What is so bad about working in retail? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answer by Andrew Hamada, marketer and merchandiser, on Quora.
Cred: I worked in-store retail for many years, taking orders and stocking shelves, at everything from small local businesses to national chains and franchises like McDonald's and Radioshack. I later spent years on the corporate side of retail, at Amazon and Sears. Views in this answer are my own, obviously.
Here's the thing that even staunch defenders of retail will admit: retail jobs are often bad because they are treated as temporary by nearly everyone, so almost nobody designs them to be better--in fact, we design them to be worse.
Organizational behavior is a pretty interesting field of study and we've learned a lot about what makes people happy with their jobs. Most lists include things like: a sense of purpose, having responsibility, coworkers who are engaged, opportunity for advancement, knowing that your work tasks are important, and variety.
If you weren't already chuckling to yourself as you read that list, I'll say it out loud: almost none of that applies to retail.
For many/most retail jobs, the description unofficially includes:
Having no control over your work. Somebody way better-paid...err, smarter...than you is going to determine how you do your job, communicated to you indirectly through a memo to management, and they probably aren't even going to ask your opinion. This is not a formula for self respect. And it doesn't help that you will be...
Surrendering in every conflict. The customer is always right. Some businesses treat this with nuance to protect their employees from abusive assholes, but many don't. If you interact with the public, you are expected to suppress or even override any negative emotion you might be feeling, whether or not it's related to work. Your performance had better not suffer, though, because you're being measured. And despite that, you sign up for...
Having little to no connection between your performance and your pay. Everyone expects a raise every year whether they've done a good job or not. In many retail companies, tenure is the primary driver of pay increases. If there is a connection, like a commission, the incentives probably drive you to do things that bother the hell out of you and people you love when you are customers: badger everyone you see browsing, sell an extended warranty or store credit card, etc. I'm not a therapist but it seems problematic that we reward people for those behaviors.
Knowing that even if you are the absolute best in the world at your job that you are completely, utterly replaceable. This is not about you! It's about your job, which was designed this way. Employees in businesses are like parts in machines. The most stable business would require the least skilled and smallest number of employees, to ensure they are as easily replaced as parts in a car. The very best tie rod for your make and model is still just a tie rod. When you have critical employees, you try to ensure that their jobs are sustainable, that they are well-supported, and that they are happy, since a critical employee leaving will significantly impact the business--like a car is in for an expensive, time-consuming repair if the engine or transmission break down. All that is perfectly rational and yet it still adds up to creating a job that is pretty crappy at the best of times. You know how people say something is so simple that a trained monkey could do it? Well, imagine you have just been given a job that is comprised of tasks that simple, and paid close to minimum wage to do it. That's probably not great for a person's self respect, but when you sign up for retail you know you you are getting....
Very repetitive work. Retail is nothing but cycles, some shorter or longer than others. The monotony is broken up by the occasional saintly customer or not-so-occasional asshole. But your life is routines. Even the most active mind will run out of ways to optimize store close, minimize the pain of inventory, etc. If you want to stretch your boundaries, there often isn't much else for you to do--unless you want to do more of the same. And despite the repetitive nature of the work, retail workers often have...
Fluctuating, unpredictable schedules. Your shifts and hours are subject to change with little or no notice. A great manager will minimize the pain of this, but even great managers are shackled to the realities of the business and will have to sometimes deny your request for Saturday off, etc. And you will work weekends and holidays, because it's retail. This ever-changing schedule not only has implications for your time management (hope you don't have kids!) but your income as well. When you are paid by the hour, if your schedule drops from 40 to 32 hours one week, you just made 20% less money. And even full-time retail jobs are rarely 40 hours in the first place, so an 8 hour fluctuation might be a 25-30% drop. There are some salaried management jobs in stores, but there are...
Limited opportunities for advancement, and few opportunities to distinguish yourself in a job designed for fungible workers. Using Walmart as an example, entry-level cashiers make about $9.50 an hour. You can get some minor promotions on the way to becoming Department Manager, where you will be making an average of $12.50 an hour, assuming there's a position open. If you eventually make your way to being one of a handful of Assistant Managers, you will be finally making a salary, equivalent to what Target pays 21-year old college graduates with no experience to come to their stores. Once you're at the salaried level, though, you might have to move between stores in order to keep advancing. There simply aren't enough positions open otherwise. Walmart likes to brag that 75% of their management is promoted from within, but consider: there are about 5000 Walmart locations in the US. That's 5000 store managers which sounds like a lot, but remember that Walmart employs 1.4 million people in the US. You have to put in a lot of years and survive a lot of competition. There is upside: store managers pull in 90-100k a year. That's what you can make after 3-4 years with a college degree in corporate.
Being an emotional and verbal punching bag for customers. You are the front line of the company, the company knows it, and the company will make sure you know it by dictating every interaction with the customer. In ecommerce, there are people paid six-figure salaries to optimize shopping carts to convert better; in brick & mortar, that's an entry-level job that is paid within spitting distance of minimum wage. So instead, there are people paid six-figure salaries sitting in a corporate office creating plans to dictate how you will do your job. Which leads to...
None of this is unique to retail of course, and not all retail jobs are bad, and not all retailers are terrible. But I don't think it's unfair to say that in-store retail jobs are not conducive to long-term happiness or health.
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