Study says retail jobs are just the worst
A recent study from U.S. News & World Report ranked 190 jobs in order to identify the best jobs in the U.S. today. Front-line retail employment did not land high up on the list.
The role of retail salesperson is the worst job to have in the country, a Bloomberg article analyzing the jobs study found. The position ranked low in such categories as salary, job market and future growth potential. Store cashiers were given the second worst job rating.
While the U.S. News & World Report study does not speak well of the prospects for those on retail’s front line, another recent survey finds more to recommend about other positions in the retail world.
Project managers, regional managers, customer service managers and market development managers are among the roles in retail that average near or above the $100,000 per year mark for salary, according to a report by Money.
But not every retailer is set up to allow employees reach those levels.
A recent Harvard Business Review study explored why workers get stuck, given the broad benefits of companies delivering consistent employee advancement. The study delineated six different categories of companies that underperform on employee advancement. Retailers fell under the following three categories:
- “Fast and flimsy”: defined as companies that bring a lot of employees in with no experience and promote them fast early on (for instance into low-level managerial roles), but do not invest in training, causing employees to quickly stall out.
- “Churn and burn”: Companies that fail to provide opportunities to advance or to teach skills, prompting employees to leave quickly.
- “Low value add”: Jobs where employees neither advance in their role or in the role that they moved to in their subsequent job, so they jump from an entry-level job at one retailer to the same entry-level job at the next.
Of the top five best jobs in the U.S. News & World Report study, two were in technology, with software developer and information security analyst in the number one and five spots respectively. The other three were in healthcare with nurse practitioner coming in second, medical and health services manager in third and physician assistant coming in fourth.
- The Worst Job in the US Is Working in Retail – Bloomberg
- 100 Best Jobs – U.S. News & World Report
- Highest Paying Retail Jobs – Money
- 6 Ways Companies Fail to Help Workers Grow – Harvard Business Review
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What must retailers do to improve their employee recruitment and retention efforts? Why don’t more retailers take these steps?
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28 Comments on "Study says retail jobs are just the worst"
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Managing Director, GlobalData
Frontline retail jobs are often very stressful, both because of the demands on individuals and because of having to deal with the public. While most shoppers are nice, there is a sizable minority with bad attitudes who treat retail workers poorly. Sadly, there is not much retailers can do about the latter. However the former can be remedied by better resourcing and/or planning: the number one complaint I hear from store staff on my various visits is that they are not properly resourced for everything they need to do. Oh, and I think every senior management employee – including the CEO – should spend at least some time working in a store to see what goes on at the coal face!
Funny you should mention that because in the ’90s I worked for a company called Lechters Housewares whose CEO at that time, Steen Kantor, made the whole corporate office work in the stores at Christmas time to help alleviate the stress on the stores and LEARN what was happening at store level. You would NOT believe the issues that got resolved quickly because they all saw it firsthand and how it impacted the customer experience. This has to be the best experience I ever had in my more than 40 years working in retail!
Overseer of Order
Likewise, as an assistant buyer and later a buyer, Saks Fifth Avenue allowed me to visit stores nationwide. I usually picked a Saturday and held product instruction and Q&A’s before store opening and contests throughout the day (I had great vendors who would donate merchandise to be given to winners). Our growth in daily productivity in the stores I visited was always significantly increased. The salespeople came away inspired and happy, lasting qualities that benefitted my business for months.
Managing Director, GlobalData
I love this! Just as it should be!
There is a compounding cycle happening right now. Workers (and Gen Z especially) have caught on that retail isn’t great, and they’re more aware of the other opportunities available to them. Many parts of retail are now chronically understaffed, which leads to retail becoming less and less desirable.
Some retailers are trying to dig their way out of the hole through automation, but it’s a long ways away. Many brands need to rethink their approach to their frontline employees to escape the categories mentioned here.
Founder, CEO & Author, HeadCount Corporation
The Harvard study characterization rings true — working frontline retail is under-valued, under-paid and under-appreciated. Didn’t we refer to these same workers as “heroes” during the pandemic? The challenges of recruiting and retaining frontline workers is decades in the making. But while the challenges remain, progress is also being made. Moves by retailers like Target and Walmart to increase pay, support educational programs and create opportunities for advancement are meaningful. It’s taken a long time to get to where we are and there’s a long way to go, but it’s heading in the right direction.
President/CEO, The Retail Doctor
Retail jobs represent a wide swath of retail, from cashiers to highly commissioned salespeople. This article is like painting the lily; yes, many jobs are entry-level for people with minimal skills. However retail used to be the one place that normalized someone to understand you have to make the customer’s day before they make yours, that being on time matters, and when you bring your best self to the sales floor it can provide a leg up to any career. It’s not a mystery that the best retailers provide not only onboarding training but ongoing training. Until more follow that lead and get out of the idea that “anyone can do it” turnover will remain high.
