Campaign aims to make retail careers trendy

Campaign aims to make retail careers trendy

Retail has an image problem.

In an industry that relies so strongly on fads, trends, hype and wish-list lust, a lingering taint of frivolity belies the stature of the United States’ multi-trillion-dollar industry.

“People have the misconception that retail is the teenager at the front store at the mall folding sweaters,” explained Bill Thorne, the senior vice president of communications and public affairs for the National Retail Federation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But retail is a lot more, he explains. It just doesn’t get a lot of respect.

Thorne relays the story of Macy’s chief executive officer Terry Lundgren, who has said that when he told his parents he was going into retail, they were absolutely crushed. Devastated. They surely wondered where they’d gone wrong.

And maybe they were right; Lundgren recently suffered a 22 percent reduction in his earnings. In 2012, he garnered a measly pay package of $11.3 million. Makes you wonder how he could afford fuel for the private jet … wait, that was part of his pay package.

Anyway, Lundgren isn’t the average retail success story, but he did begin as a humble retail trainee in 1975. And that’s the point.

Retail isn’t a dead-end job, Thorne said.

When we asked local shop owner Sarah King of Blush about the reaction from her family when she wanted to study fashion merchandising and management, she acknowledges that it wasn’t enthusiastic.

“Some of my family, they took my whole major as a joke, but I guess I showed them,” King said finishing the sentence with light laughter. Armed with a degree from Missouri State University in Springfield (then known as Southwest Missouri State University), King opened her shop more than seven years ago.

Her longevity in a field where most boutiques fizzle out in a few years is a testament to her business sense and her sense of style. But she admits that misconceptions abound, especially among would-be shop owners who want to emulate her.

King said they don’t even use the word “retail.”

“I feel like most of the younger girls will say that they want to go into ‘fashion,’ not retail,” King said. “And they tend to have this idealized view of what I do.”

She said that waltzing in at 10 a.m., opening boxes and enjoying a “free” wardrobe are not part of her reality. Nor is plopping down behind a register and waiting for the customers to stream in.

So she has to give many young fashion lovers a wake-up call. She’s not alone.

“Retail is detail. I say it all the time,” said Natalie Woods of Project Retail, a consulting firm that helps boutiques analyze sales data to work more efficiently. She, too, knows the refrain of would-be store owners who want to go into “fashion … and they don’t even really know what that means. Typically, the girls who want to be in fashion don’t really want to do what it takes to run a business.”

It’s a stereotype, but it’s one that plays out again and again, said Woods, a former Webster Groves boutique owner who now works as a consultant from her new home base in Florida.

“One of the absolute toughest things for my clients to do is find good employees. That’s the absolute hardest part of running a store,” Woods said. And then she noted that that’s still just one of 1,000 moving parts.

So she was intrigued by the National Retail Federation’s This is Retail campaign because the primary goal is to get people to get serious about retail as a career, not just a hobby or means to get extra money or a discount at a favorite store. She said that maybe focusing on executive and senior-level positions that take retail seriously will encourage a stronger crop of applicants at the entry level.

“There are billions of jobs in retail, so if they can get people to start thinking big, then maybe they’ll start at the bottom and think of it as a stepping stone, instead of just a space that they sit in and occupy space,” Woods said. “I guess there could be trickle-down.”’s website makes this statement: “Did you know that retail supports 42 million American jobs? Think those are all behind a cash register? Think again.”

Thorne said retail needs accounting majors, statistical analysts, communications directors, shipping and logistics specialists and an army of supporting positions that essentially touch every college major out there. But if those majors are looking at vocations in traditionally respected fields such as banking, finance, law, government and the like instead of corporations that make and sell clothing or other mall-friendly goods, the industry suffers.

It’s death by association. Something common in fashion. You need the cool factor. Right now, working in fashion is cool — styling, designing, blogging. But working in retail, which has some overlap, doesn’t have the same allure.

The National Retail Federation Foundation surveyed 700 young adults ages 18 to 24 from across the country and discovered that 80 percent said they weren’t interested in retail careers. However, the group argues that those young adults haven’t given retail a chance.

Ellen Davis, the executive director of the foundation, explains the predicament well in just the title of her article: “Retail’s got what millennials want in a career (they just don’t know it yet).”