Why Working in Retail Doesn’t Pay

*Note – The opinions expressed here are mine, all mine – Jerrito*

Early on in my career, I spent a few years working in the retail business. The experience was an eye-opener for me, as I began to learn how the business of selling products worked. For some reason the small but complex world within the retail store fascinated me, as I began to understand the complicated interactions of employees with shoppers, the importance of keeping proper inventory, the need to keep the dishonest from pilfering that inventory, and just how much is expected from a clerk working in a store, regardless of size or what merchandise they sold. The truth of the matter is that not much has changed since those days.

My first employment in the business came when I worked for a video store in the early ’90s. My pay was a whopping $3.65 per hour. Since I was attending college classes as well, I worked part time and had no benefits of any kind, outside of a 30 minute lunch break each day. During the course of my shift, I was required to serve customers, including ringing them up with the cash register, helping them find the movie they were looking for, quoting prices, and “all other duties as assigned…”

There is a sense of entitlement that comes with spending your money. You expect not only to receive the product as you want it to be, but that what you receive is exactly what you desired. Most customers are polite, friendly and flexible enough. Unfortunately though, this sense of entitlement leads to the most difficult part of any retail job: dealing with difficult shoppers. This is tough. Much tougher than you may think.

In my years of working in stores, I was called names by customers because they didn’t like the price of an item. One woman actually threw her credit card at me because a popular movie was unavailable for renting due to high demand. More than once I was threatened by a shopper.

When I spoke to my manager, I received the same answer in various forms time after time, a mantra delivered as if it were a reference to scripture: “The customer is always right.” This process repeated itself in two other stores I worked at. The shopper was angry for something over which I had no control. I tried to handle it as politely as possible. The customer, by all accounts, overreacted. I was given the same spiel about it never being the customer’s fault, time after frustrating time. Inevitably, that, more than anything left me less motivated and often angry that I couldn’t respond in kind, an immediate cause for termination in that world.

In retail, you often feel unprotected. I’ve seen quite a few stores lately with only one employee on duty while I was there. Any police officer will tell you this is hardly an ideal solution. This worker is often a woman, young, a target for all sorts of criminals. If that employee is closing a store, at night, alone, all sorts of things can happen, most of them unpleasant.

With few exceptions, that business just doesn’t pay, at least until you move into the upper levels of management, which of course rarely exist for retailers which are not part of a larger chain. Even those who manage stores (a difficult job, believe me on that one) are typically subjected to all manner of difficulties in the execution of their duties. With staffs often made up of young, inexperienced workers, they must still comply with all labor lays, and handle the customer issues I mentioned above, even and especially when those escalate.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were roughly five million people working in retail sales as of May of 2014. Half of those workers earned $10.29 per hour or less (or roughly $21,000 per year as an annual wage.) You can look it up, but those amount haven’t come close to keeping up with inflation or the increases in the cost of living in the United States.

In the meantime, the owners of those stores made enormous amounts of money in that year and again in the years that followed. Big, big final sales numbers were announced in 2015, and we see no reason to expect any less success for the industry in 2016.

When I was done with my college career and looking for full time work, I knew that the retail world was not for me. Though I had mostly enjoyed interacting with customers, the minority was vocal, often rude, and too much to bare. The low pay and the obvious difficulties in moving up toward a position that paid better, combined to sour me on laboring in that industry entirely.

Part of the formula for producing profits, of course, is keeping expenses down. While I’m not advocating for $20 per hour part time sales clerks, I also don’t believe that continuing to pay workers such minuscule wages is as successful a formula as some in power in the corporate world seem to believe.

Am I trying to have my cake, in the form of plenty of low priced items to post on this very site, while trying to eat it too, in the form better pay for those in that enormous money-making industry called retail? Maybe. But I’m also considered “pro-business” by most of my friends. I just can’t believe that a decent life for both employees and retail businesses are mutually exclusive.