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Retail workers have cause to be cranky

A new survey sheds some light on the low pay, irregular hours and lack of benefits faced by the millions working in retail sales.

By Karen Datko Jan 19, 2012 7:57PM

A new study supports what millions who have worked in retail already know: The pay is usually lousy, the work schedule often unpredictable and benefits like health care are as rare as an underpaid CEO. 


A survey last fall of 436 nonunion retail workers in New York City -- most employed by big chains -- produced these results:

  • The median pay was $9.50 an hour, and that's in a very expensive place to live. "Close to one of five workers earns less than $8 an hour and 80% earn less than $15 an hour," says the study (.pdf file), done by the Retail Action Project and the City University of New York's Murphy Institute.
  • According to the report: "Almost 60% of the retail workforce is hired as part time, temporary or holiday, and only 17% of workers surveyed have a set schedule. The vast majority, 70%, only knows their schedules within a week." Imagine the child care nightmares stemming from this national retail trend, known as "just- in-time scheduling." 
  • Only 29% have health insurance through their job. Of those who don't, "about 25% live without insurance and 34% rely on government programs." About half get no paid sick days.

(A side note: The New York Times reported in October that Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, "is substantially rolling back coverage for part-time workers and significantly raising premiums for many full-time staff.")


Retail workers in the Bronx were at the bottom in the NYC survey, earning $8 an hour and working just 34 hours a week, says the New York Daily News:

"The result is more poverty among working people," said Ruth Milkman, Murphy Institute sociology professor. "Taxpayers are subsidizing these stores, because the workers depend on food stamps and subsidized housing."

The study was done by a pro-union group, but the results ring true. I worked part time for a major retailer during a period of underemployment several years ago and made $6.50 an hour, then switched to a bigger chain and earned about two bucks more, if memory serves me right. My schedule was different week to week. And just like those workers included in the survey, my co-workers covered a wide age range, and many had families. Post continues below.

Retail didn't used to be that way. A family friend from my childhood supported a wife and two children on what he earned selling sewing machines at Sears. That's unlikely now. 


Why is that? We can blame our addiction to low prices and cheap goods. Also, the study says, "Retailers have calculated that the cost of hiring and training new employees is less than providing benefits to retain a steady workforce -- especially as most employees receive minimal training."


The report's release coincided with the National Retail Federation's annual convention, held in NYC. Blogging after last year's opening session on retailers' plans, Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet wrote: "What was conspicuous by its absence however was any meaningful mention of the value or importance of the retail employee in actually delivering or supporting this experience."


Maybe big retailers would benefit from treating employees with more consideration. They'd likely be happier on the job. Referring to another study, the blog at Human Resource Executive Online said:

By comparison, the researchers discovered that the more hours employees at the apparel chain worked and the less their hours fluctuated, the longer they remained employed at the firm, regardless of age and job status. Stores with smaller staff size and more hours per employee have lower turnover and higher retention, the report found, while employee survey findings indicate that more-predictable work schedules led to less work/family conflict and lower stress levels for the workers. Sounds like a recipe for improved workforce health and greater productivity, no?

About 4.5 million people worked in retail in the U.S. in 2008. "In addition, given the size of this occupation, about 374,700 new retail salesperson jobs will arise over the (next) decade -- more jobs than will be generated in almost any other occupation," the Bureau of Labor Statistics says


And turnover will also continue, the BLS projects:

Employment opportunities for retail salespersons are expected to be good because of the need to replace the large number of workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force each year.

Have you worked in retail? Tell us about your experience below.


More on MSN Money:

Jan 19, 2012 9:34PM
Retail sucks, Wages are poor and you get treated like your not inportant. If employers cared about treating their employees better a lot more customers would be happier.
Jan 21, 2012 2:48AM

I have many years of working in retail type jobs. I can honestly say the conditions for the workers used to be much better than they are as of now. The last job I had in retail proved to me that things had definitely changed. Not only is it almost unheard of to get a full time job in retail, but benefits are almost none existent and for the amount the employee gets paid these days the pressures that are put on workers in order to maintain job status are unrealistic and controlling. In 2010 I had a stroke the same week I was supposed to go to two interviews that I had managed to finally get after 6 months of searching. I have been looking at what is out there lately and it's not that there are no jobs available. It's that some of us who "got locked in a genre" have to become unconventional and learn new ways of getting things done in order to overcome the current situation we find ourselves in.

