Adventures in “Christian” Retail

by Charity R. Carney

Disclaimer: This is a teaser. I’m working on a larger piece about experiencing employment at a Christian retail chain this summer. I took on the job because 1) we needed the money and 2) I was curious. I have been documenting my day-to-day life there as a full-time employee and am working up a full-length piece with an academic emphasis and analysis of marketing with religion, the gender politics of the place, as well as how they handle money and workers’ rights. Enjoy.

Update: Part II is of this series is now up here. Part III, the finale, is here. Extended responses informed from his own academic work on capitalism and American Christianity, from Darren Grem, are here and here.

I worked retail this summer. “Christian”-run retail. When I walked into the interview for the position at the local store that is part of a national chain (we’ll call it “Christian Chain” or “CC”), the manager was a bit baffled by the Ph.D. sitting in front of him. “Honestly,” I assured him (and meant it), “I want to work here and my family needs the income.” I (naively) believed that CC, a company that nationally proclaims its Christian values and give generously to conservative Christian causes/movements, would provide a good work environment and would reveal to me how Christian employers manage the workplace. It would give me insight into the world of Christian retail. And it has. Plenty of insight. So here’s a taste of what I witnessed in terms of the corporate model CC follows. The larger piece will include issues of sexism/sexual harassment and employee’s work schedules/worker’s rights but, like I said, teaser.

On money and mythology at CC: This company handles its resources in the most Luddite and inefficient way possible. There is one computer in the store where I worked. It was locked away in the back room and was used only to make/print out weekly schedules. All ordering is done by hand using a pencil and three-ring binders and a complicated system of “base” numbers and “minimum” orders. The poor soul who works in the back room has to then take all of the binders from each department and enter them into the one (aged) computer before a deadline in order for stock to come in.

There are no SKUs--no barcodes--no scanning devices. Thus the hand-written ordering. This is where the mythology comes in. I inquired about the lack of computers in the store and the ancient cash registers that required each item to be manually punched in and discounts to be manually entered as well. I was told that the cash registers WERE NEW. The explanation varied based on who responded to my questions. Some employees (especially those higher up) explained that it was just CC’s way. That it had maintained the same system since its birth (over 20 years ago) and that CC does not change. I found this idea interesting for several reasons. It requires more work from employees, thus costing the business more money. It is a business after all and so shouldn’t it be concerned with profits and losses? But it may also connect to the idea that workers should have sweat on their brow constantly in order to truly earn their wages. The Protestant ethic, so to speak. Work for work’s sake.

Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted. Some are dissatisfied with this reasoning but accept it, again, as being CC’s way so it cannot be questioned. (More on this in the longer article.)

Another strongly held belief is that the company does not have barcodes because then it does not have to have uniform pricing. Sales, then, do not have to be reflected at the register unless the customer notices that they are not receiving the discount and asks for it. A few employees see the lack of technology as a ploy for the company to make extra money.

There is an odd dichotomy at work at CC: they are focused on saving money (they are very concerned with hours and wages and do not move an employee to full-time unless they really need them and the employee makes enough demands) but they use a system that ultimately costs them money because it requires employees to work double or triple the hours at a task that in other stores is not nearly as involved and grueling.

Ultimately, what I’d like to consider in a larger format is what does it mean to be a Christian-run corporation in the modern marketplace? CC has held on to antiquated ideas regarding its particular brand of commerce, and the reasoning for that steadfastness varies based on what myth or history an employee chooses to subscribe. Also, the Christian values on which the chain claims to rely are not reflected in its treatment of employees or the employee’s treatment of each other. This begs the question: how much are “Christian” businesses relying on the image of being Christian without truly employing (or even hinting at employing) Christian ethics in their stores. This I will explore in more detail in the article with a discussion of sexual politics at CC and the overextension of employees to the point of completely disregarding their rights. Good times.


Paul Harvey said…
I bet Deg has a thought or two on this!
Anonymous said…
the store I worked in was at least slightly more technology savvy than that, but I think most everyone who has ever done a stint in Christian retail has some horror stories about the way the business was run...
JW said…
Interesting observations. I look forward to reading the larger piece. If you have not done so, you might want to read To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton. She offers some great insight into the interplay of retail sales and the christian conservative right in the United States.
Kelly J. Baker said…

"Several other (lower-paid) employees told me that the lack of barcodes was CC policy because barcodes represent the mark of the beast. Wha?! I know, this seems far-fetched. But this is a widely held belief amongst employees and thus should not be discounted."

