Re­tail work­ers try to ad­just to new du­ties as tech­nol­ogy changes shoppers’ habits

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - WEATHER - By Anne D’In­no­cen­zio

NEW YORK — 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.

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, said 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, N.J. — 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.”

Schuler said he is well com­pen­sated. Um­me­laila said 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.

As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tos

Laila Um­me­laila, a per­sonal shop­per at the Wal­mart in Old Bridge, N.J., pulls a cart loaded with bins as she shops for on­line cus­tomers. She says she en­joys her new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

» Eatsa, a San Fran­cisco au­tomat-style restau­rant, also doesn’t have cashiers.

« Ama­zon is test­ing a gro­cery store in Seat­tle without cashiers.

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