J. Jill employee via Life Magazine
I’ve started to notice more “help wanted” signs in retail stores. Does this mean that the economy is recovering? People may be shopping more, and stores may be hiring more. But retail jobs will never improve this economy unless retail jobs are improved.
In this industry, full-time schedules are rare—most people are hired on a temporary and part-time basis—and pay is slightly more than minimum wage. These jobs offer neither benefits nor opportunities for advancement. Although many stores advertise “flexible” schedules, hours are worked only “as needed,” with schedules and hours shifting from one week to the next with little advance warning. Workers cannot support themselves on the wages from these jobs.
Nor are they intended to. In many stores, managers seek workers who do not “need” the job—ideally college students supported by their parents, housewives who rely on their husbands’ incomes, or retirees looking for some diversion to break up their days. This strategy shifts responsibility for meeting the basic necessities of life—including health insurance—to some other employer.
Is a bad job better than no job? In the current economy, the long-time unemployed may have no other option. But as I discovered in my research on aesthetic labor, not everyone is hired.
To get a job in retail, looks matter. At Abercrombie & Fitch, a well-toned and muscular young worker stands shirtless next to a huge poster that could be a photograph of his chest. Workers at J. Jill and Coldwater Creek look like the thirty-something suburban women in their catalogs. The employees at Whole Foods appear to be counter-culture hipsters with tattoos, dreadlocks, and piercings, while those at Williams-Sonoma appear to be the minions of Martha Stewart.
Whole Foods employee via Whole Foods Markets
Appearance is so important at stores that applicants are required to apply in person. In more upscale stores, managers in need of workers will approach shoppers who have the “right look” and ask them if they want to work there. As one manager told me, loyal customers make the best workers because they are already knowledgeable and passionate about the brand.
Shoppers can be flattered by this attention. Plus they are promised an employee discount. Go to work at any of the top brand outlets and you can get 20-30 percent off your purchases and first pick off the sales rack. I heard many stories of workers spending their entire paychecks at the store!
This sounds like an enticing deal to people who love to shop. But once these shoppers turn into retail workers, everything changes. Instead of being paid to look glamorous and offer personal fashion or cooking tips, workers confront rigid work rules. The truth is that working at Victoria’s Secret or Crate & Barrel is no different than working at Wal-mart. Workers have no autonomy. Interactions with customers are scripted and sales are closely monitored. Hours are “flexible” and pay is low. Those who miss their sales quotas get their hours reduced. Granted the lousy working conditions, most become quickly disenchanted—the job is not nearly as fun as advertised! Few last longer than the three month probationary period, contributing to one of the highest turn-over rates in the economy.
Employers don’t care. Churning the labor force keeps wages down. As long as their store brand is cool, they can rely on a steady stream of shoppers to fill the ranks.
In contrast, stores that lack cache are forced to hire workers who “need” the job. These workers demand better working conditions. They are the ones who are trying to organize Wal-mart and Safeway. Unfortunately, their efforts are not helped by their better-off counterparts in upscale stores, who think of themselves as shoppers—not retail workers—and who can quit when the going gets tough.
To fix our economy, retail jobs must be upgraded. The retail industry has resolutely resisted calls to enhance the quality of its front-line jobs. The National Retail Federation, the lobbying organization for the retail trade industry, has opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the Employee Free Choice Act, and every single legislative attempt to increase the minimum wage. They succeed because they have shoppers on their side, including those who are willing to work for discounts in cool stores.
Shopper-workers must make common cause with workers to rid the retail industry of bad jobs.
Christine Williams is professor and chair of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on gender, labor and labor movements. She is the author of Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality. Dr. Williams edited the journal, Gender & Society, from 2004-06.
Editor’s note: This article is based on Christine L. Williams and Catherine Connell, “Looking Good and Sounding Right: Aesthetic Labor and Social Inequality in the Retail Industry,” Work and Occupations 37:3 (August 2010): 349-77.