I realized jobs were in jeopardy when I was researching Adidas.
Since mid-March the Retail Dive team has been keeping a running list of decisions retailers have made due to COVID-19. I was working on this tracker, dropping in information about how Adidas stores were temporarily closing from March 17 through March 29, when it dawned on me that those retail workers were not coming back for a while. That was followed by a devastating thought: "Oh no. Everybody is going to lose their jobs."
It's important to note that the Adidas announcement wasn't alarmist on its own. Rather, it mimicked much of the language other retailers were beginning to roll out and would ultimately be mirrored by other companies in the weeks following.
That moment was still early enough in the pandemic that closing stores for two weeks felt like a hard, but rational, decision. It was still early enough that most of us were operating in a twilight haze of reasoning that a couple of weeks would probably help and then life would resume as usual.
That way of thinking seems unbearably naive now. My own awakening to our new reality happened swiftly after that moment. That night I called my mom and said, "I think tens of thousands of people in retail are about to lose their jobs." A week later, on March 30, Macy's, Kohl's and Gap all announced furloughs, totaling close to 300,000 employees. It was the first big shoe to drop for a workforce that would rapidly contract in the coming weeks.
But I was wrong about two things. First, the numbers were astronomically higher than I anticipated. Second, the firings I thought were coming turned out largely to be furloughs.
Furloughs are different from layoffs. As our sister publication HR Dive explains, a layoff means an existing employee becomes a former employee. A furlough, though, means that the relationship still exists. So, even if there still is no pay, the worker remains an employee.
By the end of that week, on April 3, The Washington Post reported that nearly 1 million retail workers were furloughed. More worrisome, the newspaper suggested that many of the stores included in those furloughs were "likely to close permanently."
While furloughs feel like a practical answer in the midst of chaos, they could be prolonging the inevitable. The retail sector went through a sizeable transformation in 2019, as many retailers sought to downsize the number of physical locations they operated. Coresight Research pegs store closures from 2019 at over 9,500 due to a number of factors, including increased bankruptcy liquidations, declining sales, and increased debt.
And that was before the pandemic.
In a March 24 report — which feels like it came out three years ago because time doesn't exist anymore — Coresight Research stated that 15,000 locations could shutter in 2020 due to bankruptcies and Chapter 7 liquidations. In that report, Coresight CEO Deborah Weinswig said the impact of COVID-19 could "provide a sharp shock to physical retail." Weinswig went on to say that, "We anticipate that some of the retailers that have recently announced temporary store closures — including some well-known names — will never reopen their doors."
It hasn't been all furloughs, though. Essential businesses have seen big bumps in employee acquisition. Walmart announced that it was hiring 150,000 associates and then, a month later, stated it was bringing on an additional 50,000 more. Instacart also revealed a plan to hire 250,000 contractors over the next two months, in addition to the 300,000 new shoppers it brought on in March.
Retail jobs may simply shift sectors, albeit temporarily. But I'm not exactly sure they will be the same, especially in the near future.
Some of the transformation that hopefully will stick is the notion that a retail job is real work. It's long hours, it's dealing with unreasonable customers, it's getting yelled at and (sometimes) working unpredictable hours at wages that leave something to be desired.
But, the enduring thing about working retail — and something that seems to be under threat right now — is that it can be: so. much. fun.
My first retail job was at the men's apparel store Structure, which is a reference that completely dates me. It was the 90's, I was getting ready to go to college and I was selling clothes to boys. Heaven. In the years following, I worked on and off in the sector, specifically in apparel. It was mostly a good experience, but my approach to it changed when a manager took me aside and said: "This store is a party. You are the host. Your job is to keep the party going."
That's when I really started having a ball with my job. Because I understood parties. And I understood how to be a great host. Keep things circulating, anticipate people's needs, say a kind word, help when someone is having difficulty. If you can, make someone laugh.
But the thing that was deeply satisfying was finding joy in the mundane. Helping someone find the correct pair of pants wasn't going to change the world, but it may have made my customer's life a little easier as they got ready for work and gave them a boost of confidence. That meant something to me.
The thing about retail work is that it shoves you together with people who are unlike you, but with whom you are living a shared experience and pushing toward a common goal. It gives you an unlikely tribe. And those communities of retail workers are now being pushed to their limit.
Those that are still working are being asked to show up and perform in circumstances where they may or may not be physically protected. Those that aren't working are living with the stress of economic hardship and don't know what the future holds.
I am hoping retail can one day go back to being a party. But, for right now, I am so thankful to those that are, despite the chaos, working so hard to help us meet our basic needs.