Retail workers feel disruption from shifting shopper habits

AP News
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Posted: Jan 08, 2018 1:40 PM
Retail workers feel disruption from shifting shopper habits

NEW YORK (AP) — With new options and conveniences, there's never been a better time for shoppers. As for workers ... well, not always.

The retail industry is being radically reshaped by technology, and nobody feels that disruption more starkly than 16 million American shelf stockers, salespeople, cashiers and others. The shifts are driven, like much in retail, by the Amazon effect — the explosion of online shopping and the related changes in consumer behavior and preferences.

As tasks like checkout and inventory are automated, employees are trying to deliver the kind of customer service the internet can't match.

So a Best Buy employee who used to sell electronics in the store is dispatched to customers' homes to help them choose just the right products. A Walmart worker dashes in and out of the grocery aisles, hand-picks products for online shoppers and brings them to people's cars.

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Editor's note: This story is part of Future of Work, an Associated Press series that explores how workplaces across the U.S. and the world are being transformed by technology and global pressures. As more employers move, shrink or revamp their work sites, many employees are struggling to adapt. At the same time, workers with in-demand skills or knowledge are benefiting. Advanced training, education or know-how is becoming a required ticket to the 21st-century workplace.

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Yet even as responsibilities change — and in many cases, grow — the average growth in pay for retail workers hasn't kept pace with the rest of the economy. Some companies say that in the long run the transformation could mean fewer retail workers, though they may be better paid.

But while some workers feel more satisfied, others find their jobs are just a lot less fun. Bloomingdale's saleswoman Brenda Moses finds that the customers who do come in can make price comparisons on their phones at the same time as they pepper staff with questions.

"You tell them everything, and then they look at you and say, 'You know what? I think I will get it online,'" she said.

In 2017, 66,500 U.S. retail jobs have disappeared (not taking into account jobs added in areas like distribution and call centers). Of the retail jobs that remain, over the next decade as many as 60 percent will either be new kinds of roles or will involve revised duties, says Craig Rowley, senior client partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group, a human resources advisory firm.

"Jobs for workers will get more interesting and be more impactful on the company's business," Rowley said. "But the negative side is that there will be fewer entry-level jobs and there will be more pressure to perform."

Some retail workers at the vanguard of the changes — like Laila Ummelaila, a personal grocery shopper at a Walmart in Old Bridge, New Jersey — enjoy their new responsibilities.

"You start to get to know the customers, you know what they like," she said, "how they like their meat ... and how long they keep milk in the fridge."

Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, has scrutinized every store job as it looks to leverage its more than 4,000 U.S. locations against Amazon's internet dominance. The company has shifted workers from elsewhere in favor of more daytime sales help. The customers like the changes, company officials say, pointing to sales growth that contrasts with other, suffering retailers.

As part of Best Buy's service in key markets where salespeople will sit with customers in their homes, Billy Schuler offered advice at Steve Frederick's townhouse in Chicago about speakers that can be adjusted from a smartphone.

"Customers are more relaxed when they are in their home," Schuler said, and Frederick found the visit worthwhile. "When you are spending that kind of money, you want to have someone come in and explain it," he said.

Schuler says he is well compensated. Ummelaila says her pay went up to nearly $12 per hour from $10 when she became a personal shopper. Target also said it plans to keep paying higher wages for new roles it has implemented, like dedicated sales staff in some areas and visual merchandisers who create more attractive displays that encourage shoppers to buy.

But wages for hourly retail workers have risen less than 9 percent since 1990, compared with 18 percent for overall workers in the private sector.

"For a long period, these retail jobs were just terrible on average," said Michael Mandel, chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institute. "Retail stores have been following one strategy: high turnover, low wages. That strategy is no longer viable."

Mandel sees hope in technology, which he says has historically created more and better-paying jobs than it has eliminated.

But a report prepared by Cornerstone Capital Group for the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute predicts that more than 7.5 million retail jobs are at risk of being eliminated by automation over the next several years. Amazon, for instance, is testing a grocery store in Seattle without cashiers, using cameras and shelf sensors to keep track of the items that shoppers grab and charge them.

Alfredo Duran of Queens worked at six retailers over 15 years to become a store manager. But once the store closed, he found no one wanted to pay him for his experience. He's now a hotel concierge, making half of what he used to earn — but happy he left retail.

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AP Video journalists Terry Chea in San Francisco and Teresa Crawford in Chicago contributed to this report.

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