In a society where shopping is a national pastime, why is selling stuff such a dreadful job?
Economic forecasters are warning that retail jobs are going extinct, citing chain-store shutdowns and mass layoffs across the country. So what about the millions of retail workers still out there, worried about slipping from poverty wages to full-fledged joblessness?
Retail doom is actually far from inevitable. According to an analysis from the Russell Sage Foundation by Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly, there’s still an ongoing demand for brick-and-mortar jobs, which, unlike factory jobs, can’t be shipped overseas. And that could make the industry a laboratory for redefining the service sector to provide sustainable livelihoods.
Outside the United States, alternative models are already on display. We can learn a lot from how other wealthy industrialized nations have managed to make retail jobs decent jobs, maybe even good careers. Countries like Germany and France have avoided the big-box model of low wages and irregular part-time work, through government policies, labor organization, and corporate practices that support more equitably structured workplaces. There’s no magic formula; it just requires listening to workers.
That makes retail a good laboratory for organizing strategies that give labor and policy-makers leverage to advocate for economic change. Across the Atlantic, both government and organized labor have been mutually reinforcing drivers of fair labor conditions and humanely designed workplaces.
In France and Germany, the retail industry offers living-wage union jobs, with stable schedules and comprehensive training programs—not because their bosses are saints, but because they apply a business model that prioritizes job quality above maximizing hours and cutting costs.
In the United States, big corporate retailers treat employees as disposable, interchangeable widgets, and pay accordingly cheap wages. Degrading the real value of their labor pushes the workforce into a precarious cycle of economic insecurity, as well as high turnover, which is costly and unproductive for the company. European retail sectors, however, manage to avoid this cyclical exploitation, through business models and industrial policy that see a business’s value as a function of how much it invests in cultivating a productive, content workforce.