Retail jobs are a Canadian resume standard, a vital rung on the employment ladder. But the retail industry and retail workers are facing significant challenges. In the first half of 2020, the pandemic led to a loss of 1.3 million retail jobs. Retail is among the top three industries at high risk of automation, and the Great Resignation further impacts the retail sector.
While the skills gained working in retail are vital and increasingly in-demand, barriers still exist for those seeking new opportunities. The Venture for Canada Reskilling Retail Workers Project explores career pathways for folks with retail experience. Learn more about retail as a career foundation through My Retail Story, a series of interviews with folks who got their start in retail.
Ayon, thank you so much for being here. We’re excited to learn about your story! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what you do in your current role?
I’m excited to be here! I’m an engineer by training with a Masters in Mechanical Engineering. I’ve worked in engineering labs, in the HVAC industry and at Engineers Without Borders Canada. Prior to my current role, I worked for about 10 years in the nonprofit sector where I focused primarily on youth housing and homelessness, fundraising and strategic social policy. I’m currently the Director of Business Development & Strategy at Seafair Capital. We are a Newfoundland based organization with a portfolio of community impact and healthcare organizations. Our group works across the spectrum of what it means to take care of our community. Everything from working with folks who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, to home care more seniors, to how we think about sustainability and economic development, to working with vulnerable children and families. My job specifically is to think about how our collective experience providing accredited and community-based services can lend itself to new opportunities, operational improvements, and innovation ventures to ultimately grow our impact. I’m excited about innovation projects where we are figuring out how to bring new technologies and ways of working together into the community care ecosystem.
There’s a strong thread of purpose-driven and impact-focused work in what you do. You also have some retail experience. Can you talk about that?
My first job was in retail. I was in high school and wanted to work and have some financial independence. I went to the mall to hand out resumes to whoever would take them and ended up working at two different companies. One was in the food court, making pitas wraps. It was a family run business – they created a really great working environment that was also very fast-paced. The second job was at Radio Shack (The Source). I worked at both for about four years and continued on and off at The Source for about eight years in total, working throughout university.
Yes – the mall resume runs! I can relate. What were some of the roles and responsibilities you had when you were at Radio Shack and The Source?
I was a Sales Associate. I started in one store, but I wanted to get to know the business better and avoid long bus-rides whenever I could, so I ended up working at three locations. Though I always had the same job title, my roles and responsibilities evolved. Over time, in addition to sales, I helped train employees, helped receive and manage inventory, and gained a better sense of the back end work, while learning the various security and financial processes to opening and closing the store.
Reflecting on that time, what are some of the skills you gained that you have carried into the next stages of your career?
Sales & Communication
The Source had a commission structure so I learned very quickly how to create rapport with customers and establish trust. I saw what a sales environment looked like and how to build relationships. It comes down to communication and feeling confident talking to someone you’ve never met before. In retail you’re doing it every single day working on the floor answering questions and sharing product knowledge. The biggest takeaway has been around customer relations which helped create pathways to fundraising, business development, and direct sales.
Logistics & Marketing
I set up product displays, assembled shelves and learned about merchandising best-practices through our bi-weekly sales guides. I also helped manage inventory and shipments to and from our warehouse and other stores in the region. Over time, I realized that I’d actually picked up a lot of knowledge about how the business works and some of the core functions that have to work well to succeed.
There were a variety of folks who worked at The Source. We came from different backgrounds, had varied political perspectives, and had multiple generations working in the same store. We had a common interest in the products and technologies we were selling and as colleagues, we had each other’s backs. That was important to learn because as I moved through my career, I haven’t always been surrounded by people who are just like me. You need to learn to succeed, fail or learn together as a team.
Acting on Opportunities
I was also lucky to have great Store Managers. They cared about the team, looked out for our needs, respected our goals, and from them, I learned a lot about leadership. Retail is a unique environment where you might work directly with a senior manager. That won’t always happen in a larger corporate environment, so it provides an opportunity for hands-on learning. Every now and then I had conversations with managers about things like loss prevention, employee retention, or wellness at work. I learned so much from that.
Wow! That comfort and confidence in communicating and building relationships is foundational to so many career paths, especially in the entrepreneurial space. It can be tough to recognize the tasks you are doing are actually building a skillset. How do you identify skills as you’re building them?
I think it can be hard to identify these in real-time. At the end of the day, there’s just so much more to every single task than what it sounds like at the time. As you gain experience taking on these different tasks, or in different retail environments, I think it is really important to try and imagine the various contexts in which a conversation, or a new skill, or a moment of learning can be applied. In entrepreneurship, you bring knowledge and context from other sectors into something you’re excited about so the practice of thinking about what you learned through retail or other experiences is key.
What a great way of putting it! What advice would you give to a young person who has retail experience and is getting ready to explore their next chapter?
When you’re in retail, there’s an opportunity to explore entrepreneurship. I realized much later in my career that a lot of my retail managers were also entrepreneurs running a franchise. That’s a version of entrepreneurship I could have learned much more about so I would say, take time to appreciate the people around you. They want to share knowledge and they want to coach you. Ask them for opportunities and advice, and you’ll find that in most cases they’ll be quite supportive.
If you have retail experience, don’t shy away from it. Celebrate that experience and think about how you can apply it to a new opportunity.
What is your vision for a more inclusive, innovative and entrepreneurial Canada?
Entrepreneurship can be for everybody. You could be a new Canadian, you could be 65 or 18, you could be a musician starting a band or the next big tech company. I’d love it if we saw every entrepreneurial story as equally exciting.
The pandemic and automation have widened employment gaps, and displacement factors disproportionately affect women, Indigenous, and racialized communities. The Reskilling Displaced Retail Workers Project is a project funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre. The project supports the design of a reskilling program focusing on racialized and Indigenous youth in Ontario. To learn more about the project or participate in our program testing, join our Recovery Community.