I used to work @ David M. Mangelsens a family owned retail business and I have to say that after working for both corporate retailers and family owned owned retail businesses top the cake!

Jan 26, 2012 11:40AM
I worked for the largest retailer in America for a few months short of 15 years. During my years of employment I noticed that with each passing year retail is all about trying to play up to the public while abusing those that make them who they are. The respect for the employees is reflected in how much they are willing to make their employers their only family. The best person to work for the company is young people with no family , no school , and no commitments. You must be 200% dedicated to the company with no ideas of making a career through them or not much pay. If you think other wise you are deluding yourself. Sam Walton is dead , the company has exploded world wide. There is no comparison to what it once was founded on. That's reality .
Jan 26, 2012 12:11PM

This is spot on.  Retail jobs create the working poor.  You do not earn enough at a retail job to support yourself - it's good for supplementary income only.   Schedules that change every week mean that working a second job is impossible, even for part time workers.   My friends working at WalMart say the fastest way to get laid off is to put restrictions on your availability to work - which you would have to do for a second job.


Most WalMart associates are hired to work 32 hours a week.  By making most of the work force part time, benefits are greatly reduced and workers are not eligible for unemployment in most states when they are terminated.   


Who cares about a few retail people being treating poorly, you say?   WalMart is the largest employer in the United States.   What is the economic impact to the country when the most highly available jobs (entry level retail) don't pay living wages or have basic benefits?    You still don't care?   Most people working these jobs don't earn enough to pay taxes, especially if they are getting earned income credits from dependents.     These entry level jobs are raising taxes for the rest of us. 

Jan 26, 2012 9:42AM
I've been a retail employee, in varying positions and levels of authority, for much of my adult life.  The entry level positions are much as this article states, but there are benefits and advantages not noted.  

- Retail provides a skill-set to many people who are not able to pursue higher education.  Don't judge.  Their lack of college degrees doesn't make these people dumb or unmotivated, and retail can be the difference between not just a paycheck, but the dignity and self-esteem employment provides.  I've hired people with little experience, but who had a hunger for development who in short time went from not knowing how to punch-in, to contriving insightful strategies to lower shrink percentages or improve tactical inefficiency.
- There is, in fact, a growth path. Sure, one must pay their dues working odd shifts, weekends, holidays, and evenings - but that's when people shop!  I like to say "Be flexible, honest and dependable, don't steal, have a solid work-ethic, attention to detail,a willingness and ability to learn and grow, and genuinely enjoy customer service - and you can move up!"    Not only is there a growth path within the industry, but retail often serves as that "first real job" for many young people who learn professional communication, get their first performance appraisal, are accountable (sadly often for the first time in their lives) for adhering to rules and structure, and working as part of a team.  While not all stay in retail, the experience provides a level of perspective that they remember years later.  
- The work can be a lot of fun and quite varied.  Retail is not limited to straight cashiering, though sometimes when I would end up on register, I'd have a blast.  Job enjoyment in any profession, is much less about the actual work - and much more about the employee's attitude.  There were days when I had to be at work at 5am for Inventory that I enjoyed WAY more than I do now participating in endless conference calls and meetings.  We (in retail) are often at the mercy of the customer, but most of our customers are fantastic and appreciative of our service.  Oh... and the employee discounts and dibs on clearance are a nice perk.

I've been full-time,salaried for the last 15 years and I've run stores, districts, and am now regional.  Retail's been good to me and provided me with a fall-back career when my marriage ended.  Sure, I put in my dues, but who doesn't when they first start in a field?  I make a decent living (more than some of my friends who are school-teachers and police officers), have good benefits, 401K, PTO, quality of life, professional/personal-life balance, and still room to grow.   

