The pandemic has tested retailers and their operations to the limit. But during an unprecedented 12 months, which businesses truly put their people before profit and prioritised the health and wellbeing of their workers like never before? Retail Week has teamed up with Glassdoor to find out the best places to work in retail and why, according to employees.
Cycling and sportswear specialist Wiggle has been crowned the best retailer to work for in the UK, according to worker reviews.
Data collated by company review and jobs website Glassdoor over the past year saw Wiggle clinch the top spot after scoring 4.7 out of 5 in employee appraisals.
Sportswear etailer Gymshark came second in the ranking, with an average employee rating of 4.6 out of 5 – closely followed by Vashi, Sweaty Betty and Jimmy Choo.
It marks the first time that two pureplays have topped the Glassdoor ranking.
Top 20 retailers to work for in the UK
Glassdoor EMEA director Joe Wiggins says that, in a year when traditional bricks-and-mortar retail was disrupted by lockdowns and social distancing, those that operated entirely or predominantly online were well-placed to succeed both in terms of financial performance, and employee engagement and wellbeing.
“It’s highly likely that, given the year we’ve just had, many people in retail have been furloughed or will have had some sort of detrimental impact on their job, either through shops being closed or general uncertainty.
“By contrast, online retail has by and large been doing really well. When consumers were stuck at home, they tended to spend online, if they spent at all. That’s why we’ve seen so many online specialists do well because those businesses have been strong, had a good strategy and, dare I say, thrived at a time when many have not.”
However, financial performance is just a small piece of the puzzle if staff are to feel positive about their employer.
As Wiggins explains, during the Covid-19 crisis, workers have expected more from their companies than ever before to help them cope with the stresses and strains of the pandemic.
“External conditions are a major factor in whether your company has adapted and done well, but it’s not just about that, it’s about how they have treated you in tough times. How have they showed up for you while you are at home or on furlough?” Wiggins says.
“We increasingly see job candidates asking at interview stage: ‘What did you do to look after your staff during the pandemic?’ because that is a way they are now judged, alongside what they stand for and their values as a company.”
“We increasingly see job candidates asking at interview stage: ‘What did you do to look after your staff during the pandemic?’”
Joe Wiggins, Glassdoor
Gymshark executive president Steve Hewitt says the athleisure brand was acutely aware of the risks the pandemic presented to its reputation as an employer.
“At the start of the pandemic we got the various functional heads who run the organisation on a day-to-day basis together, and said that the way organisations act over the pandemic will define the brand as an employer for the next decade, so we’re going to make sure we are remembered for the right reasons.”
Having focused on that people-first approach, what strategies and initiatives did Wiggle and Gymshark put in place that allowed them to emerge from the pandemic as retail’s standout employers?
When the pandemic hit, Wiggle’s top priority was making sure that staff across the etailer’s warehouse, stores or head office were communicated with regularly and clearly.
The company’s people director Bianca Carlin explains that, since not everyone across the business would be sitting in front of a laptop day in, day out, meeting employees wherever they were became crucial.
Wiggle’s senior leadership team – the majority of whom were promoted into their roles from within the organisation – held monthly townhalls and met members of their respective teams “at least twice a week” to discuss any concerns, and provide updates on the retailer’s performance and strategic direction.
“You can lay on all the perks you want, but if everyone doesn’t know where you’re headed and how they can participate, it’s pretty meaningless,” Carlin explains. “We have made a real conscious effort to communicate with everyone consistently and across the variety of roles within our business.”
Wiggle also pivoted its annual employee engagement survey to “focus on how people were coping with the pandemic to make sure we were adapting the ways we were working” to support staff.
It is a tactic that paid dividends for the business from a staff satisfaction perspective – one of the strengths commonly cited in Glassdoor reviews from Wiggle employees is its focus on people, and support of flexible and home-working arrangements.
At a time when concerns were mounting over whether redundancies would need to be made, Hewitt worked with Gymshark’s finance boss Philip Daw to stress test the impact the pandemic could have on the business, including a scenario in which the business did not sell a single product.
This scenario planning found that Gymshark could operate for 18 months without bringing in any revenue before it would have to cut costs or make a single redundancy – a fact that Hewitt shared with all Gymshark employees to quell any uncertainty over job security.
The retailer also started a weekly podcast for staff which covered a variety of topics ranging from trading forecasts to the Black Lives Matter movement. The format, which Hewitt says the business “would never have done” if it weren’t for the pandemic, was such a success that it has become a permanent feature of Gymshark’s internal communications.
Indeed, a dedicated recording studio has now been built at the retailer’s Solihull headquarters.
In the same way that Gymshark’s podcast covers a variety of subjects, Wiggle picks a different theme every month to drive its internal communications and staff support.
Previous topics include Veganuary, men’s health and International Women’s Day, with the retailer hosting talks and activities around each subject to keep internal communications fresh and engaging.
“We made an effort to maintain those themes in our new virtual world and people really embraced them,” Carlin says.
Living your values
Both Wiggle and Gymshark have established clear sets of values on which they do business. The duo scored highly because their employees feel a genuine connection to how the retailers operate and what they stand for.
Carlin explains that Wiggle refreshed its business values earlier this year to include themes such as “being relentless in developing and upgrading everything we do, whether that’s trends we buy for or creating the right culture” and “learning both from our mistakes, but also from what we do right”.
