What We Lose When Retail Stores Disappear

Second-act careers for women vanish with the demise of department stores and malls

It was a job rooted in routine. That’s what I thought at first when my mother worked for JCPenney in a suburb of San Diego in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a customer service representative in the catalog department. She worked evenings, taking orders over the phone and giving people their items when they went to pick them up in the store.

But the job, I would later realize, was so much more than servicing customers. I now see how significant JCPenney, and other retail institutions, are for women. Not for its goods, but for its opportunities as I witnessed my mother figure out how to launch the second act of her career.

An immigrant from Panama with an associate degree in accounting, the JCPenney catalog department was my mother’s first job as she reentered the workforce after years as a stay-at-home mom. She worked in the department for several years, and over time we became a quintessential department store family. Our bedding, our shoes, our toys, our family photos, our hair appointments — and sometimes our optical appointments — slowly became courtesy of JCPenney.

But reading in recent weeks that the retailer filed for bankruptcy and will close some of its stores, I had a flashback to the role it played in my early years. I can’t pass a JCPenney to this day without thinking about the time my mom worked there. But I also think of how the potential demise of malls, department stores, and small businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder of the second acts that the retail industry often brings for women like my mom.

The closure of stores amid the pandemic is not just a matter of communities losing jobs. It’s also women losing opportunities to have a chance at economic freedom and to support themselves and their families.

Retail work has often been the proverbial trope in television shows to illustrate women seeking independence or something to “shake up their routine” beyond things like childcare, cooking, and cleaning. But the closure of stores amid the pandemic is not just a matter of communities losing jobs. It’s also women losing opportunities to have a chance at independence, economic freedom, increasing their earning potential, and supporting themselves and their families.

There are of course other jobs in other industries, some of which pay better than retail. But there’s a reason people often gravitate to in-store work. The National Retail Federation, the organization representing retail outlets, touts retail jobs as being more flexible for job seekers needing part-time work because they’re a stay-at-home parent, want to create a financial cushion, or they’re finishing or continuing their education. About 29% of retail employees are part-time, according to the retail federation. Not every department store employee works in stores, but retail as a first job for teens and even adults reentering the workforce still matters. This matters greatly when thinking about the new future of work and flexibility, especially for women who are still shouldering the brunt of household work like cleaning, cooking, child-rearing, caregiving for older adults, and more.

When I asked my mom recently why she took the job with JCPenney, she said it was because my parents wanted the extra cash for unexpected household costs. The job supplemented the salary my father earned as a probation officer. It helped to pay for baseball uniforms for my two brothers, for the pages featuring toys we marked with a pen in the Christmas toy catalog, and for employee-discounted school clothes and other household items. It helped make sure there was money left over once rent and other household expenses were paid. My mom’s job also came with perks that were also small joys for us, like the leftover chocolate bars, wrapped in gold foil and discount coupons, from the store’s Sweet Sale.

My mom needed to work that job for her own sense of self and to help support us. She was finding a way to make her own way.

My mom had her night shift routine down pat. On the evenings she worked, my mom left meat in a Ziploc container for my dad to heat up in the microwave for us and then he’d give us choices on the canned vegetable we’d eat — usually corn or peas. Sometimes it was the microwaveable Kid Cuisine or Hungry-Man TV dinners that saw us through the nights my mom worked. As my mom put it with a laugh, she “wanted to keep it simple” for my father as he juggled us three kids plus potentially working on his case reports at home in the evenings.

I always appreciated the times when my father, brothers, and I went inside the store to pick my mom up from work. We would hear her co-workers gushing about how much they loved working with her. Most of her co-workers at the time were women of color and older women. I missed her presence in the evenings as a kid but looking back, my mom needed to work that job for her own sense of self and to help support us. She was finding a way to make her own way.

After her initial stint with JCPenney, my mom went on to work in our elementary school district as a computer lab assistant. She taught young students the word processor — how to type on the home row of the keyboard — and monitored playtime with software like Kid Pix or The Oregon Trail. During the summers when she became like other educators looking for ways to bring in income with school out, she would go back to JCPenney for seasonal work. Some years while working for the school district, she’d still work some nights or a weekend shift at the store. By the time I was in middle school, she found a job working for city government where she’s been now for nearly 20 years. Who knows if those opportunities would’ve come had she not been able to get her professional footing back by going back and forth to retail.

But a new era of retail is upon us. More stores are promoting their robust online shopping experience to shield against the closure of malls and the likelihood of people being wary of going inside stores as stay-at-home orders lift nationwide. There are always retail-related jobs outside of the stores, including call centers, warehouses, or even the corporate office. The aftermath of Covid-19 will forever change how we work, including more remote jobs. However, not everyone wants to work a remote job where they do not get to interact with people every day, or don’t want to feel like they cannot mentally or emotionally separate work from home.

For now, I’ll always be grateful that my mom got a chance to rebuild her work experience the way she wanted to with retail experience. She found a way to give herself options for her future, no matter how many night and weekend shifts it took.

Journalist who loves health, housing & social issues. Work seen in Oprah Magazine, The Atlantic + others. Love traveling, films, art, museums + hot wings.