Nicolina Venezia, 30, has experienced the full spectrum of the retail industry’s recent difficulties.
As a sales associate at Barneys, she barely made ends meet while selling luxury fashion, sometimes relying on babysitting gigs to make rent. After the department store shut down in February 2020, she found work at a Mark Cross boutique on Madison Avenue. She was there for barely a week when New York went into lockdown. The store closed, and Venezia was out of work for the second time in a month.
Today, Venezia works in a pop-up jewellery boutique in Lower Manhattan. But she said she’s just about done with retail.
“It’s always kind of a roll of the dice,” Venezia said. “I might have money in the bank, but how long will it last?”
Store workers like Venezia are paying the price as rising online sales and changing consumer behaviour squeezes brick-and-mortar retailers. Pay has stagnated; the minimum wage was last raised at the federal level in 2009, to $7.25 an hour. Employment prospects look bleak as shopping moves online: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of retail salesperson and cashier jobs will fall by nearly 4 percent between 2018 and 2028.
It’s always kind of a roll of the dice.
The pandemic made things worse. Clothing stores in the US laid off nearly 1 million workers when they closed last spring. Not all have been hired back. As of March, there were 982,000 retail associates working in US stores, down from 1.3 million in February 2020, according to the BLS.
At the same time, the role of store associate has perhaps never been more vital to retailers, even as brick-and-mortar sales drop. Many brands have converted their physical outposts into combinations of stores, warehouses, call centres and even television studios. Store associates are increasingly expected to navigate between serving customers in person, fielding questions on social media, fulfilling online orders and virtual personal shopping.
“The retail workforce is almost more important than in pre-pandemic days,” said Ron Thurston, vice president of stores at Intermix, who started his career as a store manager 25 years ago. “I always tell retailers, these are the people with the most knowledge of your brand, the customers and product feedback.”
Eric Miller was a sales manager for Nordstrom before receiving a promotion to help the retailer set up and manage shop-in-shops in its New York City flagship, including a Christian Louboutin pop-up and See You Tomorrow, Nordstrom’s experiment in resale.
When the store temporarily closed last spring, Miller was assigned to e-commerce fulfilment. From March to June, Miller picked, packed and shipped online orders. Though the work wasn’t particularly creative or glamorous, he said he was grateful to have a job at all.
The retail workforce is almost more important than in pre-pandemic days.
Miller has since returned to his original role. But for many retail associates at other brands and retailers, fulfilling online orders has become a permanent part of the job.
At Designer Shoe Warehouse, increased digital sales have made in-store fulfilment a larger part of store associates’ job responsibilities, said Bill Jordan, chief growth officer at Designer Brands Inc., the shoe retailer’s parent company. Picking and packing products for “buy online, pick up in-store” is also a bigger component of their duties, he added.
New Revenue Streams
Nicholas Dunlevy began working retail at the Beverly Hills Celine store last fall. He soon realised he faced challenges his predecessors wouldn’t. Many sales associates for high-end brands earn much of their pay on commission and rely on one-off store traffic and regular clients to boost their income. Deep into the pandemic, Dunlevy didn’t have the luxury of relying on walk-ins; he would have to find customers some other way.
Without the usual Rodeo Drive tourist traffic, Dunlevy began reaching out to users on Instagram, Facebook and WeChat who had recently engaged with posts on Celine’s official pages or fan accounts.
His typical approach: “Hey I’m a Hedi [Slimane] fan like you are, is there anything you’re looking for? Feel free to reach out to me, I dig your style.”
It was a sharp departure from his earlier days working for Burberry and Banana Republic, where taking a photo on his personal phone or FaceTiming a client was frowned upon, he added.
“The heavy focus was suddenly on e-commerce ... And I think it was a bit of a wave for people to catch,” said Dunley, who is now a floor manager at Dover Street Market.
Andreina Ramirez, a sales associate for Hugo Boss in Toronto, said she spends the bulk of her time following up with past customers on text or email. She will tell them about new collections or sales events.
“Now I have a closer relationship with clients and I’m reaching out to a lot more people,” she said.
I know one [associate] who was able to sell $30,000 in a virtual private appointment.
For some store associates, the shift has proven lucrative. Ferdinand Reyes works in the Louis Vuitton store in San Francisco, where his commissions have been boosted by new digital clienteling tactics and online-savvy shoppers who know exactly what they want.
“I know one [associate] who was able to sell $30,000 in a virtual private appointment,” Reyes said. “We do have to develop and build these relationships, but then [my clients] would literally ask me to call them when something new comes in.”
Miller, the Nordstrom employee, said he hopes to one day become a buyer in his division. So far, he said it’s been easy to track his next steps — something that Nordstrom makes transparent.
But few retailers offer such clear paths from the shop floor to the corporate ladder. Ray Riley, the co-chief executive of Progress Retail, a firm that helps retailers train store associates, said less than 10 percent — if that — of prospective retail clients he speaks with have a manager-in-training programme that allows associates to advance their careers.
“There will be limits in what a retailer [offers] in terms of wages and salary, but there shouldn’t be a limit to the quality of people that are being developed and trained,” Riley said.
Retailers could have infrastructure set in place to train and help employees apply for more senior-level or corporate-facing jobs, he added. This programme could include courses and regular one-on-one mentorship sessions with a senior store leader.
At Intermix, every employee sits down with a manager on a quarterly basis to discuss career goals, create individual development plans, and share any open headquarters roles that may be available, according to Thurston.
There shouldn’t be a limit to the quality of people that are being developed and trained.
Providing a clear path for young associates to attain corporate positions is an effective way to retain a talented and ambitious workforce.
“I know my next job would be merchandise analyst, which is the entry-level buying position,” said Miller. “With Nordstrom, most roads lead to Seattle corporate.”
Editor’s note: This article was revised on 14 April, 2021. A previous version said less than 10 percent of riley Riley’s retail clients have a manager-in-training programme for their associates. This is inaccurate. Less than 10 percent of Riley’s prospective clients have such programmes.