Clothing, Accessory, and General Merchandise Stores Industries

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. Clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores are some of the most visited retail establishments in the country. Whether shopping for an item of clothing, a piece of jewelry, a household appliance, or even food, you will likely go to one of these stores to make your purchase or compare selections with other retail outlets.

Industry organization. General merchandise stores sell a large assortment of items. Among stores in this industry are department stores—including discount department stores—supercenters, and warehouse club stores, as well as "dollar stores," which sell a wide variety of inexpensive merchandise.

Department stores sell an extensive selection of merchandise, with no one line predominating. As the name suggests, these stores generally are arranged into departments, each headed by a manager. The various departments may sell apparel, furniture, appliances, home furnishings, cosmetics, jewelry, paint and hardware, electronics, and sporting goods. They also may sell services, such as optical, photography, and pharmacy services. Discount department stores typically rely more on self-service features and have centrally located cashiers. Department stores that sell large items, such as major appliances, usually provide delivery and installation services. Upscale department stores may offer tailoring for their clothing lines and more personal service.

Warehouse club stores and supercenters, the fastest growing segment of this industry, sell an even more eclectic mix of products and services to consumers, typically at reduced prices. These stores usually include an assortment of food items, often sold in bulk, along with an array of household and automotive goods, clothing, and services that may vary over time. Often, such stores require that shoppers purchase a membership that entitles them to shop there. They offer very little service and usually require the customer to take home the item purchased in lieu of delivery.

Compared with department stores, clothing and accessory stores sell a much narrower group of items that include apparel for all members of the family, as well as shoes, luggage, leather goods, lingerie, jewelry, uniforms, and bridal gowns. Stores in this sector may sell a relatively broad range of these items or concentrate on a few. They often are staffed with knowledgeable salespersons who can help in the selection of sizes, styles, and accessories. Many of these stores are located in shopping malls across the country and have significantly fewer workers than department stores.

Recent developments. In recent years, many department stores in this industry have consolidated, seeking more efficient operations in order to stay competitive. Some clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores also are moving toward obtaining goods directly from the manufacturer, bypassing the wholesale level completely. In addition, many large retailers try to reach as many different consumers as possible and so have added online stores, discount outlets, and, sometimes, high-end boutiques, the latter because many apparel and accessories shoppers enjoy designer and other high-society items. E-commerce also continues to be a popular way for consumers to shop and for stores to showcase all of their items for sale.

Some larger national retailers, such as superstores, have begun to institute radio-frequency identification technology (RFID) into their logistics and inventory systems. They have many different goods to keep track of, making RFID a cost-effective investment.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. About 31 percent of workers in these stores were employed part time. Most employees work during peak selling times, including nights, weekends, and holidays. Weekends are busy days in retailing, so almost all employees work at least one weekend day and have a weekday off. Longer-than-normal hours may be scheduled during busy periods, such as holidays and the back-to-school season, when vacation time is limited for most workers, including buyers and managers.

Work environment. Most employees in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores work in clean, well-lit conditions. Retail salespersons and cashiers often stand for long periods, and stock clerks may perform strenuous tasks, such as moving heavy, cumbersome boxes. Sales representatives and buyers frequently travel to visit clients and may be away from home for several days or weeks at a time. Those who work for large retailers may travel outside of the country.

Employment[To Top]

Clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores—one of the largest employers in the Nation—had about 4.5 million wage and salary jobs in 2008. In contrast to many industries, this industry employs workers in all sections of the country, from the largest cities to the smallest towns. Many of the industry's workers are young—29 percent were under 24 years old in 2008, compared with about 13 percent for all industries (table 1).

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment, by age group, 2008
Age group Clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores All industries
Total 100.0% 100.0%
16-19 10.7 3.8
20-24 18.1 9.4
25-34 20.3 21.6
35-44 17.6 23.0
45-54 16.3 23.8
55-64 11.6 14.3
65 and older 5.5 4.1

Department stores accounted for about 34 percent of jobs in the industry, but for only about 7 percent of establishments. In 2008, approximately 68 percent of workers were employed in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores having more than 50 workers.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

Sales and related occupations accounted for 64 percent of workers in this industry in 2008. Office and administrative support occupations make up the next-largest group of employees, accounting for 20 percent of total industry employment (table 2).

