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Retail vs Coal

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There’s been a number of comments and posts around the internet such as what Bouie offers here and they is worth a brief discussion.

The retail industry’s recent decline may have reached a “tipping point.” That was the conclusion of a recent report from the New York Times with potentially far-reaching consequences. Once-bustling shopping malls and department stores are now empty as millions of Americans do their shopping online through businesses that have warehouses but don’t operate storefronts. “This transformation is hollowing out suburban shopping malls, bankrupting longtime brands and leading to staggering job losses,” the Times reports. “More workers in general merchandise stores have been laid off since October, about 89,000 Americans. That is more than all the people employed in the coal industry.”

Retail jobs aren’t good jobs, per se; on average, they pay little, provide few benefits, and are notoriously unstable. But roughly 1 in every 10 Americans works in retail, which means millions rely on the industry for their livelihoods. As the Times notes, “The job losses in retail could have unexpected social and political consequences, as huge numbers of low-wage retail employees become economically unhinged, just as manufacturing workers did in recent decades.”

Despite this ongoing challenge and threat to millions of ordinary Americans, Washington is silent. What makes this even more striking is it comes at a time when politicians—and a multitude of voices in national media—are preoccupied with the prospects of blue-collar whites and the future of the Rust Belt. That contrast exists for several reasons, not the least of which is a simple one: Who does retail work in this country versus who does manufacturing work.

There is of course a lot of truth to this. Retail workers tend to be younger, women, people of color. Manufacturing work tends to be whiter, male, older. And yes, this absolutely frames the discussion of these issues. People don’t freak out about retail losses and you don’t see a million New York Times articles about these workers and you also don’t voices from the self-proclaimed left hold these workers up as why the Democratic Party has sold out the working class. Sexism and racism absolutely frames all of this.

It is however worth noting that the decline of manufacturing jobs is also the decline of generations of work that was once horrible, deadly, and destructive turned into well-paid, union jobs. And that is part of the story here too. Retail jobs are not worse than manufacturing jobs except for the fact that retail jobs have always been low paid and fights to turn manufacturing jobs into “good jobs” were successful. Of course, that process was racialized and gendered too because society valued the jobs of white males more than those of people of color and women. But part of the story is the decline of good paying jobs for the working class.

There’s also the issues that entire regional identities have been developed around these hard industrial jobs. That’s not just in West Virginia. Go to Butte and talk to people about copper or go to Michigan and talk about auto or go to Johnstown and Youngstown to talk about steel. The decline of these industries is the decline of a regional identity that retail never has created. And that regional identity is held by more than just the white men who the media are slobbering over to get their perspectives on Trump. It’s held by the white women working in those retail jobs and it’s held by the African-Americans who are very much not responding to this by voting for a white supremacists, but nonetheless experience the economic dislocation the loss of those steel jobs causes.

So, yes, absolutely the focus on industrial over retail is about race and gender. But it’s about more than that too, not in terms of issues that can somehow be separated from racism and sexism, but rather about how long histories of work that are infused with racism and sexism shape regional identity and thus affect voting patterns.

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  • NewishLawyer

    Did you ever read Lands of Desire? It is from the 1990s and about Department Stores and how they changed American culture. A lot of the department stores used to have their own vacation facilities for workers as well as on-staff doctors.

    There were oppressive aspects to this paternalism as well.

    High end retail work can still pay well especially if you get a commission and are good at sales.

    But you are right that there is probably no long history in pride here like there is in being a retail worker like there is in three generations of miners and steelworkers.

    • That is a good book

    • I worked at Mervyn’s while I was in college. Those of us who were regularly scheduled to work more than 20 hours a week received paid leave and medical benefits. My initial pay and subsequent raises were sufficiently decent that when, after five years, I inquired about becoming a manager I gave up on the idea because I would have had to take a pay cut. That said, it was a non-union job and my first paycheck at the unionized USPS, for one week, right after I left Mervyn’s far exceeded my biggest Mervyn’s check.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      High end retail work can still pay well especially if you get a commission and are good at sales.

      And it’s not surprising that the best departments to work in a large department store if you are on commission are often male dominated. Men’s clothing and shoes for example, though one could argue, I suppose, that this is so because men are more comfortable buying clothes from men.

  • Crusty

    I have no disagreement that the focus on industrial vs. retail is about race and gender.

    But I am curious about the chicken-egg situation and how it came about the industrial work was for manly men and done by real Americans and retail work was looked down upon. I suppose I’ve partially answered my own question in the sense that if industrial work involved more physicality it was more manly, harder and more “real.”

  • Nobdy

    It’s also worth noting that while the decline of net retail jobs is very problematic, the loss of a single retail job is not as traumatic as the loss of a manufacturing or coal job. I don’t remember a time when many people held individual retail jobs for whole careers (now I’m from a city, so maybe in rural areas this is more common.) It’s a sector where there’s always been a lot of employee churn and stores opening and closing and moving about etc… Retail workers are used to changing jobs so they probably experience this downturn more as difficulty finding new jobs than as losing a job they’ve built their lives and identities around (I’m sure there are exceptions.)

    Factories and mines tend to be seen more as fixtures (partially because they have much higher capital costs to start up), where generations of workers built their lives, so it is probably more jarring when one of those shuts down or lays off its workforce than when the local Sears closes, just like the local Woolworths or Circuit City that used to occupy that building did before it. Of course when nothing replaces the Sears that’s very bad for workers, but it’s not the emotional equivalent of an auto plant moving overseas, partially because it doesn’t happen all at once.

    • sam

      I don’t know – I remember back in the day when I worked retail, the ladies who worked at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s for their entire career. They had pensions and everything. You could make a decent middle-class living with enough seniority at a major department store. I think those days are looooong over though.

