Aging: Sales Staff vs. Design

I have been involved in many projects with different types of retailers, where I always inquire about the number of employees in the store and their responsibilities. In the past twenty years, the number of people manning the floor and servicing the guest has reduced considerably. The responsibility of those left has increased, an employee used to be there to service the guest and refold merchandise has in most cases now include boarder activities including: stocking, changing signage, visual merchandising, moving fixtures and even changing light bulbs in some instances.     

With the recession, I have noticed that those behind the counter or on the sales floor have been getting older, and not just by a few years. I encounter a returning retired work force. A survey by AARP recently found 20 percent of workers age 55 to 64 plan to delay retirement because of current economic conditions. Couple that with the added job responsibilities and what does all this mean to the aging sales force?     

Mother’s Day was coming and the kids decided they wanted to get their mother an iPod Touch. So we investigated the best and closest place to get a metal clad 8 GB model and Walmart came up the winner. The Friday night before, we headed up to my Super Walmart in Lebanon, Ohio to purchase one. There has always been elderly gentleman at the door, no matter the time of day, greeting us at the door: “Welcome to Walmart” and then randomly checking register receipts against what was in your basket on the way out, but always a “Thank you for Shopping Walmart”; not a tremendous amount of responsibility.  I have noticed that the staffing at Walmart has also been getting older. The cashiers, floor stockers and even the deli team members have been changing over to much older employees.     

Since it was late at night, there was no electronics department manager on duty or manning the electronics department cash register. My son found a man stocking the office supply aisles who radioed the night manager to assist us. Mary, a friendly, senior women came to our assistance to open the Apple showcase to retrieve our iPod. To my surprise, as she reached down with the set of keys to open the sliding door lock, she suddenly let out a loud grunt as she sat down hard on the floor. Apparently she could not physically bend down to 4 inches off the floor to unlock the case. In a lot of discomfort, I quickly offered to help her; she refused and remarked how she is “used to it”. As Mary reached into the case I quickly captured the moment on my camera.      

We insisted to help her back up, but again she refused and noted “Why, in the life of me, wouldn’t they have put the lock high up on the case?”. I looked her in the eye and sincerely replied, ” Unfortunately,  I am a store designer.  I am one the people in the world whose responsibility is to think about these things. I even know the head of design for electronics at Walmart and he would never want you to end up sitting on the floor.  So on his behalf and my profession, I apologize.” I meant what I said, but I quickly realized how strange and unimportant it was to say it to someone who probably has to sit on the floor several times a night. Mary then hobbled over to register to ring us up.     

I did some research on Saturday after wrapping the gift. According to one government estimate, 93% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2006 to 2016 will be among workers ages 55 and older. The incident has had me thinking more about our responsibilities to truly consider the need of the employee and recognizing everyday tasks that are difficult, if not dangerous for a senior retail workforce. Retailers and designers need to plan more user friendly environment; one that consider the ergonomics, the physical limits, the eyesight and the too broad responsibilities for this every increasing demographic.     

So far the biggest problems I have observed include; the handling weight of product, ladders, under stocking, over stocking,  button sizes on registers, font sizes on safety signage, low light levels, register floor matting, walk-off mat edges, and the distance required to traveled in the larger stores. I believe we all have a duty as  designers and storeplanners to at the very least understand the needs and limitation of a senior work force.