Whether it was spritzing on perfumes in a department store or fantasizing about a more organized home in the seemingly endless aisles of Bed Bath & Beyond, shopping was once a far more pleasurable experience than it is today. It was both a social and languid activity, an opportunity to connect with a friend or explore our materialistic desires in contented solitude. Retail therapy, we called it.
Now going to the store, whether it’s a Macy’s in a suburban mall or the neighborhood CVS — basically, all but the most luxury of retailers — is a battle that leaves consumers feeling defeated.
Shoppers’ complaints abound. Vox spoke with customers across the country who bemoaned a dearth of employees in stores of all stripes. Equally aggravating: empty shelves, or only a register or two open at any given time.
Hayley Leibson avoids in-store shopping whenever possible. But the 29-year-old wasn’t able to avoid it after she had a baby and needed formula, she says. While the worst of the baby formula shortage has ebbed, sometimes Leibson still needs to visit a few stores in the Bay Area to find it. A couple of months ago, the Target she frequents started locking up formula, and there seemed to be fewer employees around to help her get it, with “much more emphasis on trying to funnel people to self-checkout,” she says. She sees lines of people waiting for the product they want to be unlocked. To shop in a store these days, she laments, “You have to budget a lot of time.”
A Target spokesperson declined to comment on whether it locked up baby formula, writing in an emailed statement, “On a limited basis, we employ theft-deterrent merchandising strategies, such as locking cases, for categories that are prone to theft.”
Understaffing, inventory problems, and heavy-handed theft prevention measures are hardly new to the retail industry, but the problems have become more commonplace in the last few years, when the dial of frustration and discomfort turned higher. Yet the through line of why shopping from beyond the comfort of your home feels so miserable now has less to do with the pandemic’s disruption and everything to do with retailers unable — or unwilling — to invest in stores, including the labor that makes a shopping trip go smoothly or not.
Despite what companies may want you to think, nearly every issue you encounter while shopping is a result of bad working conditions for retail employees.
The early department stores that popped up in the late 1800s and early 1900s were an elegant, even opulent innovation that centralized consumers’ shopping needs; their beautifully decorated windows drew in passersby, and the stores themselves were massive and filled with a vast range of goods, with knowledgeable, attentive staff ready to aid customers. These retail spaces not only had sales floors, but also gardens, tea rooms, and full-service restaurants.
“Shopping really was a delightful thing, a special thing that you got to do,” says market researcher Pamela Danziger, whose work focuses on the behaviors of affluent consumers in particular. Bloomingdale’s, the famed New York department store founded in 1861, “was one of the first on the forefront of experiential retail,” creating a beautiful, comforting in-store environment and fostering an aspirational desire to consume, says Danziger.
Retail jobs in department stores were coveted, too; they were much safer than factory jobs, came with benefits and vacation days, and conferred a degree of job security. They provided a novel path of economic opportunity for white women in particular, though such desirable employment opportunities were denied to Black Americans.
The department store set the trend for pleasurable shopping experiences, which trickled down to other retailers, from drug stores to big-box retail. As retail jobs grew much less stable and lucrative, however, the joy of shopping also began to wane.
Most consumers still shop in physical stores, at least for certain items. It’s one thing to buy clothes online — Amazon recently became the top clothing retailer in the US — but less common to buy groceries on the internet. While Covid-19 boosted consumers’ reliance on e-commerce, the gains haven’t lasted. According to the Census Bureau, e-commerce made up only 15 percent of total retail sales in the first quarter of 2023. Brick-and-mortar stores have been closing for years, long before the pandemic. Still, retail foot traffic is indeed down, and a kind of chicken-or-egg effect is taking place.
Fewer shoppers mean retailers have been stocking fewer items in-store, instead having inventory delivered to brick-and-mortar locations when a customer places an order for pick-up. That only reinforces the experience of the modern store as an under-stocked desert, making people even less likely to want to shop in person, and stores less inclined to spend their tightened budgets on staffing stores adequately or improving them. None of this bodes well for the future of retail: The investment bank UBS estimates that between 40,000 and 50,000 retail stores will close in the next five years.
“The upshot over time is that you lose market share,” says Neil Saunders, a managing director of retail at the analytics and consulting firm GlobalData. “The business that you run becomes smaller and smaller, customer satisfaction goes down, sales go down. And eventually you enter a vicious cycle.”
