A postal employee who processes one Amazon return after another. A part-time stockroom clerk who works spotty hours for minimum wage and no health benefits. A social media influencer who pitches products to her 83,000 Instagram followers. A robot that scans the shelves at Walmart.
Meet America’s retail work force in 2019. Nearly five million people are employed in traditional retail jobs. Many still work in stores, selling stuff, but the reality is that today’s retail industry is powered by a variety of staff employees, gig workers and artificial intelligence.
The changes reflect shifts in what shoppers want — lower prices and more convenience. Shopping, even in stores, now involves technology that is altering the way we interact with the sales staff. Here are six stories of modern-day retail work.
THE LUGGAGE SALESMAN
Sterling Lewis, Macy’s, Manhattan
There are not many retail workers left like Mr. Lewis. He started at Macy’s 37 years ago and he’s still selling luggage in the Herald Square store.
Retailing was not the career Mr. Lewis expected to pursue when he moved to Brooklyn from Trinidad at age 13. He attended college briefly, but dropped out when his son was born and he needed a job. He went to work in the Macy’s stockroom, racking up overtime to support his family. “You do what you have to do,” he said.
Today, Mr. Lewis earns about $70,000 a year, which includes wages and 2 percent commissions on each item he sells.
It can be tempting, he says, to immediately steer shoppers to a Tumi bag that costs $1,000, but that only leads to more returns. “I start low and come up,” he said. “I want the customer to say ‘show me something better.’”
Mr. Lewis, 63, met his wife while she was working in the shoe department. Together, the couple saved up enough money for a down payment on a house in Jackson Heights on a corner lot with a backyard big enough for three fig trees, a grape arbor and vegetable beds with sweet peppers, garlic, collard greens and strawberries.
Mr. Lewis wears a gold hoop earring in each ear and a blue lanyard around his neck to show off his membership in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which he credits with providing him and his colleagues with financial security.
Would he ever encourage his 3-year-old grandson to work in a store one day? “Hell no,” Mr. Lewis says. “You can’t grow in retail anymore.”
Wall-E, Walmart, Phillipsburg, N.J.
Wall-E starts the day at 4 a.m., rolling through the aisles, scanning the shelves and looking for “outs” — any item that needs restocking.
The robot has a long white neck, bright spotlights and 15 cameras that snap thousands of photos, which are transmitted directly to its colleagues’ hand-held devices telling them exactly which shelves need restocking.
After it finishes scanning, Wall-E parks itself in a remote corner of the store, next to a bright blue sign that says “Our People Make the Difference,” and takes a “nap” to recharge its batteries.
Wall-E works two shifts, seven days a week, in the Walmart supercenter in Phillipsburg, a former railroad and industrial hub on the Delaware River.
Designed by the robotics company Bossa Nova, Wall-E is one of 350 robots at Walmart stores across the country. Their purpose is to free up employees to interact with customers or focus on other initiatives like Walmart’s push to deliver groceries to customers ordering online. This month, the store in Phillipsburg hired 22 employees and it is looking to hire 25 more.
Employees have embraced the robot, said Tom McGowan, the store manager, because it performs a tedious task no one likes — cataloging out-of-stock items. (Walmart allows store employees to name each robot. Wall-E wears a name badge like every other worker.)
Customers have different reactions: A few children have tried to ride the robots, while many adults ignore the devices and keep shopping. Some ask whether robots are taking jobs away from humans.
“I tell them ‘No, I actually have openings,’” Mr. McGowan said. “‘Would you like to apply?’”
THE STOCKROOM WORKER
Nevin Muni, T.J. Maxx, Queens
For Ms. Muni, life as a part-time worker in a stockroom in Astoria can be unpredictable.
Most weeks, Ms. Muni is scheduled to work either 12 or 16 hours, but she is often asked to come in on her days off. Ms. Muni, who earns the local minimum wage of $15 an hour, never turns down work. “I have to make ends meet,” she said. “Whatever job I find, I take.”
An immigrant from Turkey, Ms. Muni, 52, takes multiple train lines to reach the store, leaving her house in Elmhurst, Queens, and her husband, who is recovering from a stroke, before 6 a.m. Hoping to save money one recent month, Ms. Muni bought a 30-day MetroCard instead of paying for single rides. But she ended up losing money on the card because the extra shifts never materialized that month.
She has no health insurance, but manages to be resourceful. She recently had a cavity filled by dental students at New York University.