      • DrDick

        Right and I think there are still a lot of people, at least in smaller cities and towns, who stay with the same company for their whole careers, though most of the benefits have disappeared and wages have not kept up with inflation.

      • NewishLawyer

        One of my clients used to sell high end goods at a fancy department store. Her hourly wage was low but because she was good at her job and sold expensive things, she made a six figure income from commissions.

      • efgoldman

        I don’t know – I remember back in the day when I worked retail, the ladies who worked at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s for their entire career.

        And before they merged and acquired themselves out of business, the major retailers in cities were local institutions. Macy’s and Gimbel’s, Jordan Marsh and Filene’s, May Company . Marshall Field, Hudson’s….
        If you lived in or near those cities, going into the big department stores was a special trip, especially at the holidays. They dominated whole blocks of downtowns.
        And yes, mrs efgoldman worked at Jordan Marsh in Boston 40 years ago, for and with women who spent their whole working lives there. I hope they got their pensions before Macy’s nuked them all.

    • njorl

      Speaking of Sears, it sucks to be them. They ran a great mail order business, but were losing out to dept srores, so they changed. Their dept stores were losing out to low end retailers like K-Mart, so they changed (and bought K-Mart). Since then, they’ve been suffering from competition which controls it’s supply chain but the death blow is being delivered by – mail order!

      If they could have skipped from 1965 to 1995, they’d be most valuable sales company in the world.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Here at the Gateway to the Gateway to the Sequoias, we had two local hardware shops, a Newberrys, a Woolworths, a Monkey Wards, a Sears, a J.C. Penny’s, and a Sprouse-Ritz all within. easy walking distance on Main St. In. 1962, when the population was 9,000. Now, we are at 60K. We also had a local department store that used the pneumatic tube system for their cashiers. All of them gone now, except for the Sears desperately clinging to life in a small building on the south end of town.

        • Porterville? (Sorry, I’m easily distracted by the trivial)

          • The Dark God of Time

            It’s been an awful long time since I been home,
            But you won’t catch me goin’ back down there alone.
            Things they said when I was young are quite enough to get me hung.
            I don’t care! I don’t care!

            Yep. If you went to the local college between 1957-1993, you may have taken a science class from my father.

      • Bill Murray

        Sears’ CEO has brought much of their recent misery by his trying to run the stores as Randian or perhaps Dilbertian business enterprise. Who would have thought trying Battling Business Units would not bring in the customers

        • BruceJ

          From all accounts I’ve read his management style is more “Lord of the Flies” than either DIlbert or Rand.

      • Brett

        I hope they don’t just disappear, and make the change to online/mail retailer. It would make for a good story about a retailer coming full circle, the “original Amazon” now competing with Amazon on its turf.

  • Ithaqua

    I’d add another dimension to this: the difference between making stuff and selling stuff (that other people made.) There’s a real sense of pride you derive from making stuff; I worked construction one summer helping to build a house, and even years later when I would drive by there’d be a little spark of “I helped build that house!” that you just can’t get from moving boxes around in the back room (which I have also done.) And, with that pride, comes a sense of worth and a willingness to fight for recognition of that worth that you don’t get from moving boxes around or operating a cash register. Even today, as a high-end data scientist, I don’t get the same feeling of pride from what I do as I did from helping to build that house, unless perhaps it’s from implementing a good, solid piece of high-end algorithm code that runs in production, which of course is also making stuff.

    • sam

      But how much of this is innate, versus the social value that we put on these things precisely because of the gender/class/race/etc. dynamics often involved in who does these things?

    • aturner339

      This was of beautifully expressed by Frank Sobotka in the underrated second season of The Wire. “We used to build s** in this country.”

      I think its similar to the social panic felt when manufacturing supplanted agriculture. Marx spoke of it as alienation from production and retail is just another step from the “soul destroying ” industrial work he saw come into existence.

      • Crusty

        Ironically, Frank Sobotka was a stevedore, so even when we used to build shit in this country, he wasn’t building it, but he was doing heavy lifting, manly, physical work.

        I rate season 2 as the second best season of the Wire. I go 4,2,3,1,5 and I don’t hate five.

      • NewishLawyer

        We still build shit in this country. Just not stuff that can be largely done via unskilled labor at good wages.

        • JonH

          In other words, we don’t build things that retail consumers buy.

          • NewishLawyer

            More or less.

            There is a lot of retail stuff that gets made in the United States but it can also be relatively to very high-end in terms of price.

        • Ronan

          Afaik you build *more* than you have in the past, just you employ less people to do it.

          • Redwood Rhiadra

            Correct.

    • DrDick

      I think there is some of this in manufacturing, but assembly lines have eroded a lot of that. Building a house is rather different than tightening the same bolt on the same part of a car every day for decades.

      • Murc

        Building a house is rather different than tightening the same bolt on the same part of a car every day for decades.

        This.

        Back in the eighties, when there were all kinds of horror stories about autoworkers being super drunk on the job?

        That’s because the job was mind destroying. Working an assembly line turns your brain into mush. Of course you’ll look for chemical assistance!

    • Domino

      My father’s hobby is woodworking. I’ve helped him on a couple of projects (stuff I essentially wanted him to build). There definitely is a sense of pride that comes from looking at something and going “I helped build that”.

      With my readings in game design, it’s a sense of progress. You see it from the beginning, when it’s all different pieces not connected in any way. And then you work on it, see it change, and get to the end product.

      Working retail involves none of that.