Early department store owners “were real merchants,” Danziger says. “What we’ve got today are executives sitting in their corner offices who haven’t met a shopper in years.” Physical stores will always exist, she adds. “But we’re continuing to see erosion in terms of the number of visits, erosion in terms of time spent there.”
That last bit is crucial: It’s not just the number of visits a consumer makes that retailers care about. How long someone spends in the store, called “dwell time,” matters, too. The longer someone is in a store, the more money they’re likely to spend.
Dwell time understandably hinges on how pleasant the store experience is. Are there knowledgeable staff members available if a customer needs help? Are the items they want in stock? How easy are in-store returns? If customers are itching to get out of there as fast as possible, that’s bad for sales. A 2019 survey by First Insight, a consumer analytics firm, found that the majority of respondents spent more money when shopping in physical stores than online. Since the pandemic, however, consumers have been making more frequent but shorter visits to grocery and superstore chains, according to a report last year from Placer.ai, a location analytics firm that has been tracking retail foot-traffic trends. Today, shopping in stores has narrowed into a task with a clear start and end: Find an item, buy it, exit.
Susan Reda, vice president of education at the National Retail Federation (NRF), an industry trade association, doesn’t believe that consumers are now less willing to shop in person. “I do think they’re going back into stores, and that when they get there, they expect a good experience.” Despite negative shifts in foot traffic, research shows that people seeking out brick-and-mortar shopping do so in part because of the experience of being in the store.
In an attempt to lure crowds back, some stores are leaning into experiential offerings, emphasizing the beauty or the engagement that a physical space can offer shoppers. Reda cited the opening of a redesigned Tiffany & Co. store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, the famed luxury shopping destination. It’s one thing for high-end brands like Tiffany to pour money into their stores — that’s what they’ve always done — while the deterioration of more mundane retail experiences is an entirely separate matter. Target, for example, is also absolutely concerned with improving the in-store experience, according to Saunders. “Target has invested billions into its stores to refurbish them, to make them more shoppable,” he says. A less brand-conscious chain like Walgreens? Not so much.
Like Leibson, New Yorker Angelica Wilson has noticed the many everyday household items locked behind plastic cases at her local drugstore, where it is supposed to be convenient to grab a few items and go. Given how understaffed the stores also seem, the entire experience is far more of a hassle — and simply more unpleasant — than it once was or ought to be. Wilson finds herself using the in-store pickup option more often, just to minimize the time she has to spend in the aisles.
Stores locking up merchandise is a last resort, Reda says, and in the NRF’s view, an exception rather than a trend. But Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, which together make up the vast majority of pharmacy sales in the US, all lock up some items. “I don’t think retailers move to do that until there’s absolutely no other solution,” she says.
In some cities, the issue of theft has reached a breaking point, with the NRF pointing to Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Miami, San Francisco, and Oakland as the worst areas for organized retail theft last year. Recently, the owner of the Westfield San Francisco Centre mall announced it was giving up control of the property after several of the mall’s retailers closed, citing crime as a primary reason. San Francisco’s Cotopaxi location briefly closed, and its CEO blamed organized theft rings that he said had become unmanageable and a threat to its employees. (The store reopened three weeks later.) It’s worth being skeptical of just how widespread the problem of so-called organized retail theft is; the average rate of “shrink” — the industry’s term for lost inventory — was 1.4 percent in 2021, lower than 2020’s 1.6 percent, according to the NRF’s own figures. So why are so many things locked up?
It’s proof that retailers are struggling to address issues without affecting the in-store experience. “I’m not sure that they’ve got the balance right,” Saunders says. “Locking things up has a negative impact on sales.”
Even a once-respected retailer with a long heritage can fall hard if its leadership doesn’t bother investing in stores — just look at Sears or, Saunders argues, Macy’s, which he refers to as “the most atrocious retailer in the country,” noting the outdated styles of the stores and their state of disarray, as well as other effects of cutting in-store staff and customer service employees.
“They do absolutely nothing to entice the customer to buy.”
The decline of the in-store retail experience — both in terms of its quality and the number of stores that exist — has transformed what it means to work in retail, and how pleasant customers find the in-store shopping experience is inextricable from how retail employees are faring. It’s directly affected by how well-paid they are, how well-trained they are, and how well-staffed their stores are. This link often goes unmentioned; the discontent of customers and the woes of employees are viewed on parallel tracks instead of as mirrors.
