Is working in retail a real job?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Oct 01, 2021

There was a time when it was not unheard of for lower-level retail employees to think about moving up in the company. Now, more often than not, they think of moving out and on to something different. Retail roles are often considered “starter jobs,” even as a huge population of adults rely on such work to meet their needs. This long standing perception of retail as a “gig” rather than a career may have an impact on everything from employee retention to customer experience.

Anecdotes indicate that today’s younger retail employees often do not look at their retail jobs as “real jobs,” a recent NPR article reports, but as a stopover while trying to find something else.

With the added stress of the pandemic, not just younger, new employees but long-time retail workers have been leaving their jobs with some saying that the increased demands and risk of illness since March of 2020 led to burnout. Around four percent of the retail workforce have quit their jobs every month since April of this year. While retailers have rushed to add perks like covering college costs to keep employees on board, such moves seem to offer tacit acknowledgment that retail is not a place to stay long-term.

Retailers have also had difficulty bringing new employees on in the face of this pandemic-era churn. Many workers are moving to other industries (or choosing to work at retailers that have adopted a higher base level of pay).

Working in retail, in some instances, has also grown more dangerous in the past few years, which may also be impacting how people view it when considering a longer-term career. Customer-facing staff have been more frequently subjected to violence from more aggressive shoplifters and, since the beginning of the pandemic, insults and attacks over enforcing mask regulations.

At the same time, the number of available retail jobs is also positioned to decrease dramatically.

Retail is projected to lose 500,000 jobs by 2030, according to a CNBC article. The economy as a whole is expected to add only 11.9 million new jobs this decade, a little more than half of what was added throughout the 2010s.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What can the retail industry do to turn around the perception that working in retail is not a “real job”? What steps recently being taken by retailers make you think that there is a chance to change this perception possibly held by much of the American public?

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Braintrust
"A maître d’ in a restaurant is very well respected. Why should store staff not been seen in the same light?"
"The pyramid in retail is very steep. How many people work in Walmart stores and warehouses versus those in the HQ?"
"Where can I go from here should not be a question an employee has to ask. Possible career paths should be part of the onboarding process."

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30 Comments on "Is working in retail a real job?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

This is an age old challenge in retailing that has been made profoundly more challenging as a result of the pandemic. Working in retail is a “real” job, it’s just not one that provides the growth challenges and cachet as other industries. The recent moves by major retailers to increase wages, pay for school, and provide more flexibility in scheduling all help, but the retail industry has a long way to go to change the perception of workers in the 21st century.

Jenn McMillen
BrainTrust

Perhaps the conversation that retailers need to have at the beginning of the shift is about openings inside the company versus the number of boxes that need to be shelved?

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Working in retail is as real as working any other job! But perceptions matter and the industry can help itself by promoting more from within, showing people the options for career advancement, and ensuring there are training and development programs for employees. And of course: pay, schedules and conditions are all critical – as more and more are realizing during the labor shortage.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

There’s no doubt that pay is an issue, but I do think career pathing is probably a huge thing. People start out in retail, (90 percent of college graduates, I want to say), but the managers are too busy to work with them, and HR is in another universe.

People are more apt to take a lower paying job if they see it leading somewhere. Our data has told us for a long time that managers just don’t have time to do any work beyond scheduling, managing the store and keeping the store staffed. They need help.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Where can I go from here should not be a question an employee has to ask. Possible career paths should be part of the onboarding process. Employees should be informed when other employees are prompted, etc. to create and reinforce awareness of opportunity for advancement. Technology such as scheduling software should be employed to free up management to interact more often with their staff.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

…and the pyramid is too steep.

Jeff Weidauer
BrainTrust

Many of the current leaders in retail started in or immediately after high school, expecting a “bridge” job. But the pay and benefits – coupled with a solid career path – kept them there as they progressed. That path no longer exists for most new workers. Retailers have changed the store dynamic and created a low wage, part-time environment that now competes with fast food and gig work. The opportunity for a career remains, but it’s much harder to find.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

When I came into retail in the UK you had to “do your time” in a store before you had the necessary experience to be able to move on to buying/merchandising or whatever job you saw as your future. Today, there is more of an expectation that if you have been to college you should go into an executive role and not on the shop floor. Times have changed but that experience in front of customers was invaluable and is a great starting place.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Are there truly pathways for progression in retail?

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

Hi Jeff,
I actually started in high school to have money to buy a car. I only intended to stay a few months, but got promoted and decided to stay through college due to constant progression and increases in pay. I turned down med school to stay in the retail sector (to the disappointment of my father). I do not regret the path I took, but I think if I had taken my path now, it would have been a very different story and the options would not be as plentiful as they were in the past.

