- Retail Warzone is a new podcast that focuses on the plight of retail workers.
- Co-host Steve Rowland was a longtime retail manager who got laid off during the pandemic.
- He is now focused on shining a light on industry “horror stories.”
At the returns desk of a home decór store, a woman brought in flower pot writhing with gray maggots in its base. She was furious when an employee said the store would be unable to process the return, given the larvae-infested state of the product.
Steve Rowland, a manager, watched back footage of the exchange like game tape, wondering where the employee went wrong. The customer, who eventually called up the corporate office, hadn’t followed the simple instructions to drill drainage holes in the pot. Still, Rowland was told by a district manager to reprimand the employee for the interaction, despite the fact he’d followed the company’s guidelines. The customer eventually received a full refund and an additional $50 store credit.
For Rowland and his staff, it was just another morale-deadening example of management siding against employees who were just following company rules.
After 33 years in retail, Rowland was laid off from his job due to COVID-19. So in February 2021, he did what many others have done: He started a podcast. “Retail Warzone” is hosted by Rowland and Alex Rowland (no relation). The podcast showcases workers’ “horror stories” each week and advocates for pro-worker changes within the sector.
“Retail in general is very soul-defeating,” Rowland told Insider. “It breaks your spirit after a certain amount of time.”
And the state of retail jobs affects a large swath of the labor force. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 there were about 4 million retail sales jobs, 3.4 million cashier gigs, and 4.4 million food server posts in the United States.
“That’s a lot of people getting stomped on,” Rowland said.
The pandemic has shone a light on the plight of many service workers. Retail workers have contended with workplace violence, often at the hands of enraged shoppers convinced that “the customer is always right.” Rage-quitting and ghosting have become common practices, as a result of these conditions. Many work for low pay, as the federal minimum wage hasn’t risen from $7.25 since 2009 and has failed to keep up with housing costs and productivity. Outsiders levy criticisms about retail workers being lazy, due to the labor shortage.
When he started out in retail in 1988, Rowland said customers would still cross a store to put back items that they decided against purchasing. Over the years, he felt himself watching “the wheels come off the wagon” as “society basically devolved in real time.” Rowland said he blames retailers valuing “profits over people” and rewarding bad behavior from shoppers.
“Customers have become more entitled, more emboldened to treat retail employees, hospitality employees, and grocery employees like servants,” he said. “You’re not paid enough to be a punching bag for the customer. But corporations are willing to sacrifice the mental health and safety of an employee for avoiding getting a bad review on Facebook or Amazon.”
According to Rowland, the result for workers is burnout and depression, on top of issues like low pay, poor benefits, and a lack of professional stability. The podcast host said that, thanks to the hiring crunch, “the workforce has more power right now than they ever have in the history of the retail industry.” Still, he’s upset by the lack of appreciation that frontline workers have received during the pandemic, even after being declared “essential.”
“Retail workers got a little bit of a break in 2020 from the abuse,” Rowland said. “But as soon as we turned the corner into 2021, everybody forgot that and the treatment got worse.”
Read More: ‘Retail Warzone’ Podcast Is Sharing Workers’ Horror Stories