Future of the Retail Industry: How Retail Workers Can Prepare

Retail workers experienced a very difficult 2020. As the doors of non-essential retailers shuttered and people were placed on stay-at-home orders, workers in this sector had no choice but to go home.

Future of retail workWhile cities have since reopened, many jobs haven't returned. Of the 2.38 million retail employees let go in spring 2020, fewer than 1.5 million were brought back.

Let’s take a look at where the retail sector stands and what workers in D.C. and across the U.S. can do to prepare themselves for the future.

State of retail before and during COVID-19

Retail was struggling before COVID-19 arrived. Hundreds of retail giants had already closed thousands of brick-and-mortar stores, and it appears the pandemic accelerated an ongoing decline. Long-established brands, such as J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus, and 28 other major retailers filed for bankruptcy in 2020, adding to 2019's somber numbers. Some jobs will be brought back, but overall, traditional retail jobs are widely believed to have a dismal future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts retail jobs to decline by about 20,000 jobs.

E-commerce and the automation effect are both contributing factors. In 2010, e-commerce accounted for 7.2 percent of total retail sales. By 2019 this figure had grown to about 15 percent. In 2020, consumers largely turned to the internet for their retail needs, with some estimates stating U.S. e-commerce sales shot up 44 percent in 2020. Considering self-checkouts and "scan-and-go" shopping is the norm; this further reduces the need for on-the-floor workers. The more we go contactless, the more traditional retail jobs are impacted.

What retail jobs might look like going forward

Despite the doom and gloom, it's not game over. Consumers need products, and retailers will always play a huge role in the U.S. economy. What might change is the type of employment opportunities job seekers will find. The National Retail Federation (NRF) states BLS figures are misleading because if you work for a retailer "but don't work in a building where the retailing of goods is the main activity, you don't count as a retail employee." This is a fair point, but it also suggests many employees working for retailers aren't performing traditional selling and cashiering tasks.

Job hunters will find there’s work in the retail sector, but not the jobs they're used to seeing listed. NRF indicates some of the fastest-growing job categories are "misclassified into other industries," including IT, transportation, management, and warehousing. Jobs in these categories—and others—are indeed growing at rapid rates. To be hired for these jobs, workers likely need to pivot as businesses eliminate or change job descriptions.

How retail workers can transfer and/or plus their skills

Over the past few years, thousands of retail workers are suffering job displacement due to technological and other shifts affecting the retail industry. Fortunately, people can utilize the skills they've mastered in retail and apply them to other jobs.

  • Soft skills, such as communication, organization, time management, teamwork, multitasking, problem-solving, negotiation, conflict resolution, working under pressure, flexibility, time management, and even stamina are all transferable skills to any industry.
  • Hard skills, such as sales experience, shipping and receiving, handling money, marketing, POS systems, and computer programs, are all skills other industries need or offer the foundation to build on.

Workers preferring to stay working for retail companies can prepare themselves for new opportunities. Examples include:

  • Pursuing certifications to qualify for logistics/supply chain management positions, such as CPIM, CSCP, CLTD, SCOR-P, CPSD, CPL, CSCMP, and CPCM.
  • Obtaining the education and training needed to land technology jobs.
  • Earning certified sales professionals or professional certified marketer credentials to give an edge for landing retail positions.

Aside from pivoting to new types of jobs in retail, workers can consider career changes.

What jobs make good transitions?

Retail employees often easily assimilate to other jobs such as customer service, bank teller, package handler, and warehouse associate, along with a variety of office positions. Since retail employees are helpful and have strong people skills, healthcare, hospitality, and tourism are other good fits.

Retail workers face a unique future since the industry is evolving but preparing now helps ready for these changes.

Looking for a new job? Check out our current listings.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market