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The Truth Behind the Retail Labor Shortage

It seems like there’s a “help wanted” sign on the doors of every store these days.

Currently, there are 965,000 retail job openings, and things are likely going to become more tumultuous. Large numbers of retail employees have quit or plan to do so.

And with the holiday shopping season up ahead, the U.S. retail industry is projected to have a labor shortage of approximately 350,000 workers heading into the November and December peak period (Salesforce).

Working in retail can be taxing. In the past, employers found it easy to replace workers because there was always someone else willing to take the job.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped change all that. Being laid off or forced to quit was a chance for many people to contemplate their career goals and life plans, ultimately deciding that working in retail is not worth the challenges that come with it.

Retail workers know they are often deemed disposable, forced to live with unpredictable scheduling, low wages, and feeling stuck in jobs that offer little opportunity for advancement.

And although many large retailers have their eyes set on automation, human associates will always prove valuable. Face-to-face interaction is at the heart of the retail experience. When shoppers enter a store, that is what they expect, and it’s an essential part of building customer relationships and brand loyalty.

To attract more workers, large retailers, including Macy’s and Target, have raised their minimum hourly rate. Others are offering signup bonuses and Walmart recently just announced a plan to pay 100% college tuition and books for its 1.5 million part-time and full-time employees.

Retailers are also exploring new recruitment tactics to attract employees. Chipotle and Target accept Tik Tok video applications, and the restaurant chain Denny’s gives job applicants a free breakfast. But hiring new employees is only half the battle. Employers need to change the status quo in retail employment and think of their workforce as valuable assets that need engaging.


Do away with unstable scheduling

Unpredictable and burdensome work schedules are among the most egregious aspects of working in retail. This is especially for students, parents of young children, or those who have jobs to supplement their income.

Some cities have passed laws mandating that retailers and fast food establishments with more than 500 employees improve their work scheduling practices. These changes can include:

  • Give honest estimates of hours an employee can expect to work;
  • Post work schedules 14 days in advance;
  • Ensure at least 10 hours rest between shifts, or pay extra if the rest time is shorter.
  • Pay additional “premium pay” when employers make changes to the posted schedule.


In 2018, Gap tested stable scheduling in 28 stores. After eight months, the company found improvements in employee productivity, as well as sales. T

Gap has since established the practice of posting workers’ hours two weeks in advance and stopped scheduling on-call shifts. Employees can also use a dedicated app to switch schedules.

Consistent scheduling with room for autonomy and feedback makes workers feel respected and valued, creating a healthy and happier workplace.


Motivate and engage

A lack of motivation and monotonous work can fuel job dissatisfaction. As much as employees are excited when they start the job, at some point, boredom will set in. Opening a new store location, training new employees, and receiving new merchandise, are tasks that all become very old, even to the most dedicated worker.

Motivating employees can range from helping them to relieve the monotony by exploring new ways to engage with customers, providing training, job-sharing, and delegating responsibilities, supporting continuous learning and professional development.

Retailers with motivated and engaged workers have less absenteeism and turnover and increased productivity and profitability. Research shows that a lack of engagement is a driving factor behind employee turnover.

“Employee engagement has long been a concern in the U.S. workforce, but—perhaps now more than ever—it represents a vital component of employee attraction and retention. For the modern workforce, an engaging work environment is a fundamental expectation, a baseline requirement.” (Gallup)

Retail employee dissatisfaction and defection are not new, and the pandemic turned the whispers into a 965,000 roar. The labor shortage shows that workers have decided that retail work comes with challenges that, for many, aren’t worth the role.

A slight shift in focus could help retailers view the shortage as an opportunity to change the status quo.