Retail jobs get slashed

The retail industry has traditionally been a safety net for those between gigs, but major cutbacks have severely impacted the job market.

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By Jessica Dickler, staff writer

When Susan Desrocher lost her job as an editor, she applied to local book stores, but got no response.
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NEW YORK ( -- The retail sector has taken a beating this winter as consumers pulled back on spending, and the 15 million Americans who rely on those jobs have been left out in the cold.

And with the industry shedding jobs and slowing hiring, white collar refugees hoping to ride out the storm in a retail position might have to look elsewhere.

Retail lost 522,000 jobs last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, Circuit City cut over 30,000 jobs after it closed its doors. So far this week, retailers Macy's, Liz Claiborne, Pier 1 Imports and Talbots have added more than 8,000 job losses to the tally.

"There's an at-risk factor," warned Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman from the National Retail Federation. "If companies aren't making sales projections they're going to cut operating costs," she said, which often means laying off workers.

The implications on workers in the struggling industry are great. Full-time and part-time jobs in the retail sector have not only served as a career for some, but also a safety net for others. From college kids to cash-strapped consumers, the retail job market has traditionally been well suited for temporary workers, and a fallback for unemployed workers from other industries looking for a refuge.

When the fallback job falls through

After Susan Desrocher, 50, lost her job as an editor, she applied to the Barnes & Noble and Borders book stores near her Knoxville Tenn. home.

"I thought, well if I can't find a job in my field I can at least go find a job in a store and at least make some money," she said.

Despite having a master's degree in English literature, "they never even called me," she said.

Desrocher isn't the only one who found the retail safety net was gone. Many laid off office workers who can't score a retail job are simply aiming too high, according to Al Lee, director of quantitative analysis at

"It may be wise to focus on the bread-and-butter Wal-Marts of the world," said Lee. Consumers are still spending money at discount retailers and grocery stores so, "it may be better to work at the Quickie Mart than the high-end clothing store."

Linda Cowls followed that advice, but is still struggling to keep her job. When Cowls, 56, was laid off from her marketing job a few years ago, she picked up a part-time position at her local Target in Willowbrook, Ill.

"I have applied to dozens and dozens of jobs over the past couple of years, and only got one interview in that time," Cowls said. "I have a college degree and several years experience in writing, editing and marketing."

Nearly five years later, Cowls is still working at the discount retailer for $9.00 an hour, but because of the current economic climate, Cowls' hours have been cut back and she's afraid that they could be scaled back even further.

"I fear that my hours will be cut back to near-nothing. What will I do to survive then?"

For those with experience in the industry, that may mean having to find another way to get by in tight times.

Landing a job in a tough market

There are many retail positions that might not be specific to the retail industry, according to Lee. For example, software developers, administrative assistants, warehouse managers, delivery truck drivers, customer service associates, accountants and human resources managers could translate their skills to other areas.

"For these jobs, employees can move to the same job in a different industry," Lee said, such as healthcare or manufacturing, which may have better employment prospects.

For others with less transferable skills, there will still be some job opportunities out there. While retailers are cautious about hiring, there are still jobs out there for the more persistent applicants.

"Certainly times are different now then they've been in the past," said Ben Jablow, managing director of More retailers are adopting a "wait and see approach" when it comes to hiring, he said.

With consumers cutting back and the industry contracting, competition among remaining retailers is gaining momentum. "What we are seeing is a real move to improve the customer experience," Jablow says. And that means that retailers are aiming to "bring in the best talent that they can to separate themselves from their competition," he said - which can be good news for more experienced retail workers looking for employment.

Grannis of the National Retail Federation advises those on the hunt for a retailing job to be patient, "the job search is going to take longer, but don't get discouraged."

Mounting job losses: Grim toll To top of page

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