Where are the opportunities for retail’s workers?

Where are the advancement opportunities for retail’s frontline workers? Canasta. Ventas. Profeco


A new Pew Research Center survey found as the top two reasons U.S. workers left a job in 2021 “no opportunities for advancement,” tied for first with “pay was too low.”

Advancement opportunities are a common challenge for corporate staff, but the complaint appears as a “con” in many frontline retail associate reviews on Glassdoor despite the industry’s reputation for high turnover.


A Walmart-funded study from the nonprofit Urban Institute, “Moving Up – Talent Strategies for Retail Businesses to Help Frontline Workers Advance,” that came out last June identified five career advancement challenges at retail:

  • Misalignment of business and talent strategy: While many retailers prioritize investments in talent, “operations strategies can be out of sync with effective talent strategies.” For example, costly investments in new technology may be undermined by under-investment in training necessary for successful rollout.
  • Underestimating the value of frontline advancement strategies: Understanding how people metrics (i.e., engagement, retention, promotion, product knowledge) relate to operations metrics (i.e., sales goals, net promoter scores) can be elusive. The researchers wrote, “Incomplete knowledge of these impacts can make investments in frontline workers feel riskier, particularly when turnover is high.”
  • Missing maps for career pathways: Retail business models are “constantly and rapidly evolving” and the workforce is “tremendously dynamic.” Many retailers have “not clearly mapped out what different internal career paths might look like for frontline workers” or how skills and competencies for different jobs might overlap or complement each other to support advancement.
  • High turnover obscures advancement opportunities: While frontline associates make up the majority of retail’s workers, their high turnover makes it difficult to understand their skills, preferences and challenges. The study wrote, “Businesses that do not grasp these issues well have difficulty helping workers identify opportunities for advancement that could be mutually beneficial.”
  • Stringent management and payroll policies: Narrowly defined job titles and rigid policies, such as not being able to work at another location, may make it impossible for staff to take on different roles and responsibilities. The potential pay upgrade also may not be enough to incentivize taking on the training or experience to advance.

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