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A Career in Retail: Pros and Cons of Shop Work

Beth is interested in ways to earn money, and how to get best value when spending it.

Busy shopping street, Oxford, UK.

Busy shopping street, Oxford, UK.

A Career in the Retail Sector

Retail is a huge employer. In both UK and US the retail sector employs 10% of their nation’s workforce. More than 29 million people are directly employed in US stores (2017) and the sector supports a further 42 million jobs in the wider community. Since the coronavirus pandemic (2019-2021) the structure of retail has changed slightly. Shoppers have moved online, but they still need people to create, pack, and deliver the goods. The retail sector remains a growth area.

As a 24-hour operation, shop and warehouse work can offer a variety of work patterns. It attracts people of all ages and backgrounds. However, there are pros and cons to working in this industry.

Pros and Cons of Shop Work

  1. Flexible working hours
  2. Plenty of overtime
  3. No age discrimination
  4. Need to be physically fit
  5. Low pay
  6. Multiple work locations
  7. Shortage of applicants

1. Flexible Working Hours

Pros: Whether you prefer night-shifts or daytime, you should be able to get working hours to suit you.

Cons: Retail stores expect workers to work set shifts and these may not be your preferred ones.

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 There are also tills to be balanced, damaged or out of date stock to be trashed, and general site maintenance to be done.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

2. Plenty of Overtime

Pros: Availability of overtime gives you the chance to earn extra money.

Cons: If your contract states you are part-time, then extra hours will be paid at the same base rate (i.e. not at time and a half).

Having a flexible contract can be a two-edged sword. Flexibility when working for a bad employer can mean you’re always on call. A good employer will view your ability to work extra hours at busy times as a plus. If they’re not going to exploit you, you should be given a choice whether or not to do overtime hours. However, most retail stores expect staff to work during peak busy periods like Black Friday, and in the run-up to Christmas and Easter.

3. No Age Discrimination

Pros: Age is no barrier to employment.

Cons: Whatever your age, you're expected to do the same physical work.

Jobs in retail are open to everyone whatever their age. Providing you're physically able to carry out the duties of a shop worker, there's no barrier to your being employed. However, most retailers won'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 shop work. There's legislation in both US and UK to help workers overcome potential age discrimination by employers.

4. Need to be Physically Fit

Pros: You're judged on your ability to do the job, not on paper qualifications.

Cons: If you’re not physically fit, you may struggle in retail.

Working on the shop floor is physically demanding. As a general sales assistant, you'll be standing on your feet all day. In some stores even cashiers are not allowed to sit down as they work, so checkout duties are no easy option. You may also be required to lift heavy boxes as part of your duties.

5. Low Pay

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.

Shop and warehouse work is notorious for paying low wages. A statutory minimum wage exists in many countries to support workers, but it rarely keeps up with general inflation. As we come out of lockdown, some employers are finding it harder to recruit, especially delivery staff. This is causing a(small) rise in the rates offered to staff in the retail sector.

Pay and working conditions in retail varies enormously depending on which company employs you. As well as a basic rate of pay, some employers give a bonus or commission payment based on individual or team performance. The length of paid annual leave offered in this sector tends to increase with long service, but is usually only around the legal minimum.

6. Multiple Work Locations

Pros: You may not have to travel far to work.

Cons: You have no excuse for being late.

There are lots of retail outlets, both large and small, so there's a good chance you'll be able to get a job in a store nearby. More than 75% of the US population now live within five miles of a major supermarket. However there are structural changes happening to the way stores operate as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. People are changing the way they shop. During lock-down many customers turned to online shopping to avoid crowded stores. As life returns to normal, some will return to their old habits, but many will continue to use the convenience of shopping via the internet.

7. Shortage of Applicants

Pros: Wage rates may rise to attract workers.

Cons: Fewer part-time, flexible roles.

Many high street stores are closing as more shopping is done online. The result of this is a loss of local jobs, and in their place, work is being created in large warehouse and delivery facilities, often on out-of-town large industrial estates. This change tends to favor full-time workers over part-timers, and drivers over non-drivers, as well as physically fit staff over weaker employees. Overall this is likely to lead to fewer openings female workers, as they may need part-time work due to child-care responsibilities.

How to Work in Retail

Climbing the Corporate Ladder

Some people say that working in retail would be great if only there were no customers. It can be hard to remain polite when you're dealing with an awkward customer. However, if you want to succeed in shop work, you’ll learn to love all interactions, good or bad. Staff turnover is relatively high in this sector, and so with the right attitude, a supervisory or management job is within easy reach for most employees.

If you don’t mind the long hours and low pay, there are further opportunities for career progression. A good store employer will encourage you to gain management and marketing skills, or pass exams such as HGV driving or food hygiene qualifications. A move to head office may be needed to secure the better paying positions.

Major retailers are listed on the stock market and the very top jobs pay well. To progress quickly in retail, and to gain a good salary, it is still the case that you need to be a university graduate or have extensive previous experience in the sector.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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