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Part Three: Retail Turnover: What Americas Silver Tsunami Means for the Furniture Industry

In less than two decades, the graying of America will be inescapable: Older adults are projected to outnumber kids for the first time in U.S. history.

These adults will also be retirees, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, which says that by 2035 there will be 78 million adults over the age of 65, compared to 76.4 million children under 18. 

By 2030, all baby boomers will have turned 65, which makes 1 in 5 Americans older adults. But the gap is expected to widen even further—with estimates showing that by 2060, there will be 95 million older adults compared to 80 million kids under 18.

So what does this mean for the furniture industry?

In the grand scheme of things, it could have an effect on nearly every part of the industry—from sales reps to retail staff, and more.

In the third part of this four-part series, we’ll focus on how challenges to being a retail sales associate may impact the future of the role.

For years, retail sales associates have been looked down upon—with people calling the position a dead-end job that no one can make a career out of.

But anyone in the retail business knows that’s not true. 

Just look at Broad River Retail, for example. In 2020, Broad River celebrated 51 Million Dollar Writers in its Million Dollar Memory Makers program. And while they set a goal of 60 for 2021, they had 98 employees write one million dollars or more in sales last year.

As the company explained to The FAM, jackpot bonuses, consistency, and recognition of excellence have helped them build a community of sales associates who not only receive an excellent commission but also enjoy selling furniture.

Furnitureland South enjoyed similar success in 2021 when 108 of its retail sales associates wrote over $1 million in sales. Nine of those had sales between $3 million and $4 million, five were in the $4 million to $5 million range, and one salesperson, Catherine Ward, wrote over $5 million. In all the 108 associates topped $200 million in total sales.

And the examples go on.

But for those who don’t treat retail positions as lucrative careers, what’s going to happen to the retail sales force? 

Let’s look at a few numbers.

First, the U.S. has been seeing a mass resignation since 2019—pre-pandemic—and the numbers are still rising. In June, 3.9 million quit their jobs. In July, it was another 3.9 million, then 4.3 million in August. By September, nearly a quarter of workers ages 20 to 34—14 million Americans—were not considered part of the U.S. workforce.

Second, in July 2021, a record 678,000 workers quit their retail job—which means that every month since April 2021, around 4% of this workforce left their jobs. With the median retail pay of $13.97 an hour and government checks far behind them at this point, people are leaving jobs because they feel underpaid and undervalued.

Finally, the average turnover rate in the retail industry is just above 60 percent, according to the National Retail Federation, which dwarfs the average employee turnover for all U.S. industries, which is around 19 percent.

All of these things have one common thread: They require that a company treat employees better by showing more respect, paying them a living wage, and allowing them to have work/life flexibility.

The way I see it, if more retailers invested in their employees–either with large biannual bonuses, education, pay raises or unlimited paid vacation time–they could spend more time growing the business instead of constantly having to deal with excessive employee turnover.

As someone who has friends who work in the retail business as sales associates, I know some who feel like a cog in the machine. But there are many who see how their employers care for them as people, and they’re the ones who are succeeding right now.

And what does the sales associate of the future look like if young people stop applying for serious retail positions? 

Imagine a world where private equity firms or big-box stores buy up all of the small retailers. Stores become generic and all look the same because they have to follow the same brand guidelines. 

Not only are there the same problems as before, but now there’s no individuality to the store—it’s all about making money and pleasing investors. On top of that, your sales associates are uneducated, underpaid high school kids who need a short-term job, and turnover is nearing 100%. 

That’s just one possible scenario of many, but it doesn’t look good whichever way you slice it.

We all know the importance of retailers in the furniture industry, so why not show the same support for the store workers and delivery drivers who get the final product to the consumer?

We also need to consider the entrance of Gen Z into the picture. Worldwide, the generation has surpassed millennials in size— making up 32% of the global population—with the oldest Gen Zs now just 24 years old. 

Right now they only make up 11% of the workforce. But if you ask someone from Gen Z what their dream job is, they’ll tell you they don’t have one—they don’t dream of labor, and that’s a common trait among nearly all Gen Zs.

As you prepare for the future, remember this, because Gen Zers are not going to want to work dead-end jobs for less than a livable wage.

Until we start looking at retail differently and treating retail positions as real careers, turnover is going to continue to be high. But if we can change our mindset, it’s going to benefit everyone in the long run. 

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