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
The first step that retailers mistake is a failure to understand that their store associates are a critical component of their customer experience, which is the only defense that they have against e-commerce. If you believe that to be true, then hiring top performers and investing in their training and long-term success should be axiomatic. Long-term success means building a career path and a training program designed to attract high caliber entry-level employees. Retail is fundamentally a game of customer retention; the companies that build a stable cadre of loyal customers are the ones that succeed. To have loyal customers, the research has shown, you need loyal employees.
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
Retailers need to embrace the idea of hiring retail salespeople into careers, not just unpleasant “temporary” jobs. This means providing meaningful incentives, such as career development and advancement opportunities, competitive pay, and benefits that recognize and reward the hard work of frontline staff. It also means investing in training and education so that employees can gain the skills they need to move up in the organization. Also, offer worthwhile training from day one and a roadmap for success within the organization. This is the only way for positions like salesperson and cashier to move up the ladder in job satisfaction—which should translate into a better experience for shoppers as well.
Co-founder, RSR Research
What retention efforts? The retail store model doesn’t really lend itself to what it needs — a bench of employees who are loyal and motivated. Instead, for most store workers, it’s a way-station where they can get work part-time while they’re doing other things. Once they’ve finished preparing, they just move on.
I do believe that the only way to free up expense money for training and retention of employees is to automate more non-customer facing store functions. Managers are over-stressed and maxed, and to be honest, most frontline workers are “over it.”
Again, the “why” is that the store P&L model is based on a transient, part-time workforce. We don’t talk about that. We talk about worker churn, dissatisfaction and lack of training. But the dirty little secret is that most companies couldn’t afford improvements without tech improvements too.
Principal, KIZER & BENDER Speaking
Is anyone else tired of these lists? Ranking physicians, attorneys, veterinarians, and everything in IT with frontline retail associates is absurd.
Retail is always called out on these lists as a terrible profession because none of them bother to look beyond the most entry level jobs. There is absolutely growth potential in retail. I know plenty of people, myself included, who have risen from the ranks of the sales floor. It’s only January and I am already tired of retail bashing.
President, SSR Retail LLC
Working the front lines in retail has never been easy, but recent changes have made it harder than ever. Low pay, variable hours, and a high stress environment have turned a hard job into one that only the most desperate will accept. Until retailers begin treating workers as assets worth investment instead of costs this won’t get better.
Principal, Retailing In Focus LLC
I’m guessing that a similar survey taken 40 years ago would find retail jobs at the bottom of the list. It speaks to the low-wage, tedious and often physically demanding frontline job in many retail stores. Retailers have not adequately leveraged new technology (robotics, for example) to take some of the monotony and physical stress out of the job. At least there are signs that some enlightened employers recognize the need for higher wages, better training, and more well-defined career paths.
Chairman Emeritus, Relex Solutions
During the pandemic we heard that customers finally realized how they appreciated store staff — they have short memories! Retail jobs are tough as you have to deal with the public who are not always grateful or polite. Retailers have also changed, it used to be in the UK many of the most senior people in business started in Boots or M&S as they gave the very best management training, which started with time on the shop floor. That just does not happen today, retailers see staff on the shop floor as cannon fodder. If they pay more attention to training and advancement planning they may get better staff. However young people’s expectations have changed, they want senior well paid jobs from day one and are not prepared to put in the time to train. With more people going to university those expectations are fueled by the promise of high paid jobs so the investment in education is worth it. But not if you cannot get those jobs.
President, Global Collaborations, Inc.
Retailers complain about employee turnover in entry level positions and use that as an excuse to not invest in training or career planning. Churn becomes a self-fulfilling function. Not every person hired in an entry level position wants a long term career. However some do. By not identifying and supporting those employees with the talent and desire for more than their entry level position, those employees and their potential contribution is lost to the retailer when those employees move on to other possibilities.
Co-founder, RSR Research
The thing is they NEED that churn or they’d have to pay raises. Seriously, it’s the store model itself that needs to change. I don’t think Just Walk Out is the answer. Automating non-customer facing functions so the P&L will support a more qualified workforce is.
We need to go one step further than what is suggested here. Fundamentally, there is little respect for the front line in retail. These workers are haunted daily by NPS based ratings used to punish and given strict rules to follow which are at odds with delivering good customer service, yet each employee is the single individual representing the company to the customer.
It is a miserable job because it’s value is little respected. Retailers have grown increasingly more separated from their customers because of this disrespect then blame the frontline employee. Retail needs a top-to-bottom reworking.
Retail Industry Strategy, Esri
Front-line retail jobs have always been at the bottom rung of employment options. It’s been rare for any of these positions to be great choices from a career and development perspective. The industry has developed around the idea that these roles are low-wage, non-benefited, and transitory. We’ve built our expense structure around that idea. During the pandemic, many retailers realized there is real benefit from a financial and customer service perspective to having a stable workforce in their stores. These companies, Walmart being a great example, make significant improvements for their teams: increased wages, expanded eligibility for benefits, and provided more stable scheduling to name a few.
As the labor market continues to be tight, best-in-class retailers will continue these efforts, and I expect them to be rewarded.
Less forward-thinking retailers will do nothing except continue to complain about how they can’t find anyone to work in their stores.
Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting
Retailers still tend to look at front-line workers as capitalism’s shock troops and cannon fodder, so when one goes down they are replaced by another. The idea of retention is – in too many cases – an afterthought or not a thought at all. Nothing will change until retailers start looking at store-level non-managerial workers as assets rather than unavoidable labor costs and begin creating career pathing, skill enhancement, etc. As to recruiting the industry needs to move from a quantity model based on constant churn, to a quality model. If you have better quality, better trained, better paid, and more experienced workers you will need a lot fewer workers, save on-boarding costs, reduce shrink, and improve customer service and experience. And still, too little changes.
Founding Partner, Merchandising Metrics
Frontline retail will never be a deeply satisfying job at any emotional level. It just won’t be. It’s hard work and under-appreciated by most customers. That makes the job of frontline managers all the more challenging in providing an environment that does recognize and appreciate frontline work. What can be deeply satisfying is upward mobility, and that is available to a broad swath of frontline workers and managers — IF the retailer makes it available on a planned platform. And that means an investment in HR. Tech and digital and robotics might all have a role, but there has to be a plan for the people whose lives are being impacted by all this new wizardry.
Overseer of Order
Very, very sad but true. Today, stores have part-time cashiers and stockists, who get their schedules the Sunday night before the week begins, keeping them from being able to even work second jobs.
Imagine a store management that supports a culture of selling, where managers measure and review the individual’s metrics, provide robust product information training, along with full-time workweek scheduling, a living wage, and opportunities to earn beyond the regular wages, throw in a few benefits (like healthcare and 401k) and do you know what you’d have? Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s.
Imagine promoting store sales as a valued career. Now that would be a sea change, wouldn’t it?
Retailers must accept that operating without a training and development roadmap for their frontline workers is a dead end. Whatever costs that retailers were able to avoid with inadequate pay and/or lack of opportunity to advance and still find people willing to go to work the sales floor is over.
Investment must be done in multiple verticals outside of pay and development. The broad workforce, across all employment verticals, is looking for companies to mirror their own values. Unless top leadership makes significant actions to change this story will continue, with everyone taking a hit.
I agree with the comments that frontline jobs are very stressful. For that reason alone, these workers should be paid more. Rather than increase pay for cashiers, for example, grocers install self-checkout terminals, which do not ask for a pay raise.
CFO, Weisner Steel
Well what does the HBR know? The complaint that only a small fraction of employees reach the managerial positions is no doubt true, but isn’t it true everywhere? It’s the nature of a corporate “pyramid.”
The bigger issue, of course, is that it seems that only the managerial levels offer good pay. But is that likely to change? Not when retail has — to an ever greater degree — come to emphasize (low) cost. At one time, perhaps, a skilled salesperson could benefit from “knowing the market,” as well as taking advantage of the inefficiencies in how markets were organized (local markets with limited competition); and many retail positions were filled by people who had few choices, either because of familial or societal restrictions. Few, if any of those things are true today. And frankly I don’t see any of them changing, at least in a way that will benefit retail pay.
Contributing Editor, RetailWire; Founder and CEO, Vision First
I’m wondering why “bad customer behavior” isn’t in the list of reasons why store-level jobs can be unpleasant? Dealing with rudeness exacerbates all the other factors mentioned.
Principal, Clearbrand CX
Retail can be challenging, and lower pay has always been a topic, but it doesn’t mean it’s always or even often the worst job. Nor does it have to be. It can even be rewarding, enjoyable. Examples like Nordstrom, Wegmans, Dorothy Lane Market, Chik-fil-A, and In-N-Out quickly come to mind.
Hourly pay is important, but good places to work the front lines, are where employees are immersed in a meaningful culture, feel valued, are given latitude and creativity to solve customer issues, where leadership are active and present, where employees are thanked and recognized. Retailers can choose to integrate these into the business, or not.
Retail Industry Thought Leader
Instinctively, it seems the biggest issue with retail front lines is low pay. But if we pull back the layers, we find low pay often correlates with low skill. Then, low skill often correlates with little advancement. This trifecta is nearly self-fulfilling: hire low skilled labor, don’t train them so they don’t advance and if they don’t advance, they don’t make more money.
Retailers have two different organizations: corporate and stores. The store level employers have never been treated with nearly the same regard as corporate. When this changes, the whole industry can rise together.
The ability for a customer to connect on a human level is possibly the greatest strength of bricks and mortar retail. The online channel cannot do this, and ironically the digital age we now live in has created huge demand for face-to-face interactions. 71% of customers say that staff have a significant impact on their shopping experience and they are 2.6 times more likely to recommend your brand, having interacted with a highly engaged retail employee. Customers want “real” “human” interactions.
With so much emphasis on what physical retail spaces can do for the customer experience, the relationship between retail staff and the store is rarely considered. All too often, staff are made to feel like guests in their own “workspace” and the focus is always on the customer. Yet, if retailers want to attract and develop “Superstar Staff,” they must show them that they care. To achieve this, retailers must now consider the store environment as a workspace that empowers staff, not just as a customer-facing commercial space.