What’s the Future for Retail Workers?

As North American cities scramble to impress Amazon and bring home their second headquarters, we thought it was a good time to consider the other Amazon effect: The decline of brick and mortar retail stores. The retail sector employs over 15 million workers, and it’s no secret that with more and more Americans turning to online shopping, these jobs are at risk. Many workers see the writing on the wall and are already looking to get out, but they aren’t sure where to go. We turned to ZipRecruiter data to identify the retail skills that are the most transferable, what industries demand these skills, and which cities are (and are not) best prepared to absorb these workers as they transition.

Which Industries Are Good for Retail Workers?

We started by crunching through thousands of retail postings to identify which skills are most central to retail jobs. We then looked at which other industries emphasize these skills when hiring. The results might surprise you.

Table 1 shows the top industries demanding retail skills. Unsurprisingly, business ranks at the top, with 99% of retail skills being in the top 10 skills business openings need, and 97% being in the top 5. In particular, jobs in sales, advertising, and customer service might be the best opportunities for retail workers, where skills like communications, scheduling, sales, and management are critical.

Table 1. Other Industries’ Demand for Retail Skills

RankIndustryTop-10 ShareTop-5 ShareTop SkillsTop Jobs
1Business99%97%Communication, Scheduling, Sales, ManagementSales, Advertising, Customer Service
2Food/Beverage64%32%Stocking, Scheduling, Sales, ManagementRestaurant, Catering
3Finance/Insurance50%23%Communication, Customer Service, SalesCollections, Accounting, Financial Services
4Arts/Entertainment40%13%Promotional Skills, Sales, Public RelationsAttractions, Events, Production
5Education39%7%Marketing, Management, Public RelationsTutoring, Business Ed., Universities
6Industrial Goods/Services35%14%Communication, Stocking, SchedulingManufacturing, Machinist
7Technology34%14%Communication, Management, SchedulingSoftware Development, Data Services, Project Management
8Transportation31%15%Customer Service, Stocking, SchedulingWarehousing, Material Handling
9Health Care25%9%Communication, Scheduling, Promotional Skills, RecruitingNursing, Health Counseling, Hospitals

Table 1 shows what many already recognize: Retail skills are broad and versatile, and they show up across a wide range of work environments. Skills like communication, management, and customer service are needed by many employers doing many things, and they’ll serve workers well. Retail workers should keep these skills in mind. Not everyone has them, and experience and strengths in these areas is worth highlighting in applications.

On the other hand, while these industries like what retail workers can bring, it might not be enough. Industries like finance and insurance, healthcare, and technology might require more specialized training. As you can see, while 34% of retail skills are in technology jobs’ top 10 requirements, only 14% are in their top 5. This means that they like what retail workers can bring, but it’s not enough; at the top of their list are more technical skills that retail workers might not be ready for without additional education and training. While the healthcare industry’s openings often emphasize communication, scheduling, promotional, and recruiting skills (classic retail skills), many of these are for jobs in nursing or health counseling, and retail experience alone won’t prepare workers for those jobs.

Some retail workers will surely consider further education and training to compete for these high growth industries, but are looking to transition directly into another job. Where do we think their chances are best?

Which Cities Are (and Are Not) Ready?

To figure out where transitioning retail workers have the best (and worst) opportunities, we focused in on 8 key jobs in Table 1 where workers were likely qualified based only on retail experience alone (without further training or education). We call these retail-like industries, since they rely on many of the same skills retail workers already have. We then calculated how many opportunities there are in those industries compared to retail, and looked at the 50 largest cities.

The results are shown in Table 2. Las Vegas takes the top spot, where there are 1.78 retail-like jobs for every retail job, suggesting the city might be able to healthily absorb workers from a declining retail sector. Among these jobs, customer service positions are most common. The good news from Table 2 is that all cities have more retail-like jobs than they do retail jobs. Even at the bottom, San Jose has 1.3 retail-like jobs for every retail job.

Table 2. Cities with Best and Worst Opportunities for Transitioning Retail Workers

Most PreparedLeast Prepared
RankMSARatioTop JobsRankMSARatioTop Jobs
1Las Vegas, NV1.78Customer Service50San Jose, CA1.30Bus. Services
2Virginia Beach, VA1.71Customer Service49San Francisco, CA1.35Bus. Services
3Birmingham, AL1.69Transportation48Providence, RI1.37Customer Service
4Memphis, TN1.68Transportation47Boston, MA1.39Sales
5Jacksonville, FL1.64Customer Service46Hartford, CT1.42Sales
6New Orleans, LA1.63Sales45Seattle, WA1.42Sales
7Richmond, VA1.63Customer Service44Minneapolis, MN1.43Sales
8Houston, TX1.62Sales43Baltimore, MD1.43Bus. Services

The bad news is that many of the cities at the bottom of the ranking (with fewer retail-like jobs per retail job, competition is likely to be the most fierce as traditional retail declines) are the ones facing the greatest challenges already.

Hartford was hit hard by declining manufacturing, Baltimore has faced a range of urban challenges in recent decades, and San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle are already struggling to constrain rising inequality. Dealing with declining retail employment is just one more challenge these cities will have to face over the next decade.

Interestingly, the cities at the top of the rankings are concentrated in different jobs than those at the bottom. They include more jobs in customer service and transportation (partly because they’re more towards the center of the country), and are less concentrated in business services and (the famously risky and volatile) sales jobs. This can give policymakers and businesses an idea of where to invest energies to help prepare for the coming decline.


The decline in retail jobs seems both unpreventable and foreseeable. Workers should be (and surely are) thinking ahead about what comes next. When you dig into the data, retail workers have a lot of valuable skills, and some of these skills are needed in industries you might not have thought of. While some will need additional training to complement the experience they already have, some will be ready to go out and find their future career today.

Written by

Mitch Downey is an Assistant Professor of economics at the Institute for International Economic Studies in Stockholm and a former contributor to the ZipRecruiter blog.

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