How the retail sales associate role has changed over the last decade

Allison Zeller

The retail sales associates you see in stores may bring to mind your own first job in retail, though the reality is that while today’s in-store roles still require a friendly face and a strong work ethic, just like the store itself, they’ve been redefined.

An analysis of retail sales associate job postings from 2007 compared with the same role posted in the last year* uncovered some important trends that highlight just how the role is evolving. Whether you’re a retailer, job seeker or just a follower of the industry, it’s worth taking note of these changes.   

The skills for the job are shifting. According to the data, skills in customer service and marketing are more in demand today than in 2007.  Retailers from all sectors are reworking and redefining their store strategies, with retail sales associates front and center. Just look to Best Buy stores; the company cites its dedication to positioning employees as “knowledgeable technology advisors” as a key ingredient to its success. Retail sales associates reflect the brand, and retailers are looking for employees who build customer relationships and can market their products most effectively.


The role is less about folding sweaters as it is about selling them, and retailers are looking more and more for people to come into the role with the skills to sell. As retailers seek to fill retail sales associate positions that execute strategy, basic, foundational job skills are often a position requirement. To enhance in-store customer service, the need has risen for employees with proven communication skills including speaking on the telephone, writing and teamwork. Marketing as a business function of sales associates often requires additional aptitudes in organization, mathematics and multitasking, skills also rising in demand. 


Retailers are more likely to be looking for employees with an education or credential. In 2017, a quarter (23 percent) of job postings have included a formal educational requirement or preference, whereas in 2007 only 15 percent included an educational requirement or preference. More retailers need people who can come into the role with some background in the industry, and the skills to hit the ground running.

Those without the educational background or who are transitioning into the industry can access training such as Retail Industry Fundamentals, part of the NRF Foundation’s RISE Up program to provide entry-level workers the skills and education needed to get a job in retail and advance their careers. During a recent RISE Up job fair, 80 percent of credential holders received a job offer on the spot or received a second interview.

Retailers looking to hire top talent to front-line positions should note shifts in candidate expectations. Many of today’s jobseekers, especially higher-caliber workers, are looking for more than a paycheck — they want to advance their education. Sales associate applicants are seeking out opportunities to help grow the business, learn and grow into other roles. Employers who offer ongoing training opportunities and a pathway to future positions might see slower turnover and greater engagement from their sales staff. 

*Note: For this analysis, job postings were analyzed from the 12 months prior to October 2017 for a full year’s worth of data to represent current trends.