The Curiously Millennial Problem Blindsiding Retail Workers In America

It’s 2 p.m. on a regular summer Monday afternoon, and every store and shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles is packed with young people who don’t seem to mind that they have to put on a pair of pants to go shopping. They’re browsing through racks with coffees in hand, standing in lines for the dressing room, cheerfully chatting with sales staff, and actually making purchases on full-priced items. Outside of Glossier, a long line has formed: “I’m addicted to our face mist,” says a young sales associate dressed in pink. She’s rewarding those who’ve finally made it to the front of the line with a quick spritz from a bottle she wields like an outlaw with a pistol. “I have three of them,” she chirps. “You’ll definitely want at least one!”
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The employee is enthusiastic and enlightened — evangelical, even. There’s not a speck of the chilly apathy of the stereotypical shopgirl: too good to be there, biding her time until something better comes along. Nor does she seem bogged down with an uninspiring workplace, a shit paycheque, or a lack of meaningful responsibilities. Not here, nor at any of the kinds of stores along Melrose. This woman is a new kind of retail worker.
A few miles away in Santa Monica, on another busy shopping street, I meet sales manager Rachel Reyes inside a Sweaty Betty, a London-based luxury sportswear brand. “People love their leggings,” Rachel tells me. Dressed to slay in grey and plum spandex, she rattles off the many types of leggings — the versatile Powers, the bum-sculpting Zero Gravities — and how they fit into the layout of the store, which is strategically laid out to boost sales. “People really like specific leggings, and if they’re organised by type, some customers will come in and just buy all of them at once. That’s typical of this neighbourhood, and our customer.” She grabs two legs on opposite racks and hands me one in each hand to feel. She points to the pair in my left hand. “This is a linen blend. You feel how soft that is? We’re a higher price-point than Lululemon, and we’re known for our fabrics and patterns. This one here is an Italian technical fabric. You can’t get this fabric anywhere else. We’re one of the only places that sell it in the States.”
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The throngs of shoppers belies everything we know about what’s happening in the world of brick-and-mortar retail that’s struggled to stay relevant as online shopping has become more convenient and reliable. Department stores are closing. Big box stores are on shaky legs. Past shopping institutions like Claire’s, The Gap, and Nine West closed thousands of stores across the US. In cities, once-vibrant shopping areas like Bleecker Street in the West Village or Los Angeles’ Westside Pavilion are getting turned into condos. Empty malls litter the American suburbs like vacated conch shells. This has led to a real human cost. Retail sales workers account for the most popular occupation in America; one in ten people are employed in a retail position. But this year alone, more than 92,000 retail jobs have been cut, with more coming on the horizon. According to Andrew Challenger of outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, retailers have been the number one job cutter in the past few years.
And yet. Amid the rubble of what’s been billed a retail apocalypse, the shops on Melrose are emblematic of a new future: stores that are more intimate, more engaging, and more experiential. It’s a future where shopping is not just about acquiring a good product, but more essentially, about acquiring a good time. That means they need workers that are educated, cultured, and energetic. To work at Sweaty Betty, Rachel was required to take five “product breakfasts” meant to educate her on the what’s, why’s, and how’s of the company. Hosted in different places around the city, these workshops lasted up to an hour and a half (Sweaty Betty confirmed that workers are compensated for their time spent at these breakfasts, and receive extra clothing allowances for doing well in product quizzes.).
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But Rachel's secret sauce — her most valuable skill, and the reason that she so easily found a home at Sweaty Betty — was years in the making. She went to a competitive humanities magnet high school focused on social justice and activism. Her entire junior year was devoted to studying race, class, and gender. She completed her undergraduate at Mills College in Oakland, and remembers that one of the first workshops offered to the incoming class was a discussion about the differences between race and ethnicity. There, she earned a degree in art history, and went on to intern and work at a handful of international museums, earning minimum wages.
But that was then. Today, she is the manager of the store.
“There has been a gradual increase in the number of college-educated students who are working retail jobs,” notes research and policy analyst Edgar Ortiz from the Fair Workweek LA campaign of worker-rights advocacy group LAANE, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. While Ortiz clarified that the reasons for the increase could be attributable to increased tuition hikes and student debt, it's a fact that the sensitivities that are demanded of “woke workers” — the thing that makes Rachel so valuable — are oftentimes only proliferated within higher socioeconomic environments like colleges. Ortiz notes that modern companies are placing more importance on soft skills like improved customer-to-retailer interaction, and a nuanced understanding of how to talk about consumerism in 2019...a topic that is loaded with cultural landmines, and opportunities to offend.
