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25 June 2012

Apple Store workers earn about the same as other retail workers

The New York Times is shocked at the travesty of paying workers well above the minimum wage and competing stores.

By Alex Hern

The New York Times continues its iEconomy series of in-depth reporting on the largest company in America, with an examination of what it’s like to work in an Apple Store:

Last year, during his best three-month stretch, Jordan Golson sold about $750,000 worth of computers and gadgets at the Apple Store in Salem, N.H. It was a performance that might have called for a bottle of Champagne — if that were a luxury Mr. Golson could have afforded.

“I was earning $11.25 an hour,” he said. “Part of me was thinking, ‘This is great. I’m an Apple fan, the store is doing really well.’ But when you look at the amount of money the company is making and then you look at your paycheck, it’s kind of tough.”

David Segal, the article’s author, is keen to contextualise the wage in terms, not just of the value of goods sold by the employees, but of how much the company earns overall:

Apple is not selling polo shirts or yoga pants. Divide revenue by total number of employees and you find that last year, each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.

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In fact, this article, as with the cross-national McWages Index we wrote about on Friday, just serves to illustrate a key point of labour economics: wages have just as much to do with every company the employee doesn’t work for as the one they do. Apple offers above average pay, far outstripping the US minimum wage and beating clothes retailer Gap, but offering less than Lululemon, a yogo apparel chain.

Apple also offers strong benefits, important in the safety-net-free American economy, with health care, pensions, and discounts on stock purchases all provided to employees. 

The problem the employees have is that very little of the astonishingly high revenue per employee – comparable with sales in consulting, rather than retail, according to Asymco‘s Horace Dediu – is due to them. Apple is a hugely profitable company, which has more or less monopolised the high-end of at least three seperate consumer goods markets. It’s as though BMW were not only the number one luxury car manufacturer, but also the number one motorbike and bicycle producer. As Slate‘s Matt Yglesias writes:

The converse of Apple Store workers not being rich despite the company’s success is that Sears & K-Mart workers don’t earn negative wages even though their company loses money.

Even if Apple wanted the best retail employees in the world, they would only have to pay a bit more than the company which is happy having the second best retail employees. And, judging by appearences, they don’t. They are happy to have employees at much the same level as other high-end, but ultimately consumer-grade, companies.

And while they receive merely comparable relative incomes, the absolute income of an Apple Store employee is high enough that, as Yglesias adds, we should wish that everyone earns the same:

The really urgent question isn’t why aren’t Apple Store jobs better, but why are so many jobs worse than this?