(Not just) Long hours and difficult customers: Retail industry overview

When you talk about jobs in the retail industry, the first thing that often comes to mind is your first casual job working as some sort of retail assistant. Memories of days spent waiting patiently as an indecisive customer took forever trying to decide which item to buy…and then walked out of the store without a purchase. And while everyone else was out and about doing their Christmas shopping, you were working extra-long shifts.

But the world of retail is a lot larger than this – the most basic definition is selling stuff (usually physical) to the person who’s going to use it. Tomorrow we’ll be exploring the wide range of jobs in the retail industry, covering a few that you may not have thought of before. But for today, let’s stick to an overview of the sector.

The Numbers

Retail trade isn't one of Australia’s key industries, contributing only 4.8% to the Australian economy. However it does generate a lot of jobs – 10.4% of Australia’s workforce are employed by the retail sector, which equates to approximately 1.3 million people.


So what’s happening in retail, both in Australia and around the world?

Frictionless experiences

Imagine this – you've done some research online about a particular product and you’re pretty sure you know where you’re going to buy it from, but would like to see it in-store first. So you go to your local store, easily locating the product with assistance from a mobile phone app, and it’s exactly as advertised online. You’re greeted by the friendly sales assistant at the counter where you pay for your purchase by scanning your mobile and then you’re on your way home, 5 minutes after you've arrived.

Retailers are looking for ways to redesign the customer experience so that it’s as frictionless as this example. But it isn't about a one-size-fits-all approach – a Baby Boomer isn't necessarily going to want the same experience as a Millennial. There’ll be a whole host of other preferences as well – some people may prefer to browse, others may want recommendations for complementary products – the options are endless! This is why retailers will become heavily reliant on customer data in order to ensure that the experience for each individual is on point.

Waiting to pick up an order can be a frustrating experience. Localz is a company using beacon technology to help retailers streamline this process. Woolworths, for example, has been trialling this technology for click-and-collect orders. Beacons are positioned at store entrances so that when a customer arrives at the store, staff will be notified automatically and can start completing the customer’s order. This means less time waiting in line for the customer and fewer grumpy customers for staff to deal with.


One feature that bricks-and-mortar stores have over online stores is the ability to provide customer with a sensory experience. Who doesn't appreciate a tastefully fitted out store with carefully curated products and friendly (but not too friendly) staff? Leading retailers are aiming to create a point of difference by providing customers with a truly immersive experience. Companies like IKEA have been doing this for years, by helping you visualise how products can be used in different environments and even taking these scenarios to the streets.

An IKEA pop-up garden in Waterloo train station, London. Credit:  Retail Safari

An IKEA pop-up garden in Waterloo train station, London. Credit: Retail Safari


Product personalisation is no longer restricted to the luxury end of town. For example, Coca Cola used it as a marketing campaign by enabling people to personalise Coke cans with their names. Then there’s Shoes of Prey, which allows you to use an online 3D designer to build your ideal shoe. You can even create custom M&Ms with your own message printed on them.

Credit:  M&Ms

Credit: M&Ms

But what about when there are too many choices? Japanese retailer Uniqlo has partnered with digital agency Isobar to develop UMood, neural technology that makes t-shirt recommendations to customers based on their mood. Watch a series of short video clips and your brainwaves are measured, then analysed to determine your mood. UMood selects t-shirts from the dizzying range of 600 to match your mood.

Credit:  Gizmodo

Credit: Gizmodo

Transparency and social enterprise

And last but not least is transparency and social enterprise. Retail is leading the pack when it comes to throwing their doors wide open and showing that they don’t have any dirty laundry to air. Whilst there are some companies that continue to do it wrong by the consumer, others have decided that it pays to do the right thing.

One of the more well-known examples is the US-based clothing company, Everlane. Every single product includes a breakdown of the cost – materials, transportation, labour – and the margin that they’re making. You can even learn more about each of the factories that they use around the world. 

Credit:  Everlane

Credit: Everlane

Thankyou is an Australian company that partners transparency with social enterprise, giving away 100% of their profit to people in need and allowing customers to track their impact by using the unique tracker ID on each product.


It’s an exciting time in retail and this means a whole lot of interesting jobs that may not have even existed previously. Tomorrow we’ll be exploring the range of jobs in retail – from front line employees to those who are focused on the customer experience, and others working in a head office environment. But for now, here are some examples of creative ways retail workers have used their downtime.