Continuity and Change in Low-Wage Work in Retail Trade in the United States

Awarded Scholars:
Françoise Carré, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Project Date:
Nov 2004
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Future of Work

In 1998 and 1999, the Foundation issued an open-ended request for proposals to conduct case studies of low-wage jobs in the United States. The twelve best proposals were funded, yielding rich studies of 25 industries that employ workers at low pay. Yet none of these studies covered work in the retail sector, where 14% of the labor force is employed, many of them at low wages. When the Foundation decided in 2003 to mount a comparative project on low-wage jobs in five European countries, it became clear that the story would be incomplete without a discussion of low-wage retail jobs. Different wage floors, union density, and work hour restrictions in the six countries might result in retail jobs of vastly different quality. In June 2004, the European studies were funded with the retail industry as one of the areas of examination.


In order to provide an American comparison, the Foundation supported a case study of retail jobs in the United States, headed by researchers Francoise Carré and Chris Tilly. Carré and Tilly studied supermarkets and electronic retailers, following the same design as the European researchers investigating retail jobs. They examined employers that differ based on service quality, degree of unionization, and target market. For each firm, they interviewed corporate executives, as well workers in individual establishments, including store managers, department heads, and frontline workers. These interviews allowed them to obtain data on the employers (including information on their human resource strategies and overall performance) and the workers (including work history, opportunities for training, job requirements, and overall satisfaction).


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