Ms. Muni moved to New York eight years ago and recently joined the Retail Action Project, a worker group and job training program affiliated with the retail employees union. She has degrees in media economics and human resources management from a university in Turkey. But those skills are not needed in the cramped, windowless stockroom on the third floor of the T.J. Maxx., behind the men’s underwear rack and the bin of Christmas-themed pillows.
Ms. Muni unpacks boxes from delivery trucks and arranges last season’s pajamas and dress shirts on hangers, for display in the store. Her co-workers in the stockroom include women from Peru, Ecuador, Morocco and the Dominican Republic.
“We laugh. We talk about family,” she said. “My job is hard, but I love these friends.”
THE POSTAL EMPLOYEE
Eric C. Wilson, post office, Greenwich, Conn.
Mr. Wilson has watched the internet upend how Americans shop and communicate from a unique vantage point: the service window of the post office where he has worked for more than 30 years.
When Mr. Wilson, 58, started in the business, his job revolved around processing letters, cards and flat parcels. But those have fallen off in the age of email and text messages, he said. Now, his window is bustling with a specific type of package: returns of online purchases, which have become an enormous part of his days.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of those, especially this time of year,” Mr. Wilson, a father of two, said in a telephone interview as he drove to his home in Stamford, Conn.
The change is a side effect of the boom in online shopping, which results in far more returns than purchases made at brick-and-mortar stores. It has been a boon for post offices and employees like Mr. Wilson.
“At one time, they thought the internet was actually going to kill the Postal Service, but it’s been very helpful because of the way people order packages online now,” he said.
Mr. Wilson’s post office will operate four or five service windows — up from its typical two — between Thanksgiving weekend and Dec. 24, he said. Sending packages to Amazon is a shift from handling letters but Mr. Wilson is not sentimental about it.
“I don’t really miss it at all,” he said. “You just adjust to what the change is.”
Melea Johnson, Utah
While Ms. Johnson doesn’t technically work in retailing, she’s one of the many social media mavens who have become central to the industry by making product pitches to her roughly 83,000 Instagram followers and 355,000 YouTube subscribers.
Throughout November — which Ms. Johnson, 37, calls “Black Friday month” — she estimates that she will participate in about 20 sponsored campaigns, in which brands pay her for certain promotional posts. She also earns commissions from retailers like Best Buy and Target when her followers click on a link she provides and buy an item.
“At this point, what I’ve created has turned into a media and marketing company,” said Ms. Johnson, who lives outside Salt Lake City. “I’ve talked to multiple brands who said they don’t spend as much money on TV ads and have put it all into marketing with influencers or online marketing because they just get a bigger return.”
Ms. Johnson, whose posts sometimes feature her 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son, started blogging about bargains a decade ago on a site, now sold, called Freebies 2 Deals, as a way to work from home.
On Instagram, her calls to buy cardigans on Amazon and toys at Target are interspersed with date night selfies and relatable fare about parenting.
“The people who follow me or watch my stories feel like we’re best friends,” she said. When she recommends a great deal or product they love, “it builds another layer of trust.”
THE QUASI-FULFILLMENT WORKER
Sherika McGibbon, Zara, Manhattan
When Ms. McGibbon started working at Zara six years ago, customers seemed to have far more patience.
“Today many people are in a hurry,” Ms. McGibbon said. “They don’t take time to touch and feel the material. They just want to buy it and leave.”
Ms. McGibbon, who has worked all over the retail industry, including at the Gap and the now-defunct Daffy’s, attributes the change to online shopping, which prioritizes convenience over the experience.
E-commerce has also altered Ms. McGibbon’s daily routine and turned her Zara near Union Square into a miniature fulfillment center. Ms. McGibbon, who earns about $16 an hour, spends the first part of the morning on the sales floor interacting with customers. After lunch, she reports to the stockroom and packs FedEx boxes until her shift ends at 5 p.m. The delivery service picks up online orders twice a day.
Ms. McGibbon, 31, usually packs about 50 such orders a day. During the Black Friday weekend, her store expects to ship 2,000 orders.
A single mother raising a 12-year-old son, Ms. McGibbon says she still enjoys the challenge of helping customers put together an outfit. As a hobby, she advises friends and family how to dress. “Stylin’ by Sherika,” she calls her consultancy. She would like to turn it into a business someday.
“Retail is fast,” she said over the throbbing music at the Fifth Avenue store. “There is a lot of adrenaline. But if it ever gets slow, I got to go.”