      • The Dark God of Time

        My grandfather’s hobby was rock collecting, especially jade, which is more common in California geology than you might think. I think he preferred that over woodworking or home improvement because he was the intellectual of his side of the family, and had attended but never graduated from college.

      • Pat

        So, Domino, I’ll play devil’s advocate for you. Imagine that you sell cars. You could imagine that when you see someone walk into the showroom, that they become your client. Your client has specific needs and wants, and has an individual budget that they have to keep to. Your job is to match that client with a vehicle that will work for them and make them happy.

        It doesn’t take as long as building things, perhaps, but a job well done is a job well done. And you will likely run into your clients outside of work, and you can feel a sense of pride when they tell you they love the car you sold them.

        So yes, sales people can feel a sense of pride in their work. And helping a person come to a decision has a sense of progress to it, probably more so after one gets better at it.

        • Domino

          My latter point was how there are benchmarks along the way where you can see the progress you’ve made. Nowhere did I imply you can’t feel pride in your work if you didn’t build anything. I implied that there is something about seeing something and being able to recall all the memories and time and craft you put into it.

          And there is something to buying pieces of woods, measuring them, sawing them, sanding them, measuring them again, sawing them again, sanding them again, staining them, then finally putting them all together. Along the way you constantly get to see the progress you’ve made, which psychologically gives you a pleased sensation. This isn’t as concrete when it comes to sales, especially car sales, since you can do all the work, only to have it fall apart when it comes to financing.

          And it’s almost as if I’m aware people in sales can also have pride in their work because that’s what my mother has done for decades.

        • JonH

          I suspect pressure to upsell customers and otherwise push them into buying things that they don’t want or need could have a corrosive effect on that kind of pride.

    • LeeEsq

      There lots of people that get a lot of pleasure from being skilled merchants and sales people, especially if they own the store or have some sort of stake beyond employment.

      • PunditusMaximus

        I think that’s the divide — if you make stuff that is visible in your community, that’s your stake.

        • The Dark God of Time

          CREATED AND CHANGING TO MEET GROWERS’ NEEDS Organized in 1907, Fruit Growers Supply Company (FGS) has grown along with the West’s citrus production. Today, the nonprofit cooperative association is open to the public and provides the agricultural items required to grow, harvest, package, and ship various commodities of produce. With six retail Operations Centers providing over-the-counter sales, specialized ordering, and custom-design Irrigation Departments, FGS continues to offer quality services and goods at highly competitive prices.

          http://www.fruitgrowers.com

    • Origami Isopod

      Helping people should be valued just as much as making stuff, if not more highly. But our culture doesn’t value helping people. It’s “girly.” (Nor does it value things that women have traditionally made as highly as it values things that men have traditionally made.)

      In the subthread below, people are talking about how being courteous, helpful, and kind aren’t considered masculine values. I was going to come in here and say just that. It’s considered okay for women, or people of color, to be abused by customers. White men, less so. The fact that some white men work as waiters, in retail, etc. doesn’t negate the overall demographics of the fields.

      • Ithaqua

        There’s a difference between “valued”, as my cardiac-rehab nurse partner’s job is clearly vastly more important than mine, and “pride in creating something”. There’s something special about building or making something and sending it out into the real world, so to speak. Probably borrows a small amount from our genetic predisposition to love our kids. It’s not to say that you can’t take any pride in anything else, or that there aren’t other activities that are or should be more highly valued by society, it’s a purely internal personal thing.

        • Origami Isopod

          There’s something special about building or making something and sending it out into the real world, so to speak.

          There should be something equally special about being of service to people. It is not something everyone can do well.

          Also, as I said, the things created by women are much less valued than the things created by men. Textiles, for example, even before they were mass manufactured.

    • efgoldman

      I don’t get the same feeling of pride from what I do as I did from helping to build that house

      Our daughter spent one spring vacation working with Habitat for Humanity in Florida. The all worked on one house, which they built from the frame out. They (justifiably) took SO MUCH pride in it. They all signed the interior of a piece of wallboard, which I’m sure is still there. They all went on to college, as far as I know none works with his/her hands as an adult, but still…

  • sam

    It might also be interesting to examine (and this is purely my own conjecture, hypothesis, etc.) how gender/race and skill transferability may make it easier, either psychologically or from a pure technical perspective, for the women who hold these retail jobs to move into other areas of work when those jobs disappear.

    We often hear stories about those coal miners who will simply refuse to do “pink collar” type jobs (nursing, home health care, etc.) that are described as, if not abundant, then certainly available, because they’re too emasculating. But a woman who has been pushed out of her retail job wouldn’t necessarily have those same hangups.

    • wca

      We often hear stories about those coal miners who will simply refuse to do “pink collar” type jobs (nursing, home health care, etc.) that are described as, if not abundant, then certainly available

      Nursing, in particular, is not a job someone can “just do”. Nursing requires technique, skills, training, formal education, and certification – and the vast majority of people who even attempt to get into nursing even at the associate’s degree level don’t manage to make the cut. There’s a reason those jobs are still “available” … and pay pretty well, too.

      • sam

        of course – i’m not saying people can just step into those jobs. But we see story after story of blue collar men refusing to even consider being retrained for such jobs, because they’re “womens’ work”.

        Call me crazy, but I think it’s possible that women may not have such hangups.

        • Linnaeus

          But we see story after story of blue collar men refusing to even consider being retrained for such jobs, because they’re “womens’ work”.

          TBH, I’ve heard more about these stories than I’ve seen actual stories. Which is not to say that they’re not true – I’m sure they are to at least some extent. That said, there’s also a number of other, more structural factors to consider. What retraining is available? Is the retraining for jobs that exist in people’s communities? Are the jobs ones that people can live on?

