Why we need a retail revolution

The retail landscape in Canada is rapidly changing. The news that Hudson's Bay Co. has bought Saks is the latest story in what has been a particularly newsworthy year for the retail sector. Zellers locations were closed and Target stores opened. Nordstrom announced it will be moving into Canada. Sobeys bought Safeway and, mere weeks later, we learned Loblaw and Shopper's Drug Mart were also merging. As for the largest retailer in the world, Walmart has plans to expand further across our country.

These high-level corporate decisions are made in boardrooms far from the daily lives of most Canadians. Yet retail is intimately connected with Canadian society. Retail reflects us and it affects us in significant ways.

Shopping involves the literal act of purchasing needed or desired goods, but is also interwoven with our identities. Individual products and whole brands are infused with symbolic meanings that convey messages about our tastes, style, priorities, and status. Whether obvious or not, underlying all of these symbols are the economics and culture of class.

In this flurry of retail mergers and expansions, there is a clear polarization of retail evident, one which reflects increasing inequality in Canadian society. Disappearing are the working and middle-class department stores of decades past. Instead, there will be luxury stores for the 1 per cent (and the 10 per cent who have high credit limits), and discount retailers for everyone else.

Yet retail polarization is not only about shopping. Retail is the largest employment sector in the country. Retail salesperson is the most common occupation for Canadians, and has been for many years now. Canadians are far more likely to be affected by what kinds of jobs are created or lost in the retail sector, rather than what happens to stock prices.

Most retail jobs epitomize the scourge of precarious work. Retail jobs usually mean poverty-level wages and income insecurity. Schedules are erratic, volatile and provided at the last minute. Retail workers are often disrespected and dismissed as lacking skill, education or value. In other words, retail does not simply reflect inequities. Retail contributes to increasing inequality. This needs to change.

Too many retailers perpetuate low-road management strategies that devalue Canada's largest group of workers, a majority of whom are women. This continues despite the growing body of evidence that better working conditions not only positively affect workers, but retailers and shoppers, too. Workers who feel valued and who are earning sustainable incomes are happier and healthier, as well as more loyal, productive, and engaged. So, whether interested in solidarity, economic prosperity, or better service, there are compelling reasons to revolutionize retail work.

More retail workers are joining a growing movement of low-wage service workers who recognize the need to transform lousy jobs into better jobs. Workers at Sirens in Brampton have just chosen unionization as a way to raise the standards at work, for example. These young workers believe retail jobs can and should be good jobs, regardless of who shops in the stores and which brands are sold. Notably, Holt Renfrew workers have repeatedly told me that high prices do not automatically translate into high quality jobs.

Undoubtedly, the retail terrain will change, but retail jobs are here to stay. It is high time to look beyond the brands and the boardrooms, to how retailers of all kinds treat us. We are not numbers, nor are we disposable. We are workers, citizens, and people who matter.


Kendra Coulter is a professor in the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University.

This article was originally published in the Hamilton Spectator and is reprinted here with permission. 

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