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The Serious Business of Toys: Sociologist examines racial, gender and class inequities in retail toy sales

Toys are big business, accounting for $27 billion in spending each year. But how many consumers notice the social, ethnic and gender dynamics at play during their toy purchase?

Not many, according to Dr. Christine Williams, a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, who spent several months on the front lines of toy shopping to research her new book “Inside Toyland.”

Christine Williams
Dr. Christine Williams

“Toy buying offers a glimpse into the commodification of motherhood and the socialization of a new generation of consumers,” said Williams, who has done extensive research on gender issues and professionals in non-traditional occupations. “But just as important, I was able to observe the significant racial, gender and class inequities associated with a low-wage work environment. The dynamics between workers, managers and customers were fascinating.”

Inequities in Toyland

Williams worked for six weeks at a large, discount retailer, which she calls the Toy Warehouse, and another six weeks at a small, boutique retailer, which she calls Diamond Toys. She found that jobs were assigned according to race and gender.

In both stores, white men filled the director and assistant director positions. The next level down, managers, was more diverse and included men and women, whites and Hispanics and, at the Toy Warehouse, one African American woman. The supervisors at the Toy Warehouse were also diverse, although white men held all those positions at Diamond Toys.

At the Toy Warehouse, the cashiers were all white or light-skinned females and the “back room” of the store was staffed almost exclusively by men. Both men and women, most of whom were white, served as cashiers at Diamond Toys, although only women worked in the doll and stuffed animal departments and electronics was predominantly male. The cleaning crews at both stores were Hispanic women.

“The assignment of responsibilities served to support and promulgate racial and gender stereotypes,” said Williams. “Employees conform to this stereotyping to keep their jobs.”

Book jacket for 'Inside Toyland' by Christine Williams
Williams’ new book “Inside Toyland.”

The clientele and atmosphere were very different in both stores. While customers at the Toy Warehouse came from all different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, those at Diamond Toys tended to be upper class and white. In addition, the Toy Warehouse was dominated by children, while the shoppers at Diamond Toys were primarily adults.

Williams’ observational study supported previous research findings about racial inequities in the retail industry. She found that white customers were treated better than black or Hispanic customers and that white employees were treated with greater respect by customers, particularly white customers.

“On several occasions at the Toy Warehouse customers wrongly assumed I was the person in charge because I was white,” says Williams. “I also noticed that white, middle class women were the quickest to adopt an attitude of superiority and entitlement.”

Advertising exacerbates problems in the stores by promising customers a friendly, efficient shopping experience, while the work environment promotes high employee turnover, an unknowledgeable sales force and poor attitudes, Williams says.

“In addition to low pay, retail workers typically have no health benefits and no control over their work schedules and they must endure a high level of disrespect from customers and supervisors alike,” says Williams. “In addition, employees are not empowered to take actions outside their narrowly defined job description. When customers are frustrated by what they perceive as inefficiency, stupidity or a poor attitude, they direct their anger at the employee, which only creates more animosity for everyone.”

Williams was paid $8.75 per hour when working at Diamond Toys, a higher wage than what many employees made and one that translates to $17,500 annually for a full-time employee. At the Toy Warehouse, she made only $7.50 per hour.

“Society today is a far cry from the time that Henry Ford declared that all workers in his factory would be paid $5 a day so that they could afford to buy the automobiles they were assembling,” says Williams. “Now, retail giants fight to keep worker’s pay and benefits low so that they can maximize their own profits.”

America is a consumer society and children's earliest exposure to consumerism is often at the toy store.Williams found the workers who tended to stay in their jobs for the long haul, which in retail sales translates to a few months or more, typically had personal ties to the store in the form of family members, neighbors or friends who worked there. These social relationships create an attachment to the job and provide emotional support to the employee.

A Consumer Culture

America is a consumer society and children’s earliest exposure to consumerism is often at the toy store. At the Toy Warehouse, Williams observed that many children had their own money and paid for their own toys, learning the value of their funds as well as how to make a purchase. These money management skills are important. A study by Dr. Stephen Kline, a children’s culture and advertising researcher from Simon Fraser University, found that by the age of eight the average child in the U.S. is alone in a shop three times per week.

“Shopping also reinforces a hidden curriculum through which gender, class and race inequities are reproduced in informal and unnoticed ways,” says Williams. “For instance, boys never buy Barbies and girls never buy trucks. In addition, it’s typically the mother shopping with the kids, which reinforces the notion that shopping, and caring for the family, is a woman’s job.”

Children also learn how to negotiate with their parents to get what they want when shopping. In some cases these negotiations are over what item to buy and in others it’s whether the child will spend his or her “own” money versus the parent making the purchase.

Shopping also reinforces a hidden curriculum through which gender, class and race inequities are reproduced in informal and unnoticed ways. --Dr. Christine Williams“Children will make a huge scene to get what they want in the toy store,” says Williams. “This so dismays most parents that they acquiesce to the child’s demands, which only serves to reinforce the behavior.”

Children also learn how to treat service workers by watching how their parents interact with store employees. The general lack of respect and appreciation for these workers in our society is passed down to new generations.

Changing the Dynamic

So is it possible to change the dynamics at play in our consumer society? Williams believes it is, just as unions and concerned citizens helped improve the lives of factory workers early in the last century.

“The first thing we need to focus on is to ensure all employees receive a living wage,” says Williams. “Living wage” campaigns seek to ensure that “full-time, year round employees can support a family at the poverty line.” In addition, Williams advocates healthcare benefits for all employees and a labeling system for products that would indicate fair labor practices were adhered to in the making and selling of the item.

“History has shown us that consumers can make a difference in the lives of workers when they stand firm together,” says Williams. “And, every individual can make a difference immediately by simply making a conscious effort to treat all service workers with courtesy and respect.”

BY Marisa Rainsberger

PHOTO of Dr. Williams: Marsha Miller

PHOTOS on banner graphic: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 12 December 2005
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