For Carlin, the priority for developing these values was making sure they came from Wiggle’s employees directly. Rather than outsourcing the process to external consultants, Wiggle’s leadership team personally conducted conversations and focus groups with more than 100 members of staff.
“We asked people how they saw the business, how they thought we behaved when we’re at our best, and empowered them to come up with that essence of what our business was and what it should be”
Bianca Carlin, Wiggle
“We asked people how they saw the business, how they thought we behaved when we’re at our best, and empowered them to come up with that essence of what our business was and what it should be,” Carlin says.
“We learnt from staff that we are at our best when we are challenged, that we want to make brave decisions and be groundbreaking and we want to love what we do – not just the fact that we are in sports and we improve people’s lives with our products, but our actual roles and day-to-day jobs as well.”
Once that research had been compiled, Wiggle sent staff a ‘values box’ containing gifts related to its business ethos, including cowbells – traditionally rung by spectators watching Tour de France riders ascending the Pyrenees.
In a similar vein, Hewitt says Gymshark staff are empowered to be “cultural architects”, living and enforcing the business’ values, regardless of their level of seniority.
Hewitt knew the etailer was making progress in establishing that culture when, at the height of the pandemic, he briefly walked against the one-way system installed at Gymshark’s head office to get to the printer and was pulled to one side by an aggrieved intern.
“Once we lose culture we lose everything, and moments like that show me we are on the right track because seniority was not the priority, living and breathing our values was,” Hewitt says.
It is with that in mind that, when recruiting, Gymshark seeks out applicants who represent the right cultural fit for the business, rather than those who have the best qualifications.
Gymshark’s policy is to be under-resourced temporarily, rather than to hire the wrong person simply to plug gaps in the workforce quickly. Or, as Hewitt puts it, he would “rather have a hole than an asshole”.
Indeed, Gymshark often hires people without formal qualifications and favours video applications over traditional CVs, allowing it to get a better sense of a candidate’s personality.
The etailer’s talent team work directly with the business functions they recruit for “so they know how it works from a technical and cultural perspective” when they are hiring for a role.
Perks and community
For both Wiggle and Gymshark, creating a working environment where employees are united behind a common goal, regardless of seniority, is a top priority. But both also place huge importance on supporting colleagues in all parts of their lives, not just their working lives.
Wiggle gives its staff a company-wide afternoon off every month, on which the team take part in a group activity, such as a team cycle – something that was kept in place but made virtual during lockdown.
Wiggle also hosts an annual ‘One You’ week, which focuses on helping employees improve their health and wellbeing, be that through workshops on diet, mindfulness sessions or group physical activities such as bike rides or yoga sessions.
“We want to continue with the empowerment and trust we built, and allow individuals and teams to come up with the best way to work for them”
Bianca Carlin, Wiggle
Carlin says the business is taking a hands-off approach to the post-pandemic return to the office and will not be issuing any binding mandates about how often employees should be in the office going forward.
“We want to continue with the empowerment and trust we built, and allow individuals and teams to come up with the best way to work for them,” she explains.
“We’ll have parameters and principles, but we recognise that no two jobs, no two people, no two teams are the same and we want everyone to be treated uniquely.”
Carlin says many of Wiggle’s staff experienced “huge benefits to working from home”, whether that be because they were more efficient in their role, or because they were able to do the school run every day for the first time. That is something Wiggle wants to continue to embrace.
Gymshark is similarly focused on taking care of staff inside and outside of work. As well as becoming a 75th-percentile payer last year, the retailer offers a range of benefits such as a free gym membership, a monthly sports massage and a £500 budget allocation for working-from-home equipment.
As part of the packages offered to all employees, Gymshark gives staff 33 days of annual leave per year – 34 if you count birthdays, which everyone gets off work as standard – matches pension contributions up to 7% of workers’ salaries, and has an uncapped bonus scheme, measured against the etailer’s sales and profit growth.
Gymshark didn’t put any employees on furlough during the Covid-19 crisis, even at the height of lockdown when its ‘IRL’ team, which runs its pop-up shops and bricks-and-mortar activations, had less on their plate than they usually would.
To maintain a feeling of community and ensure that all staff retained a sense of purpose and belonging within the business, members of the ‘IRL’ team became volunteers for Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
They carried out pharmacy runs, delivering prescriptions to unwell children up and down the country who couldn’t go to their usual appointments due to lockdown restrictions.
“We want to repurpose people and keep them busy, because when you’re not busy at a time like that you do start to worry. It felt important to give people the chance to do something impactful”
Steve Hewitt, Gymshark
“Many CFOs would have said we should have put those guys on furlough because it would have saved us a cost, but I think as soon as you do that it does have a ripple effect on the whole team,” Hewitt says.
“We want to repurpose people and keep them busy, because when you’re not busy at a time like that you do start to worry. It felt important to give people the chance to do something impactful.”
In a year of disruption, Wiggle and Gymshark took tangible action to put their employees and their needs first, both as workers and as people.
Their strategies have set an impressive bar in terms of what being a good employer looks like in a post-pandemic world – something that employees will increasingly demand from retailers in the years to come.
This ranking is based on UK-based reviews on Glassdoor between June 20, 2020 and June 20, 2021. Each of these companies had at least 30 reviews during this time. Ratings go to three decimal places and are rounded up.