What Are the Pros and Cons of Working in Retail?

Updated on December 29, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I write about employment issues, ways to earn money and how to get best value when spending it.

Busy retail shopping street in Oxford, UK.
Busy retail shopping street in Oxford, UK. | Source

A Career in the Retail Sector

Retail or shop work is one of the largest employment sectors. In both UK and US the retail sector employs 10% of their nation’s workforce. One third of these (in each country) are employed by just ten major retailers.

According to the US Department of Labor, more than 15 million people work in the US retail sector (2014). They expect retail to experience the second highest rate of growth in jobs over the next five years. The sector with highest growth rate is projected to be food production.

Whether you are choosing a first career or looking for a new employer, the retail sector is a growth area which should be considered. However, there are pros and cons about working in this industry.

24 Hour 7 Days a Week Business

Even if stores are not open for 24 hours a day, retail is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation. When the store is closed, it gets a thorough clean and shelves are restocked. Deliveries take place throughout the night. There are also tills to be balanced, damaged or out of date stock to be trashed and general site maintenance to be done. All of this means there are job opportunities in retail at any time of day or night.

Pros: whether you are a night owl or a lark, you should be able to get working hours to suit you.

Cons: retail stores expect workers to work shifts and these may not suit your personal preference.

Queues of customers at Thanksgiving Thursday sales at Walmart.
Queues of customers at Thanksgiving Thursday sales at Walmart. | Source

Flexible Working Hours

Having a flexible working hours contract can be a two edged sword. Flexibility for a bad employer can mean you are always on call. A good employer will view your ability to work extra hours at busy times as a plus. If they are not going to exploit you, you should be given a choice whether or not to do overtime hours. However, some managers can be quite manipulative and most retail stores expect staff to be on duty during peak busy periods like Black Friday, and in the run-up to Christmas and Easter.

Pros: Availability of overtime gives you the chance to earn extra money.

Cons: If your normal contract is part-time, then extra hours will be paid at the same base rate (i.e. not at time and a half).

Career Paths in Retail

The variety of job roles in an international retail company like Walmart is comparable to those of any other large company. However, a small family run corner store will only have limited opportunities. This article focuses on customer-facing retail roles in store rather than on head office, behind-the-scenes work.

Pros: if you work for a big retail company, it could lead to an interesting career.

Cons: working for a small store can be limiting.

A Career in Shop Work

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Retail Sector Pay and Conditions

The retail sector is notorious for paying low wages. A statutory minimum wage exists in many countries to help prevent working people from falling below the poverty line (e.g. USA and UK). However, the low pay legislation has not been completely successful in achieving its aim as other major living costs, such as housing and food, have risen faster than general inflation.

The retail sector consists of a few major employers, together with thousands of smaller one or two store employers. The pay and working conditions you can expect can vary enormously depending on who you are employed by. As well as basic pay some employers pay a bonus based on performance or profits. Others may pay a sales commission. The length of paid annual leave offered tends to increase with long service, but is usually around the legal minimum.

Pros: the low-paid means there is likely to be less competition for entry-level jobs.

Cons: the low pay means that people with qualifications are competing with unskilled people for work.

Age is No Barrier to Working in Retail

Employment in the retail sector is open to everyone whatever their age. So long as you're able to physically carry out the duties of a shop worker, there's no barrier to your being employed. However, most retailers don't tolerate staff taking repeated leave of absence due to sickness. A good general state of health is thus essential if you are thinking of working in retail. There's legislation in both US and UK to help workers overcome potential age discrimination by employers.

Pros: age is no barrier to employment.

Cons: whatever your age, you're expected to do the same physical work.

Shopper at an American Apparel store, Los Angeles, California
Shopper at an American Apparel store, Los Angeles, California | Source

Multiple Work Locations

There are lots of retail outlets so there's a good chance you'll be able to find work in a store near where you live. A report in 2006 found that 60% of the US population now live within five miles of a Walmart store and 96% are within twenty miles of one of their stores.

Pros: you may not have to travel far to work.

Cons: you have no excuse for being late!

You Need to be Physically Fit For Shop Work

Working on the shop floor is physically demanding. As a general sales assistant, you'll be standing on your feet all day. Even working on the checkout can involve long periods of standing in some stores. You may be required to lift heavy boxes as part of your duties.

Pros: you are judged on your ability to do the job, rather than on paper qualifications.

Cons: if you’re not physically fit, you may struggle in retail.

Why Working in Retail Sucks

The Customer is Always Right

Many people say that working in retail would be great if only there were no customers. Customer service is usually based on the premise that “the customer is always right”.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remain polite when you're dealing with an awkward customer. However, if you are to succeed in the retail sector, you must learn to remain calm and show a sunny face to the world.

In the interests of balance, the following video shows a retail worker explaining why she loves her job. She talks about how she found it difficult at first, but as she became more understanding and helpful towards customers so her job satisfaction grew.

Tips on Working in Retail


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