, and department stores and dime stores that had toy departments, but these stores sold merchandise primarily to adults, not to children.

    Something radical happened in the intervening thirty-plus years...

    (pp. 48-91)

    Living in a consumer society means that we come into contact with retail workers almost every day. Over 22.5 million people work in this job, composing the largest sector of the service economy (Sandikci and Holt 1998, 305; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2004). But unless you have “worked retail,” you probably know little about the working conditions of the job. At best, retail workers are taken for granted by consumers, noticed only when they aren’t doing their job. At worst, they are stereotyped as either dim-witted or haughty, which is how they are often portrayed on television and in...

    (pp. 92-136)

    Erving Goffman (1967), the master of sociological observation, claimed that face-to-face public encounters with strangers typically rely on ritualized scripts to make them go smoothly. In service work, this insight has been transformed into a maxim. Visit any fast-food restaurant, big box retailer, or major theme park, and you are likely to experience a rigid set of normative assumptions and expectations about how to comport yourself. At McDonald’s, for example, you are likely to encounter the “six steps of counter service” (Leidner 1993), beginning with the question “May I take your order please?” and, until recently, “Do you want to...

    (pp. 137-184)

    Everyone knows that children cost a lot of money. They also spend a lot of money. Those under thirteen spent over $40 billion of their own money in 2002, compared to just over $17 billion in 1994 (Center for a New American Dream 2003; McNeal 1999). They influence adult purchases as well. James McNeal, a children’s marketing expert, estimates that kids twelve and under influence around $500 billion worth of adults’ spending. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that shopping is the number one leisuretime activity for most American children (Kline 1993, 176).

    Experts are divided over the question of...

    (pp. 185-212)

    In the 1950s, David Riesman (1953) described the transition in America from a producer society to a consumer society. He lamented the result for the American character, which changed from inner directed to outer directed and from disciplined and moral to status seeking and superficial. Today that transformation has reached even deeper into the culture and psyche of Americans. What we buy and how we buy express our intimate longings, family ties, and social and political goals. Hardly any aspect of our culture escapes the logic of consumerism. As the mother quoted above attests, even Santa is a consumer now....

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 213-224)
    (pp. 225-236)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 237-254)