Working retail has long been physically and mentally arduous. The pandemic revealed how dangerous the work can also be: In the US, almost seven in 10 people who died in the first year of the pandemic were of low socioeconomic position — the majority of whom worked in blue collar, retail, or service jobs. Over 7.3 million retail workers quit last year; one consulting firm reported a 75 percent turnover rate last year for hourly in-store positions, while a 2023 US News ranking of 190 jobs put retail salespeople at the very bottom.
Understaffing is a chronic issue in the retail industry. Cutting hours for existing staff, too, is hardly a new strategy to keep costs down in retail — Covid has, once again, merely put more pressure on that lever as workers were pushed past their breaking point.
And then there’s the treatment of retail employees by shoppers themselves: The subreddit r/retailhell offers infinite accounts of customers who harangue, bully, and even assault workers. One person who worked at a big-box retailer but did not want to be named for fear of professional repercussions told Vox that retail had been a “nightmare job” for them — that customers “did nothing but torture” employees.
Though there’s a current worker shortage in the industry, the long-term forecast is that there will be fewer stores and fewer retail jobs. For example, the post-lockdown recovery in the nation’s retail playground, New York, has lagged far behind that of other industries: There are 11.1 percent fewer jobs in the sector than there were in February 2020, according to a report by the Center for an Urban Future.
The labor shortage has temporarily allowed workers to demand better pay and working conditions, and empowered them to unionize. It’s also meant ugly, protracted battles as companies deploy an arsenal of union-busting tactics, whether it’s cutting pay or closing store locations that have signaled an intention to organize. Some retailers are even doubling down on replacing human workers with cheaper machines such as digital kiosks and self-checkout counters. The lack of staff that shoppers are noticing in stores is in part by design, and it predates the pandemic.
To be sure, one way to tackle the high turnover and labor shortage of retail — and address customers’ growing complaints about the state of in-store shopping broadly — is paying workers more. Major retailers like Walmart and Target have advertised a higher starting range of pay, but real wages for retail — that is, wages after accounting for inflation — have only seen a 0.5 percent bump since 2019. More money also isn’t a magical salve for all the other dangers that come with a retail job today. How high a wage is acceptable to contract a deadly virus? Or to fend off angry customers, enforce local public health mandates or store policies on masking, or act as security guards on top of other in-store duties? Or even be punished when you do intervene to stop theft?
Steve Rowland is a former retail store manager of 27 years who now hosts a weekly podcast called The Retail Warzone; each episode features stories sent in by retail workers or other issues that concern the industry.
“I was a store manager for a very long time, that had to do these things that I didn’t really agree with, that caused unnecessary hardship on a lot of people in the industry,” Rowland says. “A lot of the retail workers are really just overlooked. So it’s my mission to shine a light on it and try to help some consumers actually understand what’s going on behind the scenes.”
One of the most memorable stories that Rowland covered is that of Kroger employee Evan Seyfried, who died by suicide in 2021. His family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kroger, claiming that “torturous conditions” at work had led to his death.
“We have a society that will boycott over the smallest thing. Why don’t you boycott the fact that employers treat their employees as a controllable expense — having less staff in stores, less people to serve the customer, less people to make the customer experience what they expect it to be?” Rowland asks.
The dissonance between cutting costs — a perennial directive of a profit-seeking business — and providing the kind of store where people want to shop is only growing. And consumer dissatisfaction with this newly austere shopping experience means more stress for retail workers.
Big retail companies should lead the charge to enact and enforce policies protecting their staff from customer abuse and violence, argues Rowland. If a huge corporation like Walmart — one of the biggest employers in the US — had “ironclad” policies protecting its workers, “that company is going to be the one people want to work for.”
For the shopper, there’s also a conundrum. Who do you speak to when you have a problem with a store being understaffed or understocked? Asking to speak to the manager can feel like Karen behavior, while complaining to a company’s corporate offices can lead to a handful of store workers being punished for policies and strategies that they have no involvement in setting. Retail workers underscore the value of recognizing cause and effect, and how top-line business decisions trickle down to affect the everyday experience of picking up a few things from the mall.
“The average consumer has the argument that if you raise wages, those costs are going to be passed on to the consumer,” says Rowland. “The thing that they should be complaining about is when they raise wages, they cut staff in stores. That’s where the cost is getting passed down to the consumer — that person being there to help them.”