Industry Spotlight: Retail

Retail is much more than a “sales gig.” The retail industry offers a myriad of options for both full-time and part-time job seekers, in addition to long-term job stability. In this industry, staying ahead of market trends is a must. This industry is a flexible one; organizations that adapt to advances in technology and globalization succeed. And those organizations need employees who can think on their feet and provide high-quality customer support.

Think of this industry as “low-hanging fruit” for the job hunter who is coming out of the military. The retail industry has staying power; two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product derives from retail consumption. Plus, consumers’ demand for products, services, and food means employees are constantly needed. And because of misperceptions about career options, many employers struggle to find competent workers. The result? Companies are always looking for candidates with a can-do attitude, leadership skills, a service-oriented mindset, and a strong work ethic.

Your military experience may translate well into the retail landscape. You likely already meet many of the requirements for open positions with your advanced technological skills and experience managing logistics. Whether you realize it or not, you have people skills, too! Think about how often you worked on teams with a diverse group of people when you served in the military. That experience gives you a hand-up in dealing with clients and customers.

The retail industry is a place to grow and learn. Whether you are into e-commerce and online shopping, promoting hot trends, working on a sales team, running a business, managing a restaurant, solving inventory challenges, or even stopping store theft, you will find a host of opportunities in this arena.

While there are many varied occupations from which to choose within the retail industry, distribution and e-commerce are growing the fastest, according to Phil Andrews of the Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union. “Amazon, Wal-Mart, and new startups are building new logistics facilities and hiring people to staff them. Those jobs have higher pay and better hours than cashiers and greeters. While these positions are higher paid, they [can sometimes involve] health and safety issues.”

However, if you enjoy customer interaction in regular brick-and-mortar stores, retailers are anxious to hire you. Many companies that specialize in brick-and-mortar store hype personalized service as a way to compete against online selling giants.

“Across the board, the most important thing is be comfortable interacting with people all the time,” Andrews said. “That’s the main point of the job. If you’re willing to learn, you can learn about any kind of product and apply your skills to any retail store. My advice would be if you’re interested in one type of product or service – computers, fashion, sports or DIY/ home improvement – try those first. You might enjoy the job more.”

**Pick Your Passion**

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), every year, thousands of veterans begin careers at retailers of all sizes. For example, Wal-Mart’s “Veterans Welcome Home Commitment” has hired more than 92,000 veterans since 2013. Many other retailers, such as Home Depot, Amazon, and Starbucks, have military-specific hiring and retention programs.

The retail industry employs millions of workers – supporting 42 million American jobs – or one in four – and has nearly 3.8 million retail establishments. And if working for a small company appeals to you, 98 percent of all retail businesses employ fewer than 50 people, the NRF said.

You might think running a cash register is your only job option in retail. But 44 percent of those in the industry do not work in a sales position. And skilled jobs in grocery pay well, Andrews noted.

If you doubt whether there is a place for you and your unique skills or knowledge, here are some examples of non-sales jobs in the retail industry and the number of people who fill each of those roles, according to the NRF:

- 91,000 artists and designers
- 71,000 bakers
- 51,000 protective service workers
- 28,000 merchandise displayers and window trimmers
- 25,000 accountants and auditors
- 21,000 computer programmers and software developers
- 3,850 architects and engineers

And as Andrews noted, employment at web-based retail companies has increased the most, with 145 percent growth over the last decade. If you are looking for a hot field, you need look no further.

**A Full-Time Career Option**

The majority of retail employees – about 70 percent – work full-time. Military officers and other veterans who already have college degrees may be interested to know that one-third of retail employees over age 24 have degrees, and one in seven has an advanced degree. Store managers have the responsibility of running their business and helping their associates grow in their careers, which requires discipline and the ability to lead.

“If this is your first foray into job hunting outside of the military, you may need to work your way up into management,” Andrews said, “but if someone has leadership experience and is a natural leader, it’s not difficult to move from sales associate to assistant manager or team lead and go up the ranks. The path to advancement is to look for promotions from within and get experience at one place. Then move to a different store that is higher end.”

When shopping around – so to speak – for a retail employer, Andrews suggested conducting heavy research on its workplace ethics. “ can be helpful to find criticism from current employees. And search for news stories about lawsuits against the company,” he suggested. However, as with most reviews, it is also important to bear in mind that often you will see only one side with sites like Glassdoor. Anonymous complaints tend to be written by those with extremely strong opinions. Content or neutral employees will rarely leave a review.

Also, nothing beats face-to-face questioning as you shop in the mall. “It doesn’t hurt to go to the store and ask casually, ‘I’m looking for a job. Is this a good place to work?’ People will often just tell you right on the spot,” Andrews said.

**The Part-Time Worker’s Rights**

Working part-time at a retail job allows for a great deal of flexibility. If your priorities lie elsewhere, say, in finishing your college degree or taking care of family, this might be a good option for you. It is also a popular practice. About one in three retail salespersons works part-time, according to the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, it is important that you are educated on your rights as an employee. This is not to say that all employers will look to take advantage of you and your part-time status, far from it. But part-time employees often work almost as contractors. They are allowed the flexibility in schedule but often must give up stability and benefits in return.

Veterans, especially, can be vulnerable to what Andrews calls “employee abuse,” which is a term for when an employer does not respect their employee’s rights. This is because veterans have worked in the military sector for a great deal of time and may not be savvy to what is acceptable in the civilian workforce.

“There are some self-protection steps [you can take] so that companies do not take advantage of you,” Andrews said. First, Andrews recommends looking for retail companies with a union. A union is an independent organization that is accountable to you and will inform you of your rights, as well as keep you up to date on benefits you might accrue as you gain seniority.

“The number of unionized retail stores is quite low, but the number of grocery stores is on the higher end. The best way to find out if an employer is unionized is to look up the unions in your area. For retail, look for the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), or in grocery, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and ask them, ‘What employers are hiring, and what would you recommend?’” Andrews said.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself without union representation, here are a few guidelines Andrews recommends to navigate the retail landscape:

- Be careful of an employer who pays “off the books” or in cash. In most cases, this is because the company is small and does not have a sophisticated payroll system. But if you hear something like: “If you work over 40 hours, we pay you in cash,” that means that company is trying to avoid paying you overtime. As an hourly employee, you are entitled to overtime if you work over 40 hours in a week.
- Be wary of two ways you could be misled and work overtime hours unpaid: 1) The offer of salaried position that doesn’t come with a set number of weekly hours. Your hours could steadily increase while your pay remains the same. Make sure it’s clear the hours you will be expected to work up front. Note: All non-managerial and non-professional positions should be paid hourly not salaried. 2) You may be offered a “promotion” that is in name only. While your work might not change, your title change may exempt you from getting overtime pay.
- Do not let an employer adjust your hours worked. For example, if you worked 50 hours one week and 30 the next, do not let your employer adjust it to show 40 hours for both weeks in order to avoid paying you overtime.

As long as you are aware of your rights as an employee, navigating the retail scene should not be an issue. Most employers are not looking to take advantage of their employees. If an infraction happens, it is usually due to the high amount of moving parts involved in working in a thriving industry. An employee who understands workers’ rights is a valuable employee. It is also a way to demonstrate your capacity for leadership and integrity.

Overall, the wide range of career options combined with flexibility make working in retail a challenging and rewarding endeavor. Do not let misconceptions dissuade you from finding an engaging career in this field. Take your skills and your interests and put them to work in the retail industry. You may be surprised at the outcome.

*Heidi Lynn Russell is a freelance writer based in Lexington, KY. She has been writing about employment issues affecting military veterans and spouses for the past 15 years.*