David Spear
BrainTrust

There is incredible opportunity in retail and employers need to do a better job of showcasing pathways for progression, all the way from an entry level role to senior leadership positions. This also includes highlighting a variety of compensation programs that offer ownership in stock, even if it’s small to start. Becoming an “owner” and having a vested interest in the company can be a driving force for change and longer term retention.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Retail offers a vast array of jobs, from lowest level clerk to highest level CEO. And yes, some are “starter” or pass through jobs and some are the beginning of life-long careers. And there is no need to apologize for the starter jobs, but retailers do need to pay fair and equitable rates for a good day’s work regardless of the minimum wage laws. It’s criminal that the minimum wage laws haven’t kept pace over the years, and it’s equally criminal that it took a pandemic for us to recognize the importance and value of front line workers. Looks like the pandemic and the ensuing competitive market for labor was the wake up call we needed for retailers to beef up their job (and life) content at the starter level.

Kathleen Fischer
BrainTrust

Many retail jobs are looked at as temporary help, not long-term growth opportunities. Education, both internally and externally, plus better pay and working conditions are needed to help improve the environment.

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust
When talking about working in retail we must define what we mean and in this case it is front line retail operations in stores. Retail is still one of the most exciting industries to work in. It is dynamic, exciting and rewarding. So why does starting in the stores get so much bad press? Retailers need to emphasize the opportunities to move through the organization and into other parts of the business to give young people the incentive to see it as a career. Too often they are seen as transitory jobs between school and college or for unskilled workers with no other options. The pandemic may have frightened some people off front line retail but it also focused retailer’s attention on just how important their front-line staff are. They started to value them and consider how to treat them with more respect. It is a vital part of any retail operation and retailers have to look at themselves and ask how they can improve the lot of their store staff. Showing them opportunities is… Read more »
Perry Kramer
BrainTrust

To change the perception and inspire more people retailers must continue to refine an advancement path, focus on providing benefits for more positions and working to increase the number of full-time positions. These changes and others need to be messaged through an increased recruiting process at the community college and university level. Retailers have a tendency to spend unnecessary recruiting dollars and ignore significant talent they may have in their stores when they are recruiting for corporate positions. Making these changes and leveraging social meeting to promote the messages will slowly turn the tide for some. However the segment of the population that is trying to live in the gig mentality will always see retail as a temporary landing. I’m a person who ran a register and was a department manager coming out of college and made it to the CIO level. There are thousands of similar stories that need to be leveraged.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

There is retail and there is luxury, fun, motivating retail. The approach by employees to each of these is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Much of the results depend on the approach of the employee and of the employer. Bill Saum rose from a stock boy at S.S. Kresge to become the president of the apparel division of Kmart in its heyday and a highly admired and paid executive. Attitude matters.

Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

Retailers are great at understanding the consumer, but terrible at understanding the career goals of their employees! For many retailers, it is a struggle to get communications out to employees about long-term career opportunities. Smart retailers are “recruiting” their own employees through regular career communication, internships, opportunities in district or region roles, and provide a path into the retailer’s office positions. If retailers don’t do a better job of self-promoting their career opportunities the lack of retail talent will equate to less retail experience running their operations.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust
Way, way back in my high school days, many students worked in retail for extra spending money. A generation later, my daughter did exactly the same thing as did many of her friends. That is what you did before you went off to college. However my son worked retail post college graduation, as he was looking for “something else.” Retail stuck, and he eventually moved up to menswear buyer. But what about the other 20 or 25 employees in that first store? Or the 50 or 60 employees in the first store he managed? He eventually became director of planning and merchandising for women’s apparel at Walmart. The pyramid in retail is very steep. How many people work in Walmart stores and warehouses versus those in the HQ? Since 1970, the percent of high school students going to college has quintupled. One of the first freshman courses is career development. In the first class of that course, the difference between a job and career is defined. A job is something to pay bills; a career… Read more »
Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

The retail operations experts who participated in last week’s Store Operations Council meeting were very clear: the whole store associate model must evolve. Associates need higher pay, more hours, more predictability, and more flexibility. In return, retail companies will have invested in productive and creative and knowledgeable employees who can drive sales. It’s ambitious — but it’s happening.

Joe Skorupa
BrainTrust

Good points. “Real jobs” pay a living wage, offer 40-hour weeks, and have set schedules. If retail does not offer these things to store associates then it is offering something other than what most people think of as “real jobs.”

Katie Thomas
BrainTrust

The career path debate is an interesting one, but is that what employees in retail are saying is the core problem or detractor? I would guess there are more fundamental issues that need to be fixed first that cause unhappiness in the day to day – emotional consumers that employees are not given the proper training or access to handle, flexibility in schedule, benefits, etc.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

