The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Opportunity Structures At Department Stores and Older Workers' Job Prospects

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 9:45 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Riverview, Lower Parking Level, Elevator Level P1 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Ellen G. Frank-Miller, MA, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Purpose:  Due to difficult economic times, older adults are increasingly seeking employment as they near or enter retirement. Retail is seen as a welcoming environment for older workers, as evidenced by media images of Wal-Mart greeters. Research demonstrates that firms can position seemingly-similar jobs within differing opportunity structures, shaping the likelihood of workers earning an adequate income. Job quality has been shown to relate to firms’ market strategies. In retail, quality varies in the jobs most commonly held by older workers, floor associate positions, which comprise the vast majority of jobs at both Discount and High-End department stores. This raises the question of whether older workers’ income prospects are better at one type of firm or the other.

Research question: How does the structure of earnings opportunity vary between Discount and High-End department store chains?

Method:  Data for this investigation come from a comparative organizational analysis of six department stores located in a Midwest metropolitan area. Chains were chosen to provide variation on market strategy, as evidenced by divergent models of personal service provision. Discount chains strive to keep operating costs low and thus restrict personal service to customers in a few locations in the stores. High-End chains strive to provide high-touch service in order to drive sales and thus distribute personal attention throughout stores. Job quality data come from interviews with seven hiring managers (conducted between March – May 2012), store observations, and store administrative data. Data were coded using qualitative data analysis software and themes and patterns identified.

Results:  The analysis reveals that organizational structures at Discount chains offer less opportunity than at High-End chains. High-End chains employ substantially more full-time workers (30-90% of the workforce) than Discount chains (12-20% of workers). While part-time jobs may be preferred by some workers, garnering a full-time income is important to many. Regardless of preferences for full- or part-time work, wage rates are important to all workers. Starting wages in part-time positions in High-End chains pay an average of 15% more than at Discount chains, increasing the likelihood of earning an adequate initial income. Additionally, while few positions at Discount chains offer the opportunity to earn commissions, many positions offer commissions at High-End chains for employees with strong selling skills. 

Implications:A growing number of adults are working during their later years and the current economy seems likely to exacerbate this trend. Older workers are viewed positively by managers at both types of department stores examined in this analysis, indicating that these employers may be good prospects for mature job seekers. However, opportunities to earn an adequate income are not uniformly distributed among department store types. Fewer store locations and lower turnover rates at High-End stores may make better-paying jobs more scarce and thus more difficult for older workers to obtain. As a result, many older adults seeking to support themselves through employment may join their younger counterparts at lower-levels of the labor market where it is difficult to earn an adequate living.