What Are the Pros and Cons of Working in Retail?

Updated on November 11, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

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

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. Whether you are choosing a first career or looking for a new employer, the retail sector is worth a look.

Some retail jobs involve learning new skills like floristry.
Some retail jobs involve learning new skills like floristry. | Source

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 There are also tills to be balanced, damaged or out of date stock to be trashed and general site maintenance to be done.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.

It can be stressful serving queues of customers.
It can be stressful serving queues of customers. | 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 and Progression Opportunities in Retail

The variety of job roles in an international retail company like Walmart is comparable to those of any other large company. However, if you work in a small family run corner store your career options will be limited. 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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Clothing retailers like their staff to be fashion aware.
Clothing retailers like their staff to be fashion aware. | Source

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.

Staff Discount is a Bonus

Retailers argue that employee discount is a valuable bonus that compensates for low pay and unsocial hours. The value of a staff discount can be as much as 50% of the retail ticket. However a low-waged worker needs real money to pay for rent and food. They may not have any spare income to take advantage of staff discounts on premium luxury goods.

Pros: if you work at a store where you would be shopping at anyway, then the employee discount can offer useful savings.

Cons: companies may offer staff discounts instead of raising basic wages. Often staff discounts can only be used for full priced goods and not on sale items.

What is the Employee Discount at Apple?

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.

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

Is Working in Retail Good or Bad For Females?

The majority of workers in the retail sector are women, but most of the managers are men. Until recently many women worked part-time and juggled work with bringing up a family and this put them at a disadvantage. Career equality for female workers is still an unmet dream for many.

In 2017, the Chartered Institute of Management (CIM) found that women employed in retail in the UK earned 19.4% less than their male colleagues for the same job. The pay difference is even greater in other sectors. The same survey found the gender pay gap across all workplaces in 2017 in UK was a massive 26.8%.

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