          I agree that if certain cultural hangups are impeding people’s moves into other careers, then there needs to be more effort on their part to move past them. But there’s also a lot more that we could be doing as a society to help that along.

      • Origami Isopod

        Nursing, in particular, is not a job someone can “just do”.

        Don't be silly. If a woman can do it, it can't be that hard. That's why J. Random Radio Show Caller could be a better teacher than some broad with 20 years' experience and certification.

        • Pat

          And a mother with a high school education is a perfectly serviceable home education expert!

    • NewishLawyer

      I think the issue is that women are still expected/trained to be courteous and kind and caring. A lot of guys are not trained to have those skills.

      The days of marrying your secretary/admin assistant might be in the past but I still think there are aspects of those jobs where the person in the admin role has someone “wife-esque” or “maternal” responsibilities.

      Like we discussed in the Berkeley Law thread, it might be unreasonable to use your assistants to do errands for you but it is not uncommon. Men especially older men are not used to being asked to grab lunch for a busy partner and might react badly.

      Retail work is service work and that involves being polite and courteous in ways that mining does not.

      • LeeEsq

        And attentive in many stores. In stores that sell expensive goods, you need upper middle class social norms.

      • Origami Isopod

        Emotional labor is both demanded of and undervalued in groups who are oppressed.

        • Pat

          Isn’t the first rule of misogyny that “it’s always the woman’s fault when the man’s feelings are hurt?”

  • nemdam

    As a somewhat tangential question, is the reason manufacturing jobs are romanticized primarily because of the worker protections around them? Were manufacturing jobs romanticized in the early 20th century when the jobs were still awful but without corresponding compensation?

    Getting back to the main point, though I am firmly in the “race not economic anxiety” explains Trump, I do agree that Democrats do not talk about their economic platform in terms of how it effects people’s identity and worth as both an individual and community. This is one area where Trump was better than Hillary. Though he had no plans and no credibility on the matter, Trump did reaffirm the worthiness and identity of rural and manufacturing towns. He spoke to their soul and spirit for lack of better words. Though it will take a politician with some skill, the good news is this seems like an eminently fixable problem. (FWIW, I think Bill Clinton was very good at this.) But then again, I have a hard time taking their concerns seriously considering these people voted to destroy the legacy of the President who bailed out the auto industry. And just so I’m clear, my personal beefs aside, of course we should pursue policies that help these people even if they don’t vote for them because that’s what liberals do.

    • DrDick

      is the reason manufacturing jobs are romanticized primarily because of the worker protections around them?

      I think that varies depending on what is being made and how. Unionization had a lot to do with this, but the pride was also present in many skilled trades before the unions. I know my great grandfather took pride in being a machinist, even before they unionized (and he was a union man). I think the critical factors here are having good paying, reliable jobs that you could support a family on.

      • Pat

        There was a great article linked to on one of J. Bernstein’s pages that looked at the idea that many people are angry because there’s no improvement in their job prospects or pay as they get older – something that only happened to blue collar workers when they were unionized.

    • jamesepowell

      I have a hard time taking their concerns seriously considering these people voted to destroy the legacy of the President who bailed out the auto industry.

      They opposed him and hated him even as he was in the act of bailing out the auto industry.

      • efgoldman

        They opposed him and hated him even as he was in the act of bailing out the auto industry.

        Of course they did. He is, was, and always will be that ni[clang] in the WH

    • Murc

      Were manufacturing jobs romanticized in the early 20th century when the jobs were still awful but without corresponding compensation?

      How are we defining early here?

      Because at least until the 1920, and going back into the 19th century, manufacturing and extraction and construction work was not romanticized or indeed very highly respected at all.

      Working, for wages, made you part of a suspect class. Real Americans were sturdy yeomanry or artisans or business owners who were their own bosses and controlled their own lives and didn’t answer to anyone anyhow. Factory work was for ethnics, women, and for those too lazy and unambitious to be able to achieve higher-status work. Indeed, the laboring masses were regarded as potentially dangerous; they rubbed elbows with foreigners with funny ideas and could get radical political ideas that were well above their station. They might start acting like they were as good as anyone.

      That changed when it got to the point that so many people were doing that sort of work, and so many of them were actually white men, that it became hard for society to maintain that attitude anymore. That couples with labor victories transformed those jobs from something suspect to something celebrated. Or at the very least, the capital classes would pretend to celebrate them.

      It also depends on what you mean by “romanticize.” People have always found ways to take pride in themselves and what they do. The laboring classes in that time period had all kinds of songs and mythologies celebrating themselves and the work they did.

  • Linnaeus

    Here’s the thing: despite the talk about the decline of manufacturing jobs, we as a society have done relatively little about it. The general refrain has been, “Those jobs are gone. Find another one.” So it doesn’t surprise me that we’re not planning to do anything about the decline of retail jobs.

    • Domino

      This ties into Erik’s post from yesterday – despite how nice it sounds to say “American Made”, most people won’t pay the extra cost for the knowledge of their products being manufactured in the USA.

  • I’m going to disagree with the regional identity and retail piece. Before Wal-Mart and Target, Sears was the big national retailer but after that there was a lot of fall off. Department stores were regional, Nordstrom was Dallas, Marshall Fields was Chicago, Dillards was Detroit, A and S and Macys in NYC, Filene’s was Boston Strawbridge’s in Philly. There were various West Coast places too. In the 80s and 90s consolidations a lot of those identities were lost.

    • Yes, but there were other, similar jobs to replace them. So working for Macy’s in Chicago might not have the same regional pride as working for Marshall Fields, but it was basically the same job, whereas in Butte and West Virginia, it’s a whole category of job that is gone and thus a whole category of identity under severe stress.