Sales and related occupations. Retail salespersons, who make up 40 percent of employment in the industry, help customers select and purchase merchandise. Their primary job is to interest customers in the merchandise and to answer any questions the customers may have. In order to do this, they may describe the product's various models, styles, and colors or demonstrate its use. To sell expensive and complex items, workers need extensive knowledge of the products.

In addition to selling, most retail salespersons register the sale electronically on a cash register or terminal; receive cash, checks, and charge payments; and give change and receipts. Depending on the hours they work, they may open or close their cash registers or terminals. Either of these operations may include counting the money in the cash register; separating charge slips, coupons, and exchange vouchers; and making deposits at the cash office. Salespersons are held responsible for the contents of their register, and repeated shortages often are cause for dismissal.

Salespersons may be responsible for handling returns and exchanges of merchandise, wrapping gifts, and keeping their work areas neat. In addition, they may help stock shelves or racks, arrange for mailing or delivery of a purchase, mark price tags, take inventory, and prepare displays. They also must be familiar with the store's security practices to help prevent theft of merchandise. Cashiers total bills, receive money, make change, fill out charge forms, and give receipts. Retail salespersons and cashiers often have similar duties, although cashiers are less likely to provide information to customers about products.

Office and administrative support occupations. Stock clerks and order fillers bring merchandise to the sales floor and stock shelves and racks. They also may mark items with identifying codes or prices so that they can be recognized quickly and easily, although many items today arrive pre-ticketed. Customer service representatives investigate and resolve customers' complaints about merchandise, service, billing, or credit ratings. The industry also employs administrative occupations found in most industries, such as general office clerks and bookkeepers.

Management, business, and financial operations occupations. Management and business and financial operations occupations accounted for 2 percent of industry employment in 2008. Buyers purchase merchandise for resale from wholesalers or manufacturers. Using historical records, market analysis, and their sense of consumer demand, they buy merchandise, keeping in mind their customers' demand for style, quality, and a reasonable price range. Wrong decisions mean that the store will mark down slow-selling merchandise, thus losing profits. Buyers for larger stores or chains usually buy one classification of merchandise, such as casual menswear or home furnishings; those working for smaller stores may buy all the merchandise sold in the store. They also plan and implement sales promotion plans for their merchandise, such as arranging for advertising and ensuring that the merchandise is displayed properly.

Department managers oversee sales workers who work in a department or section of the store. They set the work schedule, supervise employee performance, and are responsible for the overall sales and profitability of their departments. They also may be called upon to settle a dispute between a customer and a salesperson.

Merchandise managers are in charge of a group of buyers and department managers; they plan and supervise the purchase and marketing of merchandise in a broad area, such as women's apparel or appliances. In department store chains, with numerous stores, many of the buying and merchandising functions are centralized in one location. Some local managers might decide which merchandise, among that bought centrally, would be best for their own stores.

Department store managers direct and coordinate the activities in these stores. They may set pricing policies to maintain profitability and notify senior management of concerns or problems. Department store managers usually directly supervise department managers and indirectly oversee other department store workers.

Clothing and accessory store managers—often the only managers in smaller stores—combine many of the duties of department managers, department store managers, and buyers. They almost always are employed at the specific retail establishment.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All occupations 4,531.3 100.0 11.1
Management, business, and financial occupations 95.2 2.1 3.7
  General and operations managers 39.0 0.9 -1.4
Service occupations 217.9 4.8 10.2
  Security guards 28.8 0.6 2.1
  Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners 54.1 1.2 7.0
Sales and related occupations 2,911.1 64.2 12.0
  First-line supervisors/managers of retail sales workers 378.6 8.4 12.4
  Cashiers, except gaming 710.6 15.7 18.5
  Retail salespersons 1,790.1 39.5 9.5
  Office and administrative support occupations 904.6 20.0 10.1
  First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers 85.3 1.9 8.8
  Customer service representatives 60.8 1.3 28.3
  Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks 51.8 1.1 -8.4
  Stock clerks and order fillers 582.9 12.9 12.2
Transportation and material moving occupations 172.7 3.8 6.4
  Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 145.6 3.2 4.6
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