This is really interesting. We all ask if working in retail is a real job. If you get paid it is a real job. The thing that knocks me out is that this lethargic attitude that breeds the assumption retail is not a real job is wrong. It is. The problem is interaction by store management. In my discussions with store associates, they exude a limitation of enthusiasm. When I ask if the management comes down and has meaningful conversations with them, I usually see a sly grin. BUT they all tell me that they get orders like, clean the shelves, move this to there, (not why or what do you think) and on and on. I don’t think that builds character. Without character, performance will drop. Next time you are in a store, ask a manager how they build confidence, character and professionalism in their employees. I am afraid you will be in for a long pause and you will wait for answers.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
I’m obviously not as old as Matthew because I can’t remember a time when, for the majority of retail workers, ” …it was not unheard of for lower-level retail employees to think about moving up in the company.” By and large, retailing has not been a lifelong profession for the many, only for the chosen few. It was a perception reinforced by a variety of measures from part-time hours, split shifts, decades on the stocking crew, off-the-clock work demands, wages inferior to the market, and – in recent years at least – the contraction of stores in the face of digital competition. If you want to know what I think the remedy is, it can be expressed in two words – Trader Joe’s. Full benefits for part-time associates, worker-centric maternity and paternity policies, competitive pay, professional development track for those who show an interest in moving up, Early identification and communication to talented associates who might consider a career, peer approval, real gender equality, and dozens and dozens of other associate-centric policies and benefits. Want… Read more »
Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

There is a difference between working for a paycheck and working for the company. One is a job and the other is a career. When companies start offering benefits that improve the life of the employee, such as college tuition, insurance, etc., they stand a better chance of hiring career employees.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
The changes we’ve seen from many retailers this year in offering college tuition, better pay, health benefits, and many more are a great start to altering the perception of frontline retail jobs. Any discussion of retail jobs should go beyond frontline workers, however, and include every retail role from the store to the distribution center to HQ – all are in need of new workers to grow the industry. Retailers need to do more to describe the roles every retail business depends on in a positive light. Most people outside the retail industry don’t know these roles exist. That’s a good place to start. Second, we need our education system to highlight retail jobs of all forms. Students need to hear why retail is a great industry to develop a career in, not just a place to get a summer or seasonal job. Universities need more programs talking about retail careers across disciplines to show students how their field of study can be made even more interesting in the retail industry! Retailers have an opportunity… Read more »
Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

Great points. As I was graduating from college with a degree in finance, I was lured away from accounting and finance companies by the interview process with a department store retailer (the Bullock’s division of then Federated) and their executive training program. It was the people and the dynamics of the business that attracted me. It certainly wasn’t the money. Starting salaries were about 40% less in retail than in accounting or finance. But the dynamics of the business and the way they laid out the months of classroom and on-the-job training was compelling. Many decades later I do not regret the choice. I don’t know how robust those kinds of recruiting and training programs are today, but they certainly were effective way back when.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

Is working in retail a real job? To me it is. If young people today don’t look at retail as a real job then the fault lies with retail management who treat retail workers like they are disposable, instead of grooming them to be the future of the company.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Some people become retailers to be close to the merchandise they sell, such as jewelers: others become retailers for a few bucks spending cash each week, still others go to retail for the low barrier to entry, others for connecting and talking to people, others for a flexible schedule. Many reasons, but most are not tied to the act of retailing such as selling merchandise, managing stock, or opening the shop. Public perception is it’s a low income job with limited benefits and little long-term growth prospects.

To turn this around retailers need to address wages, add benefits, build career paths, and advertise to work there. They need to treat employment as something special.

The question is not whether retail is a real job, but whether retail is more than a job.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
I would question the assumption that “moving up in the company” was ever a major factor in retail jobs; it would have been obvious to even those with the most basic education that the gross imbalance between floor staff and managers — let alone divisional/HQ jobs — would preclude most people from doing that (of course many people more likely think they will succeed than actually do. and retail isn’t the only industry where this was true). So what’s changed? I think it’s the workforce: younger people and women were traditionally a core component — the comments readers offered up a few weeks ago of starting jobs at 16, 14 … even 10 years old seemed reminiscent of a Dickens novel — but today far more teens/twenty somethings are likely to be in school and unwilling or unable to take jobs (at least full time); women are better educated and have far more job opportunities open to them. These are far ranging changes that retail can’t — and probably shouldn’t — try to change. So… Read more »
Rachelle King
BrainTrust
This is unfortunate, but working in retail stores has never been perceived as much beyond a mediocre paycheck for mediocre people. This is not the case, but the perception is long standing. What puzzles me is that the corporate side (e.g. Walmart HQ) can have highly coveted industry positions while at the same time, people shun their stores. It’s the same company. Retailers have to take responsibility for this. Why start paying for college now? Were store employees not worthy of this years ago? Why start career pathing, bonuses and incentives now vs years ago? Retailers carry the brunt of this weight for the way they have publicly treated their own employees. Some store employees have to risk their lives for what is still a mediocre paycheck and yet few retailers have made meaningful efforts to enforce employee safety. Covid has put a lot of things in perspective. Particularly, the value of human life. If retailers are lax in showing store employees are truly valued, then many of these employees have, or will, seek higher… Read more »
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Braintrust
"A maître d’ in a restaurant is very well respected. Why should store staff not been seen in the same light?"
"The pyramid in retail is very steep. How many people work in Walmart stores and warehouses versus those in the HQ?"
"Where can I go from here should not be a question an employee has to ask. Possible career paths should be part of the onboarding process."

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