Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

America’s biggest low-wage industry: Continuity and change in retail jobs


For those concerned with job quality in the United States, the retail industry commands attention. Retail is not only the largest low-wage industry in the country’s economy; it is the largest industry, period. It generates numerous entry level jobs for those with limited formal training. Hourly wages of nonsupervisory workers in retail languish at about three-quarters the national average. Retail is a very important employer of young workers. Its workforce is also disproportionately female. Women are concentrated in particular retail sub-sectors and some minority groups seem to remain employed in retail over time. At the same time, retail jobs—at least, those involving direct interaction with consumers—are geographically anchored, offering a potential leverage point for policies to improve job quality.

We place retailers’ business strategies at the center of our analysis and trace the connections between corporate strategy and job quality. We focus on three main dimensions of job quality: compensation; schedule and its impact on the work-life nexus; and hiring and promotion opportunities. We examine the composition of the workforce in retail jobs and the likely implications of changes in job quality for the workforce. We use descriptive statistics from the Current Population Survey and draw on a unique set of retail case studies of food and consumer electronics retailers we conducted during 2005-07. We focus on frontline jobs: cashiers, clerks, and baggers positions.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View