      • I don’t know that there necessarily were similar jobs to replace them. Lots of regional chains went under during the great consolidation. And many duplicate stores were closed.

    • Vance Maverick

      Check out this collection of logos (obvs the collector is emphasizing a certain visual style). Of the LA ones I dimly remember, it doesn’t include the May Company, presumably because they didn’t have a brush-script logo.

      Point being, as Erik says in a different way, there was more homogeneity/substitutibility in this sector than may appear from a regional consideration of names.

      • One correction to above, Nordstrom was Seattle and Neiman Marcus was Dallas. I’m not so sure that there was the homogeneity that you all describe to these stores. I can remember it being a huge deal when, as a teenager, we did an exchange between NY and Houston synagogues. One of the hot topics was what Neiman Marcus was like as opposed to a Bloomingdales. I think the homogeneity came later.

        The comparison might be the affection some folks have for Jack and the Box and/or In and Out Burger.

    • BillWAF

      Nordstrom was founded in Seattle, where it maintains its headquarters.

  • DrDick

    Very nice and I think nicely captures the complexities of these issues. I would add that the decline (more aptly devastation by Republican policies) of unionization, as well as the failure to unionize much of the service sector, is another missing piece in the picture.

  • one of the blue

    Certainly with respect to industrial jobs regional identity matters, and so unfortunately does the fact the industrial jobs mostly have been white-male identified. But it also is true industrial workers have had large scale, nationwide unions, such as the UAW and the Steelworkers, to help articulate and publicize their concerns. Not so much retail, which outside of a few core stores in major cities, and the major grocery chains, remains almost entirely unorganized.

  • Bruce Vail

    Did you time this post to coincide with the demonstrations being sponsored by the union at Bloomingdale’s in NYC?

    The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store contract there proves that retail jobs can be good jobs.

    “With a May 1 deadline fast approaching, 2,000 unionized Bloomingdale’s workers at the iconic East 59th Street store in New York City are ramping up their campaign for a fair new contract. In a show of force, a number of elected officials today joined these retail professionals, who are members of RWDSU Local 3, to rally for fair wages, benefits and hours, along with fair commissions for in-store sales and online sales.

    These talented employees create a unique shopping experience for countless customers every day, and they play an irreplaceable role in driving the positive image, brand, and profitability of Bloomingdale’s as a global company.

    The following New York elected officials participated in the rally with Bloomingdale’s workers: IDC Leader and New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein; New York State Senator Diane Savino New York State Senator Michael Gianaris; New York State Senator Brad Hoylman; New York State Assembly Member Richard Gottfried; New York City Council Member Mark Levine; New York City Council Member Rory Lancman; New York City Council Member Corey Johnson; New York City Council Member Bill Perkins; New York City Council Member Mathieu Eugene; New York City Council Member Helen Rosenthal; New York City Council Member Mark Treyger; New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca.

    Commission sales are a key issue for Bloomingdale’s workers, who are missing out on commissions because of returns and online sales. Workers want to keep commissions for items purchased in the store but later returned, and earn commissions for online sales that grow out of in-store interactions between employees and customers. A growing number of shoppers purchase items on the Bloomingdales website, after receiving stellar in-person customer service at the global flagship store. But currently employees responsible for those online sales do not receive commissions on them.

    Additionally, employees and their union representatives are calling for fair wage increases and protection of fair schedules, along with a continuation of their existing pension plan and affordable healthcare coverage, and their seniority rights.

    In interviews, Bloomingdale’s CEO Tony Spring has described how the store creates an “immersive experience” and is a “place of discovery” for customers: they may end up buying things they didn’t know existed or that they even wanted, because of how they feel and are treated while spending time in the physical store.

    “It’s unionized workers at the Bloomingdale’s flagship store who deliver the top-notch service and create the shopping experience so many customers have come to expect and love. These workers deserve a fair new contract that values their enormous contributions to the financial health and growth of Bloomingdale’s,” said Cassandra Berrocal, President of Local 3 of the RWDSU.

    “Bloomingdale’s should recognize that these incredible workers make the flagship store a highly profitable global showroom for customers from many countries. These dedicated employees generate millions in sales for Bloomingdale’s, including from the company’s website. They deserve a fair contract that offers commissions for online sales and returned items, along with good wages, benefits, and scheduling protections,” said RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum.

    Bloomingdale’s cannot afford to weaken a workforce so devoted to customer service, especially when the company faces greater competition in the market.

    When the workers are respected and empowered, they are happier on the job, and can do more to improve the shopping experience for customers, which leads to increased sales and higher profit, giving Bloomingdale’s an edge over competitors.

    This year marks the 80th year that Bloomingdale’s workers at the flagship store have been unionized and represented by Local 3 and the RWDSU.”

    • Brett

      What do they make in benefits and wages? I’m curious what they’ve won in contract.

      • Bruce Vail

        It’s a complex contract, sort of like the Ford Motor Co. contract, with many different job classification and varied compensation schemes.

        http://www.local3rwdsu.org/files/articles/2012-05-04bna-membersratify.pdf

        It covers everything from entry level to very experienced high-end salespeople. I’ll lookaround and see if I can find a wage scale for you….

  • cleek

    we all know that if everyone stopped buying on-line, retail would be back. but we also know that this is simply not going to happen. we really like buying on-line. personally, i’ve quit retail for everything except groceries and shoes – i insist on trying-on shoes, so i won’t buy them online. but my wife is fine buying shoes on-line.

    we all have the power to bring retail jobs back. but we clearly don’t care enough about them to do it. that’s why politicians don’t talk about it: shame.

    unionize them, pay them $15/hr, whatever. we’re still going to buy stuff on-line. more and more every day.

    that’s not sexist or racist. it’s just convenience and its flip-side, laziness.

