Who Makes the Most — and the Least — in Retail Wages

John Krautzel
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income of a person working in retail is $21,410 per year as of 2015, which is significantly lower than that of the average worker in the United States. However, some retail workers earn much higher wages, along with benefits such as product discounts or commissions.

The highest-earning people in retail are generally those who sell the most expensive items. Car salespeople are at the top of the pile, earning an annual mean wage of $39,880. Of course, selling cars is a skilled job, requiring in-depth knowledge of the vehicles and strong social skills.

People selling other high-value items, such as furniture, electronics, jewelry and leather goods, also earn more highly than average. Jewelry sellers often earn commissions on the goods they sell, allowing them to earn large bonuses in the run up to Christmas. Cosmetic sales jobs are also likely to pay commissions, which can quickly boost the income of skilled sellers.

Studies have shown that some companies pay much higher retail wages than others. According to Business Insider, Target pays its workers much more than other retailers. Safeway, Trader Joe's and Bloomingdale's also pay wages that are higher than average. Workers for these organizations enjoy retail wages that are among the highest in the industry, as of 2015.

At the other end of the scale are huge numbers of retail workers earning minimum wage. In a list of companies paying the lowest wages in the United States in 2015, The Huffington Post named and shamed several big-name retail brands, including the well-known department store Macy's. The average hourly wage for a sales associate at Macy's is $9.33, about half the national average.

Other companies paying low retail wages include Sears and Walmart. As one of the largest retailers in the United States, Walmart has been heavily criticized for paying its sales associates an average wage of less than $10 per hour. However, there is some hope on the horizon for employees of Wal-Mart's employees, as the company announced in 2015 that it would begin paying every employee at least $9 per hour, which could help to keep the very lowest-paid workers out of poverty.

Women make up the majority — approximately 54 percent — of retail workers and almost two thirds of low-wage retail workers, as of 2015. This gap in earnings between male and female retail workers is similar to the gender pay gap that exists throughout the U.S. economy, with men earning significantly more on average than women.

Hourly retail wages are much higher for full-time employees than for people who work part time. The median hourly wage for a part-time retail worker is only $9.61, while the median full-time worker earns $14.42 per hour. Part time employees make up almost a third of the workforce in the retail industry, so low wages among this group is a significant cause for concern.

The retail industry has a bad reputation for paying low wages to employees. However, some workers fare much better than others in this highly competitive industry. Job seekers may be able to access higher retail wages by applying for specific retailers. One strategy is to compare the retail wages offered by local retailers and apply to those offering the highest hourly compensation. There are often significant differences in pay even among retailers in the same area. Another good strategy is to apply for a job selling high-end goods, such as cars or jewelry, although this kind of role may require specialist knowledge.

As in all industries, the retail sector has a few very highly paid employees, along with many low paid workers earning the minimum wage or not much more. In some jobs, commissions can boost the incomes of retail workers, allowing them to earn much more than the average wage. Choosing the right company to work for is another good way for retail employees to access higher wages.

Photo Courtesy of Laura Cummings at Flickr.com


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Jane it is true that Macy's is shedding some of their stores. In my area alone we lost about 4 Macy's stores. I used to love going to Macy's where you received great individual attention during your shopping excursion. Now I am lucky to find a Macy's employee when I need one and the attitude is certainly not that of helpfulness. Truly sad. Same is true @Walmart. They made a big to-do about upping the hourly wage at Walmart until you read the fine print. There were only a few who actually saw an increase in pay while many others got the pink slips so that the store could cover the increased wages of a few. My daughter worked at Walmart several years ago and she never had a nice thing to say about the store, her coworkers or her supervisor. We could see the stress on her face every time she visited - especially if it was right after a work shift. So sad that it has to be this way; that stores don't value those very employees who are bringing in the sales and taking care of the customers.

  • Hema Zahid
    Hema Zahid

    It’s interesting that retail workers who earn commissions are the highest paid in this industry. I don’t know if any of the companies mentioned in the article provide adequate sales training for their employees. Are there any free resources that can help the average retail worker train for a potentially high-paying job in sales?

  • Jane H.
    Jane H.

    I'm surprised that Macy's and Walmart have similarly low rates of pay. I don't know what the situation is at Macy's but I'm aware that Walmart has a high turnover rate as well. On the other hand, I had read before that Trader Joe's has a much higher wage and they retain employees much longer than similar stores. In light of these facts, I'm thinking there is probably a relationship between Macy's and Walmart shedding stores nationwide while companies with higher employee wages and job satisfaction like Trader Joe's are expanding.

  • Abbey Boyd
    Abbey Boyd

    As Shannon said, the idea of making more money because you can make commission isn't necessarily the best idea for everyone. Imagine how hard it might be to make sales during off-peak times, and then figure what your income may be. There are a lot of factors to consider, and you have to make sure that it works out for you.

  • Shannon Philpott
    Shannon Philpott

    When evaluating if a job pays higher, you have to also assess the hours worked and duties. Yes, you may earn a higher salary selling cars but if you are only paid on commission and required to work six days a week, the hourly rate plummets.

  • William Browning
    William Browning

    What about statistics that cover e-commerce employees? People who work for online retailers may have different pay dynamics compared to those who work in traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Perhaps the best way to earn money in retail is to create your own online business. That way, you control ever aspect of the earnings from your own home or office instead of a storefront.

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