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It takes a special kind of person to navigate it with ease, to make what could be a battlefield feel like a candy shop.
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“We’re selling leggings, sure, but we’re also teaching our customers how to be feminist,” Rachel explains to me in her store’s break room, as she leans over to toss a stray piece of litter into the garbage. Above a work chart and an explanation of benefits hangs a small sign: ‘We will fit you, you don’t have to fit us.’
I ask her to spell out what that means. “We’re trained to talk to customers and restructure the conversation about bodies,” Rachel elaborates. “A customer might say ‘I don’t like the way I look.’ We’ll respond with ‘Well, how does your body feel in it?’” Even the compression leggings she showed me earlier has been tweaked for this generation. “We tell people that our leggings are sculpting. They're never slimming.”
This is peak Millennial-speak, and one of the main differences between next-gen stores and traditional ones. The lifestyle is worth so much more than the lifestyle product. Sweaty Betty’s leggings may be great, but its philosophy that fitness doesn't have to be a super-serious endeavour, but is rather just a fun and chill thing to do, is what compels people to spend $135 on a pair of spandex tubes.
This kind of sensitive sensibility comes at a cost. “Customers are also coming in with much higher expectations of what level of service they’re going to receive,” said Roy Samaan, the former senior researcher and policy analyst at LAANE's Fair Workweek LA campaign (Samaan left his position earlier this year). “The amount of knowledge and depth that you’re expected to have to move those types of products is kind of staggering.”
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That often means hiring workers who already know the deal. Haley Dresser was a concept store lead for sustainable basics retailer Everlane when the brand first began experimenting with opening actual stores. She remembered the one non-negotiable among the new sales floor hires: “They were people that loved the brand. That was the biggest thing. They knew the Everlane mission without having to look at the website or ask any questions about it. They could spit out why they loved the brand right away. That’s what we were really looking for.”
Like employees at Sweaty Betty, Everlane’s first sales staff were asked to prove their knowledge: “We required people to do some homework at home and take a test,” remembered Dresser. When contacted, an Everlane representative clarified that while new retail employees are not required to do homework or take a test, they are expected to understand the product and brand, and that information is a key part of training. Other next-gen brands have similar programs. At disruptive eyeglasses company Warby Parker, in-store sales associates not only had to know how to read prescriptions and talk about new collections, but also know how to sell them in woke vernacular. “In training, they give us specific do’s and don’ts about what wording to use to avoid being exclusionary. They didn’t want us using ‘hipster,’ which might alienate some people,” said Gena Basha, a former Warby Parker sales adviser. Warby Parker confirmed that they also do workshops, “homework,” and tests as part of its training.
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To be hired as a retail worker today, you need to have read the right articles and watched the right YouTube videos, have gone to the right schools with the right sort of campus culture, and have grown up in the right neighbourhoods with the right kind of drinking buddies.
But despite this jacking up of expectations and experience, retail workers' compensation — characterised by low wages and insufficient hours — are not keeping up.
Part-time wages at Rachel’s Sweaty Betty location range from $13 - $15 (£10 - £11.50) an hour (minimum wage in California is $11 (£8.50), and the industry standard for hourly retail wage earners in December of 2018 was $19.26/hour). Sweaty Betty confirmed this was standard, and wages in its Los Angeles locations go up to $16/hour. Working 40 hours a week would mean a yearly salary of $27,000 - $31,200 (£21,000 - £24,150). But only full-time employees like Rachel are guaranteed 40 hours a week; part-time workers are allotted much less, and oftentimes have to split a set number of hours among everyone.
While reporting this story, three part-time retail workers at Rachel's store only had 38 hours available between them each week, the equivalent of just $530 (£410) total. Equally split up between the three, that’s just $9,200 (£7,125) a year per person. Both Gena and Haley said their respective retailers paid sales staff similar wages that they described as competitive. But these wages are unlikely to increase quicker than inflation. According to PayScale, which measure American salaries and compensation, retail wages are growing at a rate of 1.6%, well under the 2% rate of inflation that's been consistent for some time. “There’s a paradox. We’re expecting more of our retail workers but we’re not giving them more,” said Samaan.