As a retail manager, I'd love to see turnover decrease - but with very few exceptions, I've found ways over the years to accommodate the needs of great employees.  They had to be brave, accountable, smart, flexible, honest, results-oriented people with a passion for customer-service... but if they were - they got what they needed. 
Jan 26, 2012 5:14AM
This article and the comments makes the changes taking place in the U.s. very obvious.
While politicians squabble over things the country dries up. if the government were not so involved in every facet of our being and it were held to the Constitution the people would
sort out these problems or they would never have happened. by watching the candidate debates you can see bickering and grid lock will continue regardless of who is elected in 2012.
Back to the subject at hand. In the past the largest companies in the u.S. were manufacturing today they are service companies. General Motors was the largest in the world, today it is Wal-Mart. retail and service companies do not and will not pay the wages that manufacturing
can. A GM assembly line worker made twice what a Wal-Mart employee makes now twenty years ago.  The future for the average worker in this country is bleak. Our president is campaigning on more education, not increased industrial output. The reason being the government controls our educational system which is a joke. If the American people do not wake up and demand their elected officials revert back to the principals outlined in the Constitution. We will continue on the road to perdition. We have been heading down that path for the last 80 years, there is no free lunch. The accumulation of those 80 years are now coming home to roost. Remember government has nothing, other than what it takes from one to give to another(which is a form of theft). The government produces nothing. Whether Buffet pays 50,000 a year in taxes or 50,000,000 it will not curb the government's voracious appetite
for money and control. By the way contrary to the way the president puts it buffet pays more money in dollars than his secretary, he just pays a lower percentage number. The more you tax the producers. The less they have to invest. The less they invest the fewer jobs are created.
There is a book written in which a people's god asks for a contribution of 10%. It does not say if you make more you pay a higher percentage. Remember the government does not create meaningful jobs, the individuals and producers do. 

Jul 17, 2013 5:30PM
I have worked in retail for 4 years for around $9.00 an hour 25 plus hours a week i became unemployed after the company did a cut back. Now all the interviews I get are for $7.25 an hour 10 hours a week retail positions. Lets face it that's not even enough to buy gas and food every week on. Very Depressing.
Jan 26, 2012 8:06AM
I have worked retail with a large chain since 2005, and overall I have to say been treated fairly. I make a fair wage for the area, have health benefits, plus all the other things most people associate with "benefits".  Through three surgergies in this time my employer has been more than fair with me, and my return to work p me get adjusted. On the flip side the idea of set schedules would be a plus, not only from a personal standpoint but also from a work standpoint for moral. But overall I feel fortunate to have a job, especially one with healthcare and benefits to pay when you have a problem and need to be out. I do not regret working retail it can be a lot of fun, and also as with any job there is always good and bad.
Jan 20, 2012 12:07PM

My wife has worked in retail for almost 20 years. She works at a large chain store and is well paid with benefits, including health and profit sharing.

Jan 26, 2012 12:02PM
I have worked retail  over 30 plus years, scheduling is a big thing, as others said , a childless couple gets the scraps of the jb.
Jan 20, 2012 2:43PM

Yes, I worked in retail, but only in high school and college. The work was tedious and boring and certainly not a career choice. The pay was minimum wage, but I never dreamed it should be more. If I were a great sales person, I would have sold cars or insurance and made commission. (And no, my parents didn't pay for college - I worked may way through and paid back school loans for years.)


I think you nailed it with the quote about the cost of retention exceeding the cost of hiring and training new employees. And it shows - except in small family owned shops, customer service is a thing of the past because no one gets any training. I would rather shop on the internet where I don't have an expectation of being treated like a human being. I expect jobs in retail to start disappearing in spite of the BOL statistic.


Whining about reality isn't going to improve anything. Today's retail workers need to think about what skills they have to make themselves valuable to employers tomorrow.

Jan 19, 2012 8:35PM

Reality is even sleazier than this story portrays.


Former welfare Moms who reach their 5 year (in a lifetime) on government handouts (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) who were getting up to $500 a month + stamps + medicaid + begging privileges at all the charities are usually forced into these retail jobs. The clothing expense for the walking mannequins eats their paychecks as the bosses want the employees wearing the latest stuff on the floor and have the privilege of doing so for 30% off the tag prices. Mind you, these unpredictable hours are farmed out to jilted moms who are forced to put their children in questionable government subsidized daycare if it is available. The perks, the employers have a slave they can threaten with homelessness to 'motivate' her plus a government tax credit all for the amazing wage of $7.85 an hour with no extras.


Why are so many children in poverty? Because women are being taken advantage of by:

1. Men who want unattached sex or demand it in exchange for the privilege of spending time in his company.

2. Charity docs who charge $250 to get a female set up on birth control.

3. No possible way a person can have a child and work when earning minimum wage. Questionable daycare situations for the ones who do put the kids in daycare on government aid.

4. No Pell Grants offered until a needy kid reaches 24. They stay in service jobs longer, party, end up pregnant and in trouble earning nothing.

5. Cycle feeds back on itself with the Mom looking for a new man when her 5 years of emergency aid runs out and she can't make it working.

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