The current state of the industry, combined with the continued weak job market, has left many retail workers in a bind.
Theresa Tate, 30, made $8 an hour working up to 28 hours a week for a chain pet store in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
She said she liked the job but not the financial situation it left her in. "It's not a long-term goal so much as it is what is keeping my roof over my head," she said of her job in retail. "I like my job. I like my co-workers. I even like that I leave work every day covered in dog spit, but it's not what I worked for."
Tate said most of her paycheck went to rent and electricity. That means that for food and other expenses, she was forced to dip into savings she accumulated previously, when she was working both a full- and a part-time job.
Tate said her schedule changed dramatically week to week and with little notice, making it difficult to find a full-time position. But recently, she finally got a break. Tate—who has an associate degree and had hoped to become a journalist—landed a full-time position with benefits as an administrative assistant. Tate declined to name the company she works for out of concern it would jeopardize her new job.
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Retail workers who don't have a supervisory role earned an average of $14.02 an hour in 2013, according to calculations of government-wage data compiled for NBC News by the Economic Policy Institute. There were 12.9 million such workers in the U.S. in 2013, according to EPI, accounting for nearly 86 percent of all retail workers.
After adjusting for inflation, that's a 12.2 percent decrease from the average hourly wage those workers earned in 1979.
Over that same period, the overall pool of similar production and nonsupervisory workers—who accounted for nearly 83 percent of all private-sector workers in 2013—saw hourly wages increase by 6.2 percent, according to EPI's calculation.
The declines follow a period in which retail wages grew substantially. According to EPI, average wages for those nonsupervisory retail workers increased by 62.7 percent, after adjusting for inflation, between 1947 and 1979.
That was a time when department stores and other retail innovations were coming into vogue, providing relatively good jobs both to men and to the growing number of women coming into the workforce, Plunkett said.