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However, national retail wage increases in the US have recently accelerated, hitting 4.6% this past October. According to Bloomberg, it’s the fastest that paycheques have grown in almost 20 years. The work, too, at these new retailers iswork undeniably more fulfilling than simple cashier jobs, and it’s optimistic to believe that they’ll make up for legions of workers displaced by traditional store closures (a phenomenon that some financial experts believe will save retail). But it’s not a one-for-one replacement. Not even close.
“These new start-up retail brands like Glossier are really boutique fashion brands that have a small number of high-skilled jobs,” says Challenger, who helps transition displaced workers after mass layoffs and firings. “Traditional brick and mortar retail jobs are not coming back. They’re going away permanently. These types of start-up companies aren’t going to make it up.” Even among traditional retailers, these wage increases disproportionately affect higher earners. “Many of these wage increases that people are noting haven’t reached traditional frontline floor staff who are the most likely to still be earning low wages and involuntarily working part-time,” adds Ortiz. “Those workers stand to benefit the most from these gains, but aren’t getting them.”
What’s more, many of these new retailers’ business models prioritise rapid short-term growth over longevity. For its sales floor, this can mean higher turnover and less job security. The effect is a self-selecting workforce consisting of already privileged people who consider the job as a gig — not a pathway to a career. “Overall, most [Warby Parker] employees were similar to my profile,” remembers Gena, who worked at Warby Parker while she looked for full-time work in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles after graduating college, and needed supplemental income in addition to what her parents were helping her out with. "[The culture] self-selectively draws in employees." Warby Parker confirmed that their part-time sales staff is predominantly educated, under 30, and are looking for flexible, temporary work.
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But what if part-time work is what workers want? Rachel disagrees. “My staff absolutely wants more hours,” Rachel tells me.
“My workers have children, and go to school. It’s created a lot of problems. I think that [Sweaty Betty] could be making more money if people went full time, because they could take more classes, and be out in the community more,” she says. At the end of the day, she believes that a full-time salary and benefits produce more invested workers. More invested workers means more experience, more expertise, more productivity, and more revenue. To Rachel, that sounds like a better business plan.
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A sixth-generation Angeleno, Rachel was raised in a working-class, culturally Mexican household. Her father did manual labour and her mother was a county secretary. They raised her and her siblings to get an education to avoid having to work tough service jobs. Petite and pretty, Rachel has got the sorts of big eyes, clear voice, and the kind of fiery gumption you’d expect from a modern-day Disney princess. But she’s far less interested in dreaming about her rags-to-riches story than she is in demanding that she shouldn’t need a fairytale miracle to move on up in the world.
“Retail is a career,” Rachel tells me, her voice rising with annoyance. “ I’ve had conversations with customers that leave me feeling badly about myself. People view this job as a punch-in, punch-out thing. None of us are dumb, but people think you don’t need to know anything to work here.”
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In many ways, Rachel is lucky. Her high school and college didn't only enmesh her in a culture of millennial-flavoured progressivism that helps her move product, but also give her the tools to understand the function of her job in society at large. Her parents allow her to live with them, which subsidises her rent, beyond providing her emotional and physical support whenever she needs it. She’s also an active member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and she's learned how to organise, advocate, and lead a team. But she knows that she’s still in a shit situation: “I’m not getting compensated for the amount of work I do. If I did, I wouldn’t be in debt. We work the rest of our lives to pay off that debt. We’re a permanent working class. A permanent poor class.“
Rachel and other young, independent, culturally literate women may be among the few workers who can ride actually experience the retail renaissance, despite their debts, stagnant wages, and an unpredictable economy. But the large majority of those displaced by shrinking retail jobs are not Rachels. And as automation accelerates and displaces more low-skilled jobs, this gap will only increase. “Big box retailers are hiring in distribution centres and warehouses and logistics,” says Challenger, describing a rapidly growing and hugely controversial industry based on treating humans like machines until actual machines can replace them. “But retail jobs seem to be going away permanently. Brick and mortar jobs are not coming back. It’s a difficult problem, and a big one.”
In the meantime, Rachel still believes that work, not miracles, is the solution. The skills she learned at Sweaty Betty attracted the attention of a traditional luxury brand looking to reach a younger demographic. Her new job placed her within a traditional department store where she’s noticed that employees are treated as replaceable. But at the end of the day, it’s her bigger paycheque that has Rachel feeling optimistic.
“We talk a big game about empowering women,” she tells me. “And the easiest way to empower people? Jobs and money.”
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