Many jobs in the clothing, accessory, and general merchandise store industry do not require more than a high school diploma. Most of the skills needed for these jobs can be learned through on-the-job training from an experienced employee.

Sales and related occupations. Generally, no formal education is required to become a retail salesperson or cashier; in fact, many people get their first jobs in this industry. A high school diploma or less is sufficient for most people in retail sales, because most of their tasks can be learned through on-the-job training. However, almost all managers of retail salespersons need some retail experience or education beyond high school.

In most small stores, an experienced employee or the manager instructs newly hired sales personnel on how to make out sales checks and operate the cash register. In larger stores, training programs are more formal and usually are conducted over several days. Some stores provide periodic training seminars to refresh and improve the customer service and selling skills of their salespersons. Initially, trainees are taught how to make cash, check, and charge sales; eventually, they are instructed on how to deal with returns and special orders. Other topics usually covered are customer service, security, and store policies and procedures. Depending on the type of product they are selling, salespersons may be given specialized training in their area. For example, those working in cosmetic sales receive instruction on the types of products that are available and the types of customers most likely to purchase those products.

Salespersons should enjoy working with people. Among other desirable characteristics they should have are a pleasant personality, a neat appearance, and the ability to communicate clearly. Because of the trend toward providing more service, it is becoming increasingly important for salespersons to be knowledgeable about the products and merchandise that are available. Some employers may conduct a background check of applicants, especially of those seeking work selling high-priced items.

Some salespersons are hired for a particular department, whereas others are placed after they have completed training. Placement usually is based on where positions are available. Salespersons called "floaters" are not assigned to a particular department; instead, they work where they are needed.

Advancement opportunities for salespersons vary. As those who work full time gain experience and seniority, they usually move to positions of greater responsibility or to positions with potentially higher commissions. In larger companies, having several years of experience or some postsecondary education may help a salesperson move quickly into a first-level managerial position. Salespersons who are paid on a commission basis—that is, they earn a percentage of the value of what they sell—may advance to selling more expensive items. The most experienced and highest paid salespersons sell big-ticket items. This work requires the most knowledge of the product and the greatest talent for persuasion. In some establishments, advancement opportunities are limited because one person, often the owner, is the only manager, but sales experience may be useful in finding a higher level job elsewhere. Retail selling experience is an asset when one is applying for sales positions with larger retailers or in other kinds of sales—for example, of motor vehicles, financial services, or wholesale merchandise.

The National Retail Federation offers various forms of certification for customer service and sales-related occupations. Certification is voluntary and is earned by passing an exam.

Office and administrative support occupations. There are no formal educational requirements for most office and administrative support jobs in retail trade. A high school education is preferred, especially by larger employers. Many of the workers who seek to enter jobs in this industry are recent immigrants, so employers may require proficiency in English and may even offer language training to employees. Advancement opportunities from these jobs may be limited, but in larger companies may include moving into a supervisory position.

Management, business, and financial operations occupations. In the past, capable salespersons with good leadership skills, but without a college degree, could advance to management positions. However, a college education is becoming increasingly important for obtaining higher level managerial positions such as department manager, store manager, or buyer. Many retailers prefer to hire persons with an associate’s or bachelor's degree in marketing, merchandising, or business as management trainees or assistant managers. Many colleges and universities offer educational programs in retail management, retail merchandising, retail marketing, retail sales, and fashion and apparel merchandising. In addition, computer skills have become extremely important in all parts of this industry, in areas such as inventory control, human resources, sales forecasting, electronic commerce, and, especially, business and financial operations occupations.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores will have many job openings over the 2008–18 period, fueled by the large number of workers who transfer to jobs in other industries and must be replaced. Employment growth will be steady and determined mostly by consumer behavior and preferences.

