TORONTO, Canada — A hero, as defined by Webster’s dictionary, is “a mythological or legendary figure endowed with great strength or ability, an illustrious warrior, a person admired for noble qualities or one who shows great courage.” Under normal circumstances, few would ascribe such words to the people who stock grocery store shelves, deliver our parcels, sell us cold medication or repair our automobiles. But these, of course, are not normal circumstances. And each morning, while many of us remain safely cloistered at home, beyond the reach of Covid-19, tens of millions of retail workers worldwide are going to their places of toil, so that the rest of us can function.
This has moved companies like Walmart, Amazon and dozens of others to cast their workers as “retail heroes,” extolling their bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of danger. Walmart even produced commercials like this one depicting stoic-looking staff courageously performing their daily tasks (and from the looks of it, free from the “incumbrance” of any personal protective equipment), all the while staring down the viral monster the rest of us cower from. It’s a message designed to pull at the heartstrings and seems a fitting tribute to these brave and selfless souls.
The problems with this depiction, however, are twofold: first, it’s a lie; and secondly, we customers are buying into it, with more and more of us taking to social media to relay and reinforce the notion of heroism on the frontlines of retail.
Having worked in and around the retail industry for over 30 years and having also been personally responsible for the wellbeing of hundreds of frontline retail staff, I can tell you that they didn’t sign up to be heroes. They don’t spring out of bed each morning driven by a sense of higher purpose to pack your groceries, stock your pantry or deliver your meal. They didn’t take a Hippocratic oath to ensure you don’t run out of toothpaste. They’re doing it because they have to. Because they depend on the income their work pays. They’re doing it because most of them don’t have a month of living expenses in the bank and even fewer could secure a loan to bridge a gap.
When we buy into the ‘hero’ narrative, we lose sight of the true story; that retail workers are not heroes but victims.
It is also true that retailers like Amazon and Walmart, which now exalt the indispensability and courage of their frontline people, are the very same companies that have spent decades busting labour unions; unions that have sought not much more than a living wage and safe working conditions for their members. In fact, in the very midst of the current crisis, Amazon fired one of its “heroes.” His name is Chris Smalls, a warehouse worker who organised a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions in one of Amazon’s warehouses. (According to Amazon, Smalls was terminated for endangering others by violating social distancing guidelines.) It’s worth noting that Smalls was hardly the first Amazon employee to raise concerns about working conditions in Amazon warehouses.
The problem is that as soon as we allow ourselves to buy into the “hero” narrative, we lose sight of the true story: retail workers are not heroes but victims; victims of a system that has aggressively suppressed their wages, stripped them of rights and protections and commoditised their work. Most retail workers are woefully underpaid, under-benefited and treated as interchangeable parts in the global retail machine. They are working out of deep necessity, with far too many clinging to incomes that keep them just above the threshold of poverty or, in some cases, living well below it. And if all this weren’t enough, they also deal with regular doses of abuse from us, their customers. Hardly treatment befitting a hero. But let’s disabuse ourselves of any idea that they are doing all this by choice. Most have no choice.
So, we mustn’t allow ourselves to be seduced by the romantic notion that retail workers are heroes. It may have sounded brilliant in the conference room of a Madison Avenue advertising agency but on the ground it’s just more corporate bullshit.
Calling retail workers heroes does nothing to change their reality.
But let me be perfectly clear. I am not suggesting that these people do not deserve our recognition, praise or concern. They most certainly do. But calling them heroes, does nothing to change their reality, any more than expressing “thoughts and prayers” after another mass shooting does anything to amend gun laws.
If you truly value the people working in the aisles and warehouses of your favourite retailer, call your local politician and demand better pay and safe working conditions for them. Publicly hold retail leaders accountable who mistreat or undervalue their people. And above all, make purchasing decisions on something other than price and convenience, and move your money to brands and retailers who put people over profit or at the very least regard them as equal priorities.
If there is only one positive outcome from this crisis, my hope is that it's a complete societal rethink around the working conditions, wages and benefits of frontline retail workers.
Calling them “heroes” is simply not enough.
Doug Stephens is a retail industry futurist, founder of Retail Prophet and author of ‘Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World.’
Editor's Note: This article was updated on 22 April 2020 to include Amazon's position on why the company terminated Chris Smalls, a worker who organised a walkout to protest unsafe working conditions in one of its warehouses.