Upgrading Jobs in the Retail Industry

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. 

  1. Carolina Bank Munoz said:

    Excellent analysis. It reminds me of a little bit of research I did on American Apparel where the owner mandated that applicants for the retail jobs email full-length pictures of themselves!

    • Funny. I came here looking for some ielnltigent, issue-related discussion beyond the media rhetoric and instead discover, for the most part, a chamber pot of member dissent.On the positive side of that reality is that dissent IS being posted, and discussed. That’s healthy democracy messy, painfully slow and downright awkward. You want quick, streamlined, efficiency in labour/management relations, check out the labour situation in the countries where most of our consumer stuff’ comes from now.Taxpayers? That term, incidentally, includes us, the workers of the public sector. In fact, as multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffet pointed out recently, when he pondered why his office staff pays taxes and he doesn’t, the working class pays much, much, more of a proportion of their income to taxes than the wealthy class because (surprise, surprise) the tax laws favour those who have the capital to invest. And when those investments fail spectacularly? Governments favour trusting our tax revenues to those same who failed.What’s the solution? Less taxes? Privatize all government services? (That kind of solution would fit the agenda of some American politicians to a tea’.)Nope, it’s not 1979 anymore. Gone are the tax revenue streams that could support and sustain public works infrastructure visions like the creation of the Ontario college system. And those corporations that once paid much more for the privilege of operating in the economic engine of Canada’ now demand public tax breaks, concessions and loans from taxpayers for the economic protection’ that locating here now represents.Yet it could be argued that taxes are what made us great in the first place. Taxes that actually translate to more money in your pocket, at the end of the day. You want to sell-off public health? Education? Transportation? How many of us could afford private health insurance? Or to send our kids to private colleges/universities? Or get to work only by paying road tolls, ala 407 style?A democracy is a collective. It’s a recognition that at least somewhere, there is an understanding that the more together’ we are at supporting the health and wealth of the AVERAGE citizen, the better off we, and generations to come are going to be as individuals. Too bad that doesn’t fit on a picket sign.Enough of my rant here’s the question I came here to ask in the first place:What exactly were the issues that caused us to walk out in 1979? Anyone?The only reason I ask is that I believe that history is definitely worth some study if for nothing else, it provides some long-term context.And who honestly doesn’t believe that we need more of that today?

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