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Retail salespeople

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About the work Training qualifications Job outlook Earnings Related links

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Whether selling shoes, computer equipment or automobiles, retail salespersons help customers find what they are looking for and try to interest them in buying the merchandise. They describe a product's features, demonstrate its use or show various models and colors. For some sales jobs retail salespersons need special knowledge or skills.

Consumers spend millions of dollars every day on merchandise and often form their impressions of a store by evaluating its sales force. Retailers stress the importance of providing courteous and efficient service in order to remain competitive. When a customer wants an item that is not on the sales floor, the salesperson may check the stockroom, place a special order or call another store to locate the item.

In addition to selling, most retail salespersons, especially those who work in department and apparel stores, make out sales checks; receive cash, check and charge payments; bag or package purchases; and give change and receipts. Depending on the hours they work, retail salespersons may have to open or close cash registers. This may include counting the money; separating charge slips, coupons and exchange vouchers; and making deposits at the cash office. Salespersons often are held responsible for the contents of their registers and repeated shortages are cause for dismissal in many organizations.

Salespersons also may handle returns and exchanges of merchandise, wrap gifts and keep their work areas neat. They may help stock shelves or racks, arrange for mailing or delivery of purchases, mark price tags, take inventory and prepare displays.

Frequently, salespersons must be aware of special sales and promotions. They must recognize possible security risks and thefts and know how to handle or prevent such situations.

Salespersons often stand for long periods and may need supervisory approval to leave the sales floor. Most salespersons work evenings and weekends, particularly during sales and other peak retail periods. Many employers restrict the use of vacation time from Thanksgiving through the beginning of January. This job can be rewarding for those who enjoy working with people. Patience and courtesy are required, especially when the work is repetitious and the customers are demanding.

Training and qualifications

There usually are no formal education requirements for this type of work, although a high school diploma or equivalent is preferred. Employers look for people who enjoy working with others and have the tact and patience to deal with difficult customers. Among other desirable characteristics are an interest in sales work, a neat appearance and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively. The ability to speak more than one language may be helpful for employment in communities where people from various cultures tend to live and shop. Before hiring a salesperson, some employers may conduct a background check, especially for a job selling high-priced items.

In most small stores, an experienced employee, or the proprietor, instructs newly hired sales personnel in making out sales checks and operating cash registers. In large stores, training programs are more formal and usually conducted over several days. Depending on the type of product they are selling, they may be given additional specialized training by manufacturers' representatives.

Traditionally, capable salespersons without college degrees could advance to management positions. But today, large retail businesses usually prefer to hire college graduates as management trainees, making a college education increasingly important. Retail selling experience may be an asset when applying for sales positions with larger retailers or in other industries, such as financial services, wholesale trade or manufacturing.

Job outlook

As in the past, employment opportunities for retail salespersons are expected to be good because of the need to replace the large number of workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force each year. In addition, many new jobs will be created for retail salespersons. Employment is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010, reflecting rising retail sales stemming from a growing population. Opportunities for part-time work should be abundant and demand will be strong for temporary workers during peak selling periods, such as the end-of-year holiday season.

During economic downturns, sales volumes and the resulting demand for sales workers usually decline.


Retail salespersons held about 4.1 million jobs in 2000. Many work part time. The starting wage for many retail sales positions is the federal minimum wage, which was $5.15 an hour in 2001. In areas where employers have difficulty attracting and retaining workers, wages tend to be higher than the legislated minimum.

Median hourly earnings of retail salespersons, including commission, were $8.02 in 2000. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of retail salespersons in 2000 were as follows:

New and used car dealers $17.81
Lumber and other building materials 10.38
Department stores 7.63
Miscellaneous shopping goods stores 7.50
Family clothing stores 7.39

Related links

For information about retailing:

National Retail Federation, 325 7th St. NW, Suite 1100, Washington, DC 20004.

For information about training for a career in automobile sales:

National Automobile Dealers Association, Public Relations Department, 8400 Westpark Dr., McLean, VA 22102-3591.

Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.