Why Working Retail Sucks and Why We No Longer Need It

The digital future from one retail worker who?s had enough.

Recently I decided in my need for extra cash to take a side job in retail. I figured the position would be a fun one; I would get to work with friends, chat up customers and obtain a heavy discount at one of my favorite clothing stores.

And for the first few weeks this is exactly what it was. The work wasn?t hard, I got to be social and I eventually even bought a suit. What I didn?t expect, but quickly remembered from my college years, was what we all know?retail sucks.

But why does it suck?

It doesn?t just suck because the work is boring, the pay is low or the management are frequently assholes; it sucks because its method is essentially flawed.

Consider the hierarchy for a moment. The majority of retail, the positions we described as containing the most suck, are sales. These underlings range from pants folders to customer service reps but the bottom line is they all have quota and typically, very particular instructions. Above them are managers. These middlemen and women were chosen for their ability to follow these instructions, and in turn make quota. Above them, and I?m hugely oversimplifying here, are the corporate decision makers. These people are the ones who come up with the quota, concepts and rules everyone else will follow. Now, take a minute to note these people either come from backgrounds in these types of decisions or have climbed their way from the lower levels of the business for the last twenty plus years.

So, who is actually facing the customer? Well, the most economical option of course?sales?the lowest paid due to the least amount of training and easy replace-ability. And how does corporate make up for this lack of knowledge for every customer-facing rep? They give them tag lines, uniforms and scripts to read from. So each employee looks and sounds the same. This is supposed to be a comfort to the customer, like going into every McDonald?s and getting the same Big Mac.

On some level this is a success. People like dependability, but is that really what they?re getting? Let?s take a deeper look.

Whenever anyone starts in sales they suck. Overtime, one of two things happen: they quit/get fired or they get it. They learn how to connect with customers and actually meet and eventually excel past their quota. Then they quit or get moved up. So basically the exact moment a rep truly understands sales, they?re removed from where the company needs them most. They get moved to management, where they are told to tell others what they?ve learned while taking directions from upstairs.

There is no room for innovation. Only until you?ve put a lifetime in with a company are you able to actually change the rules and by then your customer experience is most likely outdated.

This model has been around for a few generations for a reason. It made sense for what resources were available. Our governments and educational institutions were run in the same hierarchal system. Experts led the masses who helped the customer.

This is changing.

During the industrial era many manufacturing jobs became obsolete. The ones that didn?t we shipped to China, Inda, Malaysia, etc. Now we?re in the middle of doing the same with customer service and even occasionally sales. And some people are getting upset about that: they shouldn?t be.

We are entering a new digital era where, not unlike the industrial age, more of the process is automated. Only now it isn?t just the production process, it?s also the selling. And customer service is selling.

Look at Best Buy, a multinational consumer electronics corporation. In 2001, Best Buy was named ?Speciality Retailer of the Decade? by Discount Store News. In 2004, Forbes magazine named them ?Company of the Year?, and in 2006 even made their List of Most Admired Companies. This was a company that had the in-store retail experience down. They had massive store fronts that housed hundreds of big screen TVs and electronic devices. And customer service was important to them. They are known for having a greeter positioned at the door of every store to make sure you find everything you need.

In 2011 however, things changed. Best Buy saw its revenue slide to $651 million on revenue of $16.26 billion. The following year they closed at least fifty stores and started to shift to, wait for it, Best Buy Mobile stores.

This particular business marks a very specific shift in the marketplace. If you were to look at book sales you would have seen it for the last decade as Borders and Barnes & Nobles went down like dominoes. What was happening was customers were coming into Best Buy, testing the products, gathering knowledge about them and going back home and purchasing them online.

Heresy! So, you?re saying they?d prefer to buy from a website than a person?


Let?s stop kidding ourselves. You can?t indoctrinate someone for minimum wage and expect them to give a genuine piece of themselves to a job that requires connection. And customers know this. In fact, many times it?s even uncomfortable to watch someone degrade themselves to this, and by now we?ve gotten REAL comfortable with the internet.

We trust Amazon, eBay and Apple more than we probably trust our local grocery store. The structure that uses in-store people for sales is no longer valued. That isn?t to say that we won?t have customer service?but these people will be highly skilled, well-paid and use their own creative personality across tools to reach larger audiences. A great example of one of these positions is a community manager. I know when I tweet a complaint to Urban Outfitters, I?ll get a carefully crafted response from someone that matters. Not a replaceable face at a storefront who is working for seven bucks an hour.

Through the internet, connectivity and widely available information has allowed thousands of jobs to be reduced to hundreds. For some people the question is daunting: Does this mean there will be layoffs? Yes, but I prefer the word liberations, because less people indoctrinated means more people creatively thinking, and more people creatively thinking means more industry leaders, increased market competition and better careers that don?t suck.


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