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wholesale and retail trade

Input: Economic Factors

The Wholesale and Retail Trade sector is particularly sensitive to changes in technology, global trade, business practices, and consumer tastes. Employment levels mirror these changes resulting in the stresses of job loss or the stresses of over-employment that include unplanned overtime, long workdays, and shift work, all of which can adversely impact the economic and physical well being of the 21 million workers in this sector.

Across the Sector

Changes in the business climate, consumer demands, and new technologies lead to changes in job conditions and job turnover that eventually impacts overall productivity and safety and health issues.

  • To accommodate the 24-7 expectations of consumers, retail businesses that once closed each day, now remain open, often permanently. The long-term health or stress impact associated with jobs that overlap or interfere with traditional personal and family time is largely unknown.
  • Consolidation also is occurring as small retail companies become big companies; conversely large companies are downsizing, divesting, or outsourcing non critical functions. The distinctions between wholesale and retail trade are blurring as they morph into each other to provide the consumer with variety and quantity of goods.
  • The introduction of new technology into an industry can have multiple impacts from increased productivity to increased unintended consequences leading to new types of work-related safety and health conditions. Wholesale/retail job functions have not been significantly altered by technology as is the case for the manufacturing and construction sectors. Technology has increased the pace of work in warehousing and decreased the amount of materials handling in the retail component.

Violence is a threat to the safety and security of nearly all operations within the sector.

  • The costs of intensive security measures can reduce profit margins or alternately reduce the focus and spending on other aspects of worker safety and health.
  • Concerns focusing on prevention of workplace homicides contribute to workplace stress and high turnover rates that result in the increased use of young or inexperienced workers willing to take and perform jobs for which they are often poorly trained.

Productivity is linked to safe and healthful worksites. NIOSH needs to make the business case that well functioning safety and health programs are associated with increases in both productivity and quality of work.

  • The perception is that workers in the trade sector have safe jobs as compared with jobs in the heavy, smoke stack industries, construction, and mining, which serves to undermine the need or demand for safety training or use of safety personal protective equipment.
  • Workers in retail trade are increasingly contract, temporary, and part-time workers with low levels of education; all of which have been used as rationales for not providing sufficient safety and health training for jobs in the trade sector.
Wholesale trade

From 1974 to 2008, the proportion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) accounted for by wholesale trade decreased from 7% to 5.7%.1

In 2008, wholesale trade accounted for 5.8 million jobs. More than 193,000 wholesale trade workers were self-employed, while approximately 90% of wholesale trade establishments employ less than 20 workers. Approximately 36% of all wholesale trade workers work in establishments that employ less than 20 workers.2

Nonsupervisory wage and salary workers in wholesale trade earned $770 a week on average in 2008, compared to $608 for the entire workforce.2

The most common occupation in wholesale trade is sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products . In November 2008, there were 964,070 of these sales representatives in wholesale trade and their average annual wages were $61,460. See BLS Industry at a Glance.

In 2008, approximately 5.3% of workers in wholesale trade were union members, compared with 14% of the entire workforce.2

In terms of its outlook, the sector is constantly changing in reaction to changes in technology and business practices.

  • Employment in wholesale trade is expected to grow by 8%, compared to 14% for all industries.2
  • Consolidation also is expected to create fewer and larger companies.2
  • Technologies such as the internet allow wholesalers and their customers to better gather information about prices and products as well as tracking product deliveries. Though it is not expected to be adopted by all wholesalers, partly because of its cost, new radio frequency identification (RFID) technology has the potential to further streamline inventory and ordering processes.2

Low growth, increasing input cost pressures, and changes in technology and practices can be considered economic stressors that have the potential to affect the safety and health of workers both directly (more and changing work at a fast pace with limited opportunity for advancement) and indirectly (less resources available to invest in occupational safety and health).

For additional economic information, see the BLS Industries at a Glance .

Retail trade

From 1974 to 2008, the proportion of GDP accounted for by retail trade decreased from 7.6% to 6.2%.1

In 2008, retail trade accounted for 1.5 million retail establishments, more than 15 million workers, and $5.0 trillion in sales.4

The Retail Trade sector has a diverse mix of jobs, ranging from cashier to stock handler. The most common occupation in retail trade is retail salespersons . There were 4,081,720 retail salespersons in retail trade; their average annual wages were $24,880. See BLS Industry at a Glance.

Workers in retail trade are increasingly contract, temporary, and part-time workers. Their education level is low and their turnover rate is high. In 2008, average weekly earnings were $564 for retail workers compared with $608 for the entire workforce.2

In 2008, 21% of retail workers were under 24 years of age compared with 18% for all industries. In addition, 18% of retail workers were over 55 years of age compared with 13% for all industries (CPS).

In retail industry, 3,637 homicides (46% of all homicides) took place from 1992 to 2001. The total (societal) cost of these homicides was $2.6 billion or 40% of the cost of all homicides for the period.5

Retail trade is highly sensitive to changes in economic conditions such as consumer tastes and seasonal changes in supply and demand, which can result in rapid changes in employment.

Machine readable Universal Product Codes have helped automate the movement of goods and reduced unit costs. This technology also may have reduced musculoskeletal exposures.

Increasing competition from large discount stores and supercenters will either force smaller stores to sell out to larger ones, or encourage them to become more efficient by adopting new technologies and procedures.2

Increasingly, many stores let customers process their own transactions. Whether this trend will continue will depend on the public's acceptance of self-checkouts.2

Electronic shopping is gaining in popularity and will continue to take customers away from traditional retailers; it is expected that online sales will grow rapidly.2

For additional economic information, see the BLS Career Guide to Industries, 2010-11 Edition .


Across the Sector

There are many resources for information gathering and performing benchmarking and competitive analysis. The primary organizations that provide information are Federal and State government agencies and trade associations. Following are a few sites to use for your research:

  1. Economic Report of the President, 2010 . Executive Office of the President and the Council of Economic Advisers [2006]. Date accessed: June 1, 2015.
  2. BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook . Date accessed: June 1, 2015
  3. Industry at a glance, Wholesale and Retail Trade . Date accessed: June 1, 2015.
  4. National Retail Federation . Date accessed: March 9, 2006.
  5. Societal Cost of workplace homicides in the United States, 1992-2001 . American Journal of Industrial Medicine 2005 47:518-527.