    • Linnaeus

      Online shopping seems like the retail analog to automation in manufacturing.

      • wca

        Online shopping seems like the retail analog to automation in manufacturing.

        This, basically. Online shopping is a genie that you’re not going to be able to stuff back into the bottle. I mean, who’s going to line up to make shopping more annoying*** and time-consuming than it has to be? Particularly when time off of work is so scarce…

        ***More annoying because I’m an introvert and I would rather just buy what it is I want rather than having to go through layers of “help” to do it. Extroverts may not find this annoying, but will still probably have the same issues with lack of time …

        • Crusty

          Before there was online, my dad, who might develop hives upon walking into a department store or mall, bought almost all of his clothes from catalogs and ordered by mail or over the phone.

        • one of the blue

          I’ve never minded going to the store to get something, but it is a fact it’s easier to check if something is in stock, and an online outfit is much less likely to be out of something, much less time-consuming than going to four or five different Targets, for example, to find something the one you usually go to is out of.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      I certainly don’t care enough, and I’ll share a related anecdote. My family took a spring break trip this year and rented cars in two cities (L.A. and Detroit), reserved online. At Burbank airport, the process was fully automated until we reached the exit gate — you scan your drivers license in the machine, then your credit card, it finds your reservation, prints the receipt, and tells you where the car is. At DTW the counter person added ZERO value, in fact negative. Couldn’t find the reservation (because our plane was late and it was after midnight, so she was checking the wrong date), didn’t believe me at first when I showed her the reservation email, didn’t add a “human” welcome touch, etc. I’m sorry but you can’t swim upstream forever, and many, many retail roles can’t survive such a contrast.

      • Dennis Orphen

        I totally feel you there. In any situation like that, I greatly prefer to access the database myself. Less errors in transmission of data too, and I can easily see all my options, say in booking a room or a flight.

    • wca

      unionize them, pay them $15/hr, whatever. we’re still going to buy stuff on-line. more and more every day.

      At the very least, unionize the warehouse workers who load up all our online purchases…

    • PunditusMaximus

      I don’t buy online for convenience; I buy online for quality. Product reviews are awesome. At this point, my local general retailers (Target especially) consider people who buy in a store to basically be dupes and pawn the cheapest, most shoddy stuff off on us.

      Costco still gets a lot of my local business, because they don’t.

    • sam

      here’s the other thing – I went to an honest-to-goodness local shoe store the other day because I needed a new pair of “walking” sneakers (I’ve worn mine out) and I want to support local businesses. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I know the store carries them. The store is half a block from my apartment.

      After waiting for someone to help me for 15 minutes, I finally got someone.

      In addition to the shoes I went in for, I also wanted to try another pair of cute shoes. They had NEITHER style in anything close to my size.

      So I gave up and went home and ordered both pairs from Zappos.

      This is actually my biggest problem with retail stores these days – I’ll try to patronize them, find something I actually like, and they don’t have it in my size – clothing is a lost cause because I’m plus-sized and that’s been relegated to online shopping for ages (can’t have us fatties clogging up the aisles!) – but shoes shouldn’t be a problem. except they are.

      • PunditusMaximus

        And management decisions to make the stores shitty aren’t workers’ fault, but workers certainly bear the brunt of the results of the lousy experience. :/

      • ForkyMcSpoon

        I had a somewhat similar experience buying shoes.

        I went looking for reasonably priced walking sneakers. I tried three stores. The shoes ran from ugly to expensive. Maybe that was intentional.

        So I went online and found dozens of nicer looking shoes from the same brands in my price range.

        Hard for me to justify walking all over town looking for shoes when I found better products at a cheaper price from the same manufacturers in minutes online.

        • wca

          walking all over town looking for shoes

          That’s just what they want you to do!

    • LeeEsq

      I’m a size seven in men’s shoes. Online stores have shoes for my small feet while retail rarely has bellow a size eight or nine.

      • The Dark God of Time

        My father had the same shoe size, at 6’1″. When I was a teen and started wearing size 9, my mother said my shoes looked liked boats compared to my fathers’. My problem is that at 91/2, I have to try on shoe sizes 10-101/2 before I can find something that fits me,

        • Mayur

          You have size 45 1/4 feet?

          Sorry, someone had to say it.

      • Rob in CT

        Shoe shopping is a PITA. I’m an 8, but depending on the exact shoe I might be a 7.5 or an 8, a regular or a wide. And I want to try ’em on before I buy ’em. I haven’t yet gotten comfortable with ordering online from Zappas or wherever and sending back what I don’t like.

      • sam

        my best friend is a size 11 in women’s shoes. she’s got the same problem at the other end of the shoe-size scale. Stores rarely, if ever, carry shoes in her size.

        I’m an 8.5. In theory I should have zero problem buying shoes. And yet when I went on my shopping adventure this weekend, the only sizes they had in the shoes I wanted were a 6 or a 9.5!

    • Murc

      we all know that if everyone stopped buying on-line, retail would be back. but we also know that this is simply not going to happen. we really like buying on-line.

      This is only kinda true.

      What we like are cheap things and wide selections. And really “cheap” wins almost every time.

      I guarantee you people would stop buying online in a hurry if it ever hit price parity with local business.

      Speaking for myself, I don’t buy very many things online because… actually, hrm.

