Top Opportunities in the Online Retail Revolution

Written by Kate Lopaze

Working in the retail industry used to be pretty straightforward. Customers would shop in brick-and-mortar storefronts, helped by sales associates or customer service reps. Then, anything they couldn’t get in person was purchased from a printed catalog. Now, things have changed almost completely—virtually anything you need or want can be delivered right to your door, within a few days (or even hours) of making a purchase on your preferred device. You don’t even have to leave home if you don’t want to. We still have traditional stores, of course, but the economics and priorities behind retail have totally shifted.

And if you’re looking at a career in the retail field, your options have changed as well. Being an in-store associate used to be the stepping stone to a retail career path, but now that companies like Amazon and Walmart have moved so many of their resources toward online sales and offsite fulfillment, your retail career might start in a more behind-the-scenes role, with an entirely different set of skills and opportunities.

How the Retail Landscape is Changing

Right now, there are a few overarching trends that are changing how retail works—and therefore what a career in retail looks like as well.

Online Domination

According to Forbes, the retail industry is in a bit of a personality crisis right now. Companies are coming to an unavoidable point where they will either embrace the changes of the internet era or fall far behind. Online retailers like Amazon, along with traditional department stores like Kohl’s or Target, are building a more robust online shopping platform. These companies are at the forefront of these changes, emphasizing the ability to shop from anywhere. Stores and chains that are not adapting as quickly are at risk of falling behind in sales and growth.

Companies like Walmart are also looking to beef up their online game by acquiring existing retailers that can provide the sales infrastructure and merchandising know-how to bring the parent companies into the next phase of retail.

Traditional Stores Closing

Think about your local mall. Chances are, at least one of the big “anchor” stores has closed recently, or may be at risk of closing soon—chains like Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, and others have all recently announced that underperforming brick-and-mortar stores will be shuttered for streamlining.

Embracing the Tech

It’s impossible to underestimate how technology has changed the shopping experience—and therefore the strategies used by retailers. First came shopping via computers, then smartphones, then tablets, causing retailers to develop online retail plans and platforms to support these new ways of browsing and shopping. And now “virtual assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home have made it so that consumers don’t even need to go online to browse—they can merely ask the virtual assistant to search and buy for them, based on pre-set account and payment settings. According to RetailDive, Amazon customers spent 10% more in the months after buying the Amazon Echo device, suggesting that more retailers will get in on the voice-activated shopping train.

And it’s not just the usual devices you’d expect to do the shopping for you—smart appliances like LG’s “smart” refrigerator can tell you what you have inside, and what you might need to add to your shopping list. (No word on whether these fridges can judge us yet for those late-night pints of ice cream, or farmer’s market produce that goes untouched in favor of takeout containers.)

Many stores are also using tech to enhance the in-store shopping experience, using location functions on smartphones and push notifications to alert shoppers to sales and promotions in-store.

Summer Black Friday Sales

If you’ve ever been at a large chain store on Black Friday (or seen the endless news coverage of cringe-inducing behavior every year), you know it can be a bloodsport, with people literally pushing each other out of the way to get big-ticket products at a discount. And while Black Friday may not be the best trend in terms of humanity, for retail it can be a major asset—it brings in customers and boosts sales during the critical holiday period.

Online-only retailers like Amazon have started featuring similar sales around July, at a traditionally quiet retail period of the year, taking advantage of the idea that you don’t need to be present in a store to score a deal on a new TV. So while customers may be taking time away from the beach instead of the Thanksgiving table to shop, the idea is quickly catching on that a summer counterpart to Black Friday can help boost retail bottom lines during a traditionally dead time. As other retailers begin to incorporate these steep summer sales, it has the potential to change how retail stores and fulfillment centers are staffed, year-round.

“Need It Now” Shipping

If you’ve seen your mailman making the rounds on previously unheard-of Sundays, dropping Amazon-logo-stamped boxes on doorsteps, then you’ve seen how the increased demand for fast shipping has begun to take hold in the retail industry. Amazon Prime was one of the pioneers in this field, and other major retailers have followed suit, offering insta-shipping as part of their online shopping experience. Accommodating these shipping needs means having strategically located warehouses and fulfillment centers around the country, so products have a shorter way to go when customers want that video game in less than two days’ time.

Retail Warehouse Jobs

So what do these trends changes mean for a career in retail? For starters, it means that your starting point may not be working on a sales floor, handling direct transactions. Many of the best retail opportunities will be coming from warehouses and fulfillment centers, as retailers try to find the sweet spot between retail and logistics to meet customer needs.

Let’s look at some of the entry-level jobs and career paths that are growing due to the new retail economy. We’ve included some sample links for each that you can use as a starting point for your own search.

Sorting Associate

Sorting associates are responsible for (as you might have guessed) sorting outgoing packages by size, shape, destination, or other criteria. They’re responsible for making sure that shipments are organized and packed efficiently—kind of like box Tetris.

Skills needed: Attention to detail, ability to lift heavy packages, customer service focus, physical stamina, flexible work schedule

Pantry Associate

As online grocery delivery companies like Fresh Direct and Amazon Fresh expand and make quality and speed essential for shipping food products, pantry associates are responsible for sorting and packing shipments of groceries to make sure everything goes out quickly and as fresh as possible.

Skills needed: Attention to detail, ability to lift heavy packages, customer service focus, physical stamina, flexible work schedule

Warehouse/Fulfillment Associate

As more and more importance is placed on online shopping and order fulfillment, warehouse staff are essential. Warehouse associates are responsible for loading and unloading shipments, as well as tracking, scanning, and monitoring shipments. These associates may also operate heavy equipment to move products and shipments.

Skills needed: Attention to detail, ability to lift heavy packages, customer service focus, physical stamina, flexible work schedule

Seasonal Fulfillment Associates

Retail has its busy seasons and its not-so-busy seasons. During the busiest parts of the year, like back-to-school and the winter holidays, almost every retailer needs as many hands on deck as they can find. If you’re looking for seasonal employment in a warehouse, this is a flexible option for you that can build experience or help you fill a gap between jobs. Seasonal warehouse and fulfillment associates perform the same tasks as full-time warehouse associates, but during a set period of time (for example, November through December).

Skills needed: Attention to detail, ability to lift heavy packages, customer service focus, physical stamina, flexible work schedule

Operations Associate

Once orders are collected, assembled, and readied for shipping, operations professionals take over to make sure that everything goes where it’s supposed to go, and when it’s supposed to go out. The job may involve analyzing the best way to ship merchandise (shipping routes, timelines, costs, etc.) as well as coordinating with fulfillment and logistics teams to ensure smooth delivery and a good customer experience.

Skills needed: Attention to detail, great organization, data analysis, project management, customer service focus, ability to work as part of a team with many moving parts

Benefits of a Warehouse Career

These warehouse and shipping jobs typically don’t require a college degree to get started, and usually include on-the-job training once you’re in the door. They’re also geographically flexible: because retailers are setting up satellite warehouses and fulfillment centers around the country to make shipping faster and cheaper, you won’t necessarily need to concentrate your job search in a limited number of “hubs.”

As retail itself continues to evolve, so to do the opportunities to work in the field. And no matter how people are shopping these days (or how they’ll shop five years from now), companies will always need qualified professionals behind the scenes to make sure customers get what they want, and that they keep coming back. If you have a passion for logistics and customer service, the fulfillment path can be a great option for your retail career.

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.