Strategy & Operations

Not All Retail Jobs Created Equal: Thinking Outside the Bot

One of the hot topics in business today is the “whither retail jobs” question. On the one hand, there’s a remarkable story in The New York Times that shows a net increase in jobs in the retail sector, albeit suppressed by the nosebleed-inducing fall in numbers of sales people employed by department stores.

On the other hand, club stores, grocery and other retailers are growing in sales and, thus, employment: 841,000 net gain of employees in the past 15 years. Ecommerce is up 187,000 employees. Department stores? Not so much: 448,000 jobs lost during that same decade and a half.

The trend line of growth in retail sector jobs is in warehousing and fulfillment, with the strong suggestion of robotic workforces soon to replace these employment opportunities. The employment decline, of course, is in floor sales staff. You don’t need to read the press to know the dearth of sales service. Just walk through any store in any mall. You’ll see ghost towns on every side of the cash wrap.

Business analysts reveal that fulfillment center jobs pay a higher wage, offer overtime and typically carry healthcare and other benefits. Yes, but it’s not all that appears. While our Declaration of Independence posits that all (wo)men are created equal, the same cannot be said of all jobs. Even if you’ve ever had a great experience in a retail store, or been the kind of person who reads Vogue, Glamour, and Harper’s Bazaar, all the while dreaming of working at Bergdorf’s or Barney’s, you know the better paying jobs are in an Amazon fulfillment center. Do you want to get your start in fashion retail working the sunglass counter at Barney’s? Or being well paid to drive a Sedgwick scooter through a cavernous warehouse finding Bounty, polo shirts and pantyhose for shipment? Retail stores simply aren’t competitive for wages.

Is Department Store Growth Really Possible?

Job trends aside, I’m frequently asked where growth in real retail can be found. Many think luxe goods and brands will prevail, since they are the only ones able to deliver a profoundly personal and persuasive service/selling environment. Jean Cocteau famously said, “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.” One of the most complicated things we say about ourselves is how our self as focused through the lens of a consumer society. We badge ourselves through our choices of brands, products and preferences, curating our own style, showcasing our complexity.

I think price is the stalking horse for brand and retail experience, ratcheting up to engagement, ratcheting up to enchantment. Luxe does deliver the right environment for acquiring a Louis Vuitton bag or scarf. Gucci is the hushed portal through which we enter the surround sound of care and curation that enables our black card to be employed sotto voce. But so does the proud artisanal cheese monger’s shop, purveyor of taste, engagement and passion, and priced for authenticity and exclusivity.

Rather than the old-world idea of luxe as being the sine qua non of retail, my thought is there’s a Rubik’s Cube of factors redefining today’s luxe with time as the currency. The Green row is price as a mark of quality, for sure. The Red band is whether or not the goods are perishable, as in the difference between Bounty and peaches. The Blue panel is reserved for relevance, as in what does my use of this brand say about me – and what can I say, tweet, post about what I’ve experienced with it? The Yellow squares convey convenience.

The market for most daily products, I believe, migrates to the Yellow row of convenience. Amazon may not be cheapest commodity product provider, but for those categories in which we don’t put our identity at risk, Prime is the most convenient. I’m not going to share the buying experience with my friends, frenemies and followers, but I will rely on it for my usual commodity brands. As I said, time is our luxury today.

Sadly, department stores seem to focus solely on price, as in “20 percent off our already low price today!” Let’s face it, convenience was once an element of their DNA: all those product categories under one roof, when the alternatives weren’t in obvious abundance. Convenience is simply no longer part of the department store conversation. Indeed, they are anti-convenient. Club stores do a better job on price and oftentimes are more convenient, in the sense that you only need to go to them once a month.

The retail winners are those who get all aspects of the retail Rubik’s Cube color rows aligned. The simplest metric to measure: post-purchase word-of-mouth engagement. Where are the bragging rights? I got it cheap? I got it fast? I got it with great personal service?

How do we impact that word-of-mouth? Service, passion and engagement. We’re not going to get that from a soon-to-be-robotic fulfillment center, or a soon-to-be robotic personal shopper. The future of retail employment will need to focus on real people. The demand for a skillset of intuition, empathy and emotional connection may protect retail salespeople, as a counterbalance to the bots, data and analytics that are guiding so much of how we are given choices.

So whither go retail jobs? Start planning and training today to deliver the service and passion that ensures the future of in-store employment for sales people who genuinely care, curate and communicate with customers who crave discovery, human engagement and the long-lasting joys that great goods deliver.

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