      I was poor for a long time. Buying something like a shirt or a pair of shoes or anything was a major investment for me, because if it went south I either couldn’t afford to or couldn’t justify buying another one. So I wasn’t going to buy something sight unseen if I could help it unless it was something like a book or something equally generic. I would want to see it, hold it in my hand, get a feel for the weight and heft of it, see if it felt cheaply made or didn’t look the way I thought it would, try it on if it was an article of clothing, make REALLY SURE that I was going to buy something that would suit me.

      I am, for the moment, not poor. But a lot of those habits have stuck with me. I don’t even have automated online bill pay set up for things like my monthly utilities, rent, car payments, etc. I sit down and write out checks. And the reason I do that is because part of my mind is constantly and always screaming at me “The day might come when you have to juggle these bills around and play games with grace periods and let some of these goes into arrears so you can cover others or buy food and gas. That’s happened before. It might happen again. DO NOT set up automated payments. Maintain control of your money.”

      I would be real curious to see how poor people utilize online shopping and other online financial services in terms of a proportional amount of the transactions they conduct. I’d like to see that very much indeed.

      • Harkov311

        Yeah, I’m with you on not trusting buying something sight unseen. Especially clothes. T-shirts maybe, since those sizes are pretty standard, but pants? No way. Shoes? You’re kidding, right? No way in hell would I buy either without trying them out first.

        Also, some expensive items like computer parts I’d rather buy myself, since the FedEx and UPS guys aren’t as gentile as they should be with a $500 part.

        • Dennis Orphen

          Eventually someone will come along and eat FedEx and UPS and the post offices lunch on that by controlling the delivery chain to the point where you go to a depot, show your id and/or confirmation number, and have the package handed to you, after inspecting and signing for it, or rejecting it as incorrect or damaged.

          That will also lower the cost of shipping, as the last mile costs as much or more as the previous thousands of miles. And it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. Doorstep delivery can be offered at an extra cost.

          • cleek

            where you go to a depot, show your id and/or confirmation number, and have the package handed to you, after inspecting and signing for it, or rejecting it as incorrect or damaged.

            except they’re only open 9:00-4:30 M-F and the depot is out by the airport down two sketchy roads next to a plumbing supply wholesaler.

            • Dennis Orphen

              Eventually someone will figure out not to do it that way. Welcome to the focus group.

              • Murc

                Not doing it that way can dramatically increase costs, tho. Locating your depot somewhere desirable can be many times more expensive than locating it in a warehouse by the airport.

          • Srsly Dad Y

            Sears was pretty much doing this, but then … bye bye Sears.

            • wca

              Sears was pretty much doing this, but then … bye bye Sears.

              I’ve still got to lay a good bit of the blame for the current state of Sears at the feet of Edward Lampert.

      • wca

        What we like are cheap things and wide selections. And really “cheap” wins almost every time.

        I guarantee you people would stop buying online in a hurry if it ever hit price parity with local business.

        I’m not sure I “buy” that, as for the most part the brick-and-mortar big box stores and places like Wal Mart and Target are already at price parity with online retailers like Amazon, particularly in my area where Amazon collects sales taxes just like the local storefronts do.

        … and I’m still buying many, many things online just because I’m paying roughly the same amount of money (or maybe a little more) for the online option, but not having to waste hours of my time doing so.

      • Linnaeus

        “The day might come when you have to juggle these bills around and play games with grace periods and let some of these goes into arrears so you can cover others or buy food and gas. That’s happened before. It might happen again. DO NOT set up automated payments. Maintain control of your money.”

        I’ve had to do this in the past and still have to do it to some extent now, so I don’t do automatic bill pay either. I don’t often write out checks, but I set up the EFT payments individually as they’re needed.

      • JonH

        “What we like are cheap things and wide selections. And really “cheap” wins almost every time.”

        It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to *find* good products when you’re willing to spend the money. For example: good drill bits that aren’t cheese grade.

    • Caepan

      My example is musical instrument sales. Today I buy nearly every guitar part or accessory online. But if I want to drop some serious coin on a genuinely good guitar, I go to a brick and mortar store, try them out, and decide which one speaks to me. (Yes, that’s why there’s all those other guys trying to show off their chops, playing loudly and annoyingly through huge amps. Most are actually trying to decide if they want to spend four figures on an instrument. And I bet I’m one of those wankers, too.)

      But then another issue arises. Far too many staff at music stores – particularly the big box ones like Guitar Center – have attitudes worse than the rock stars they wish they were. And they are rarely knowledgeable about the stuff they sell. For every one helpful associate, there are four that you are either interrupting their solitare game, or are keeping them from convincing the parent of a 13-year-old kid that what Junior really needs to take lessons on is a $6500 Les Paul.

      Music store sales associates rival motorcycle service departments for the level of outward contempt they have for their customers. And I will challenge anyone to an attitude contest!

      And yet, those sales associates are acutely aware that people will come into their store, try every instrument hanging on the wall, and then wind up buying that instrument online because they think it’s cheaper. They may not know that you can always negotiate the price down. And one never knows if the guy delivering that new guitar to your house just ate lunch with extra butter all over his fingers. Salespeople want to make a sale (duh!). So if you’re just going there to waste their time, why should they help you? They have $6500 guitars to sell to some kid’s parents!

      I have purchased a few guitars online, but through auction sites like eBay and Reverb. But none of them were more than $150. When it comes time to buy a serious instrument, support those remaining mom-and-pop music stores – they’re still out there! Look through the stock and find what you like. Plus, you may get a decent offer on a trade in!

    • efgoldman

      personally, i’ve quit retail for everything except groceries and shoes

      The last time I went to our local mall, it was to buy a necktie for my dad’s funeral in 2004.
      I have been to other malls because, for instance, we needed new bedding and that’s where the big furniture store is, but that’s pretty much it.
      I shop in the local Ace Hardware because it’s closer, I want to support a local family business, and because I can actually get qualified, willing help.

