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Are “Good Jobs” finally becoming fashionable in retail?

Zeynep Ton's Good Jobs Strategy in Retail

Retail jobs have long been considered undesirable. Back in 2013, Zeynep Ton, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan and author of The Good Jobs Strategy, told a TedxCambridge audience that retail jobs “are not just bad because they offer low wages and chaotic schedules, but because they make workers feel meaningless.” She shared how one retail worker had told her, “We are throwaways who are a dime a dozen.”

Thankfully, albeit slowly, the retail industry is changing how it views, treats, trains, and ultimately retains its employees. The President and CEO of the National Retail Federation (NRF), Matthew Shay, recently published a piece on LinkedIn titled, “Good Jobs Change Lives.” In this post, Shay unveiled a new initiative by the NRF to help workers secure jobs in retail and advance in their careers. The program provides hands-on training in topics such as retail tools and technologies, customer service, and retail math. Participants receive credentials they can put on their resumes and cite during their job searches. More than 30 retailers, foundations, and non-profits are collaborating in this initiative.

The NRF itself has approximately 700,000 entry-level openings. According to the organization, “individuals who hold a certification or license are significantly more likely to be employed and have 34-percent higher earnings.”

Training is a proven cornerstone of Zeynep Ton’s Good Jobs Strategy. In her recent Harvard Business Review article, “How 4 Retailers Became ‘Best Places to Work’,” Ton and co-author Sarah Kalloch share strategies and policies that have made HEB, Costco, TraderJoe’s, and QuikTrip successful, innovative companies staffed by employees who are happy and eager to work hard.

“For Costco founder Jim Sinegal, retailing is fundamentally a people business, which means it has to get the people part right,” writes Ton. “Costco hires good people, teaches them and pays them well, and gives them opportunities to advance. In return, Costco gets better productivity.”

Every year, HEB gives its employees (“partners”) a raise and then challenges them to earn it with innovative ideas. “And every year, those partners come through; so the investment pays off,” writes Ton. QuikTrip’s culture of high expectations and continuous improvement starts with a rigorous hiring and training process. And Trader Joe’s encourages and empowers employees to do what’s right for the customers and for the company, giving them a voice in how the company conducts business—which, in turn, keeps those employees engaged.

Many, if not most, retail jobs are still low paying, somewhat undesirable jobs. But initiatives like that of the NRF Foundation and the leading-edge retailers who recently made Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work 2017 are taking big steps to turn those “throwaway” jobs into good ones.

In Zeynep Ton’s new MIT Sloan Executive Education program, The Good Jobs Strategy: Delivering Superior Value to Customers, Shareholders and Employees, Ton shares a strategy for breaking the vicious cycle of disinvestment in search of higher profits, helping leaders of service businesses create an organization that delivers superior value to customers, shareholders, and employees all at the same time.


Ton is also teaching in the brand new, highly unique ELLE International Fashion and Luxury Management Program, where she will present how a Good Jobs Strategy is critical to the future of the fashion and luxury industry.

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