Employment change. Overall, the number of wage and salary jobs in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores is expected to increase 11 percent over the 2008–18 period, on par with the 11 percent increase projected for all industries combined. Growth of this industry is extremely dependent on consumers' spending habits and the health of the economy. Growth will be the result of an increasing number of consumers and will keep in line with the overall growth of the economy. Many wholesale clubs and superstores will expand, creating numerous jobs in this industry, especially in sales and related occupations. Employment in full-service department stores will slowly decline as more people buy from warehouse clubs and superstores. Discount department stores, however, will continue to see growth.

Alternative retail outlets, such as mail-order companies, home shopping, and the Internet, will continue to take some business away from traditional retail stores. However, this trend will be minimized as traditional retailers increase their presence in these outlets. Although online sales are expected to grow, sales at traditional retail stores are projected to continue to account for a major portion of total retail sales. Also, electronic commerce will increase job opportunities in other occupations, such as Internet sales managers, webmasters, technical support workers, and other related workers.

Many stores in this industry, particularly clothing and accessory stores, are highly sensitive to changes in the economy and to changing tastes of consumers. Guessing wrong on upcoming trends, especially several years in a row, or being unable to weather a recession can cause even large, well-established stores to go bankrupt or out of business. As a result, changes in employment can be volatile and may include periods of rapid increases and decreases in the number of jobs.

Worker productivity is increasing because of technological advances, particularly among clerks, managers, and buyers. For example, computerized systems allow companies to streamline purchasing and obtain customer information and preferences, reducing the need for buyers. In addition, RFID technology has the potential to consolidate many storage-room jobs. However, employment of workers such as retail salespersons and cashiers, who interact personally with customers, will not be as detrimentally affected by technological advances because direct customer contact will remain important.

Job prospects. Numerous job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave jobs in this large industry. Jobs will be available for young workers, first-time jobseekers, persons with limited job experience, senior citizens, and people seeking part-time work, such as those with young children or those who wish to supplement their income from other jobs. Persons with a college degree and computer skills will be sought for managerial positions.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Hourly earnings of nonsupervisory workers in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores in 2008 were well below the average for all workers in private industry. This reality reflects both the high proportion of part-time and less experienced workers in these stores and the fact that even experienced workers receive relatively low pay compared with the pay of experienced workers in many other industries (table 3).

Table 3. Average earnings of nonsupervisory workers in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores, 2008.
Industry segment Hourly Weekly
Total, private industry $18.08 $608
General merchandise stores 10.73 328
Clothing and clothing accessory stores 11.57 246
  Jewelry, luggage, and leather goods stores 14.36 416
  Shoe stores 12.58 312
  Clothing stores 10.83 214

Wages in selected occupations in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores appear in table 4.

Table 4. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in clothing, accessory, and general merchandise stores, May 2008
Occupation Clothing and clothing
accessories stores
General merchan-
dise stores
All
industries
General and operations managers $30.25 $34.24 $44.02
First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers 16.99 12.89 22.02
First-line supervisors/managers of retail sales workers 16.59 14.69 16.97
Customer service representatives 11.21 10.47 14.36
Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks 10.57 10.89 13.30
Janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners 9.05 10.11 10.31
Retail salespersons 9.04 9.17 9.86
Stock clerks and order fillers 8.79 9.34 10.00
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 8.68 9.26 10.89
Cashiers 8.34 8.51 8.49

Benefits and union membership. Many employers permit workers to buy merchandise at a discount. Smaller stores usually offer limited employee benefits. In larger stores, benefits are more comparable to those offered by employers in other industries and can include vacation and sick leave, health and life insurance, profit sharing, and pension plans.

Unionization in this industry is limited. Only about 3 percent of workers were union members or covered by union contracts, compared with 14 percent in all industries.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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