Retail is rightly proud of its meritocratic employment and promotion track-record, but a new approach is needed in changing times.
Retailers have provided countless opportunities for talented people to rise from the shopfloor and become senior executives – a route taken by some of the foremost leaders in the industry.
Today it is still possible for the ambitious to follow the same path, but the capabilities in demand are changing as radically as the retail landscape.
“There are 40,000 fewer shops now than there were in 2006, and online accounts for 15% of retail sales”
As they compete with both each other and alternative business sectors to attract the best talent, retailers recognise that they must be more proactive in creating roles and fostering skills that prepare them well for the future, and position them as providers of jobs worth having.
That is the theme of industry body the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Journey to Better Jobs report, which highlighted the need for action and some of the changes necessary, and is backed by some of retail’s biggest names including Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer, Shop Direct and Tesco.
Why we should create better jobs
There are many reasons why the issue is pressing, whether reputational – the controversies that engulfed BHS and Sports Direct have tarnished the image of retail more widely – or social, given the industry’s responsibility as the country’s biggest private sector employer.
But creating better jobs is as essential from a fundamental financial and structural perspective as technology transforms shopper behaviour and how people live.
The facts are stark and sobering. There are 40,000 fewer shops now than there were in 2006, and online accounts for 15% of retail sales.
Costs are rising faster than the market is growing and, across the industry, net margins have slid from between 6% and 8% of sales to between 3% and 5%.
The number of retail jobs may fall by as many as 900,000 by 2025, and 60% are “at a high risk of automation in the next 20 years” according to the BRC.
In such challenging circumstances, the need for retailers to attract and retain people with the attitude and aptitude to thrive in the new business and consumer environment is obvious.
But at present one in five retail workers is in receipt of means-tested working age tax credits.
Those are among the reasons retail is determined to set out its stall as an employer of choice that can create rewarding careers in the era of the smartphone.
BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson says: “It is imperative to improve industry productivity, to harness and develop new and different skills for the digital age as well as a clear need to deliver better on the things that our people tell us are most important to them.”
The vision, she says, is of jobs that “are more productive, higher-paid, fit for the future and more rewarding for the workforce.”
“The need for retailers to attract and retain people with the attitude and aptitude to thrive in the new business and consumer environment is obvious”
From the checkout to app developer
Many retailers are making strides on that journey. Take Sainsbury’s staffer Luke Simmons, for instance.
He joined Sainsbury’s in 2004 as a temporary check-out operator at the Harlow store during the Christmas peak period. Today he is a product owner in the grocer’s 1,000-strong digital and technology division.
He made the shift after overseeing the introduction of Sainsbury’s Scan and Go shopping technology in a single Hertfordshire store.
His interest piqued, and he helped other branches launch the technology after joining the IT team in London.
Now, as product owner, he leads a team of 12 developers, designers and testers who built and run the Sainsbury’s grocery app – not bad for someone who started as a seasonal temp on the tills, and illustrative of the new career paths emerging in retail.
Simmons is not alone. In the last five years, retailers have employed 100,000 people in roles that did not exist five years ago. And there is more to come.
“In the last five years, retailers have employed 100,000 people in roles that did not exist five years ago”
Dickinson says: “Retailers have always been quick to adapt to the changing competitive environment, but the fact that over the coming five years they will create more jobs in new roles than Google employs worldwide shows just what fantastic opportunities retail offers.
“Where once retail jobs were stigmatised as just shelf-stacking, the industry is now a leader in offering opportunities in app development, microbiology or events planning.”
So how can retailers ensure progress continues to be made?
Better tailored training is an obvious step. The BRC study showed that the industry spends £3 billion a year on training, but found: “Due to high labour turnover many companies need to provide a lot of basic training, perhaps falling short on resources to provide more advanced training which would enable more people to progress.”
Tailoring roles around lifestyles
A more personalised approach to employment could also facilitate more rewarding roles that reflect contemporary lifestyles, such as the need to fit work around study or caring responsibilities.
The part-time nature of many retail roles can be an attraction in such circumstances, and the report says: “Personalising the employment offer requires greater recognition that preferences around flexible working, hours and benefits packages differ among the retail workforce.”
Retailers that have recognised such a need include Pets at Home, whose Timewise scheme allows flexible and part-time senior roles, and Boots’s Benefits Box, which enables the trading of salary for tax-efficient benefits.
Making career progression routes as accessible to as many people as possible was also identified as a key strategy.
Examples include Tesco’s Women in Leadership initiative through to Timpson’s programme to employ ex-offenders.
“Retailers will continue to need a large number of staff. Many may be part-time, and the challenge is an old one”
And, as retailers seek to improve productivity, they can learn by listening to their frontline staff – an approach that also improves employee engagement. Etailer Shop Direct, for example, enables staff to share and vote on ideas.
The BRC’s better jobs ambitions are shared by 42 retailers that have backed the study and see the need for change.
Home shopping group N Brown’s people director Caroline Massingham says: “How we build and drive momentum around the vision of better jobs will be critical as the nature of roles in our business continues to evolve.
“We have already seen a change in the market, driving much more focus on the requirement for digital expertise. The degree of skill and knowledge change is further exacerbated by an increasing pace of change born out of ever-changing consumer behaviour.”
Retailers will continue to need a large number of staff. Many may be part-time, and the challenge is an old one – to get the best out of people and be adaptable as an employer.
But perhaps the bigger challenge is, if there is someone working part-time on the check-out who might fit in at a Silicon Valley start-up, ensure there are reasons for them to stay with the business, promote them and share their much-needed digital expertise.