Per, the above quoted line, I am not surprised by this at all. As you likely now, much end times theology/prophecy fiction fixates on UPCs, tattoos, and microchipping as a sign of the end as well as a handy way for the Anti-Christ to monitor all humans. I did an interview last year about end times theologies, and the reporter asked me about these bodily marks/implants as a sure sign of the end.

All of this to say, this has some presence in certain evangelical and fundamentalist circles. We should talk soon.
Charlie McCrary said…
I actually find the association of barcodes with the mark of the beast a bit surprising. It seems like new technology is often greeted with suspicion, but after that technology becomes more commonplace it is seen as less threatening. No one thinks railroads will usher in the NWO anymore (right...?)

I wonder what it is about the barcode idea that has more staying power, at least for some folks.
Carol Faulkner said…
Great teaser--I'm hooked. I'm also fascinated by the historic and ongoing relationship between Protestantism and capitalism, particularly the attempt (or lack thereof) to apply religious principles to business practices. Your experience seems so contradictory--Protestants were at the vanguard of capitalism (to paraphrase David Brion Davis), and Americans in particular see no contradiction between wealth and faith, but these business owners seem to be deliberately limiting their ability to prosper.
Charity Carney said…
Thanks, everyone, for your input. I'm planning another installment soon and would love to hear what you all think about my other experiences. Stay tuned...!
Protestants were at the vanguard of capitalism, but I'd say they were also the vanguard of anti-capitalism (especially in the Anglo-American world)! I'm also so hooked!
DEG said…
Charity and I had a great over-the-phone conversation the other day, and we're going to cook up something extra special for y'all. So, stay tuned.
Anonymous said…
If I am correct in my guess as to which CC you are referring to, this chain also advertises its "Christian" values by remaining closed on Sundays but still requires employees to come into work semi-regularly on Sundays for inventory checks (again, if I'm right about the particular company you're writing about and if this practice is consistent for the majority of locations, not just the one I worked at.)

So much for a day of rest, right?
Anonymous said…
This article is weak on so many levels. First a little background since I am in Christian publishing I know a little about Christian retail. About 10 years ago there were about 7500 small independent Christian retail stores that primarily sold books, bibles, and perhaps some music. They were, for the most part, started by individuals or couples who felt called to promote Christian books and so they started Christian bookstores. Then with the advent of major bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and these small, family owned stores couldn’t compete. Most went out of business and today there are only about 2500 Christian retail stores still operating in the US. These remaining stores were able to survive because they joined “buying groups” which are loosely affiliated groups of stores that pool their buying resources to better compete in the marketplace.

The store that this article is written about is one of these formerly independent stores that is now part of a buying group. There are a couple of large chains of Christian retail stores but this is not one of them. I know this because I know of the store that this article was written about. How do I know which store it is without the author identifying it? This store is pretty well known in the industry because of the rather infamous “mark of the beast” comment about bar codes. That is indeed true about this store but the truth is that this is one store out of 2500 that is known to take this position.

This brings me to my MAJOR criticism of this piece. The author takes enormous liberties in classic weak writing style where she points out one outrageous example and tries to position it as the norm, the ultimate straw man scenario. If one was unfamiliar with Christian retail and read this piece one could easily draw the conclusion that this is representative of all Christian retail stores. This is grossly and unfairly irresponsible on the part of the author and borders on deceitful in my view.

Further, based on my knowledge of this industry I would say it is fair to surmise that the author likely has an anti-Christian bias and took this job with the sole purpose of gathering negative intelligence in order to discredit Christian retail as whole. It is beyond logic to think that she innocently applied for this job at a place that obviously lacked any form of technology or current business practices with the expectation that it would be run anywhere near the standards of a contemporary business. No I think it is safe to assume that this self-proclaimed PHD had a plan from the start.

I would suggest that if she is so outraged by what she found at that store then she should identify the store by name and then research a broader cross section of Christian retail and see if her “experiment” was representative of her presuppositions. But then I guess there would be no basis for her paper then because her agenda would be ultimately discredited.