  • MikeJake

    I mean, the NYT just posted that article a few days ago, and Bouie is already going “WHY DOESN’T ANYONE CARE?!” Give us a minute!

  • Linnaeus

    I suspect that the retail jobs that do survive will be for high-end purchases. People probably still want to deal with human beings for things like expensive electronics, cars, tailored clothing, etc. A shirt or pants? Not so much.

    • njorl

      What I miss is being able to talk to a shoe salesman. I’ve got real bad feet, and I take size 15. I used to be able to get good advice on which shoes would harm my feet and which would help, but not anymore. The few stores that sell shoes now don’t bother with sizes over 14 because it isn’t profitable enough.

      And buying shoes without trying them on first sucks.

      • Dennis Orphen

        As long as manufacturers don’t change their patterns for clothing, or ‘lasts’ and sole molds for shoes, once you know what you like, what works, and what fits, you’ll just re-up when your current items wear out. I know what size and models of shoes I like, and that hasn’t changed since the 70’s. Once in a while something new comes along, and there is a ‘learning curve’ so to speak, but that doesn’t happen very often, high end sandal/water shoes being a good example of that. Now that I have had a few pairs, I know what model and size works for me, just like I do with the jeans I wear. Sure, the current system thrives on novelty, but that will change as novel items can’t compete with old standbys in the online environment.

      • efgoldman

        The few stores that sell shoes now don’t bother with sizes over 14 because it isn’t profitable enough.

        My kid has the same problem. She wears an 11. She swears by Zappo’s, because they carry her size and because of their return policy.

    • Dennis Orphen

      There will probably be brick and mortar display centers for things which you will order online (not exclusive from being inside the store, if you don’t have a mobile come on into the 21st century, the water’s fine) and it will be delivered to you at the address of your choice, or it will be picked for you from the stock in the back, like the old Service Merchandise showrooms worked. That keeps shrinkage to a minimum, a huge asset in a post zombie-apocalypse retail environment.

      • sam

        Isn’t this functionally what Amazon is doing now? They’re opening up several “stores” in NYC, but I’m not sure how much people will actually buy there, as opposed to them being show rooms for products.

    • sam

      I don’t know. I personally buy most of my electronics online these days as well.

      As a woman, I find dealing with condescending sales clerks who think I’m a moron simply because I have XX chromosomes to be pretty insufferable.

      Much easier to just buy whatever I need online and let radio shack go bankrupt.

      • Linnaeus

        Good point. Electronics may not have been the best example. I was thinking of places like the Apple/Microsoft stores, both of which always look packed whenever I walk by them. I do think that certain niche products will still have storefronts, because people will expect a certain level of service when they buy them.

        • sam

          but apple doesn’t treat its stores solely as sales floors – they’re show rooms. I’ve spoken to Apple salespeople about this – they don’t get commissions, and apple cares more about overall sales than individual store sales. The stores are an “experience”, and they know that most of their customers will actually end up buying products online (heck, I’ve worked with in-store salespeople to buy products online when they’re not immediately available in-store).

          They view the stores as places where people can come, hang out, check their email, play with their devices (and as a consequence fall in love with them), so that, somewhere down the road, another apple device gets purchased.

          But apple is probably one of the few stores that has the kind of deep pockets and long-term thinking to do something like this.

          (and I’ve had one TERRIBLE experience at the apple store – to the point where I walked in ready to buy a new computer and ended up…not because of the condescending sales guy who was more interested in lecturing me about why I was “wrong” about the software I was using than in selling me a computer – they can show up anywhere. Ultimately I went to a different location and got the help I needed, but it was a problematic interaction to say the least).

      • wca

        I don’t know. I personally buy most of my electronics online these days as well.

        I can’t imagine buying most electronics at brick-and-mortar stores either. Even before you get to the issue of snooty electronics salesmen, simply trying to find the electronics I want is trying. Not living in a major metropolitan area, I simply have no other option than online to buy … say … a mid-end home theater preamplifier. Or some decent speakers. And so on.

        I do miss Radio Shack, though. But the Radio Shack I miss died in about 1990.

        • efgoldman

          I can’t imagine buying most electronics at brick-and-mortar stores either.

          I was buying by mail from J&R in the 80s. More variety than any local retailer, competitive prices, and I didn’t have to deal with overpriced brand snobbery

    • Gone2Ground

      I recently bought a new dishwasher online from Major Hardware Store. I read the reviews, checked Consumer Reports, and ordered it.

      Spoke for about 40 minutes to the order taker, who was also scheduling the outside installer for me as well. When he apologized for it “taking so long” I laughed and told him that between driving, parking, standing around and shopping, paying and driving home, I would be at least an hour. This was a breeze in comparison.

      But clothes I have to try on, unless it’s a retailer I’ve shopped at for years. Even then, every once in a while they go off the rails with a new marketing department and either sizing or quality suffers. Then it’s return everything in the prepaid bundle.

      What should happen is all those lost retail jobs should be funneled into packing, distribution, and logistics jobs. Which could probably be very good jobs.

  • Harkov311

    It is however worth noting that the decline of manufacturing jobs is also the decline of generations of work that was once horrible, deadly, and destructive turned into well-paid, union jobs.

    Erik, repeat this as often as possible. It really can’t be overstated: those factory jobs are only good now because unions made them that way. Before unions, factory jobs sucked in every possible way.

    • PunditusMaximus

      +1. Just to support, look at what happened to coal in WV when we went the other way.

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