Retail Week’s talent in retail think tank debate, in association with learndirect, looked at whether the prestige of working in retail is disappearing, and ways to get it back.

Retailers don’t need to be told how important their staff are. The daily business of serving customers isn’t done in the boardroom or head office, it’s done in stores, online and over the phone, and the quality of service can make or break a brand’s reputation.

But what happens when people simply aren’t attracted to a job in your business? For many, a job in retail is regarded as a stop gap, rather than a long-term, viable career - making it critical that retailers shout louder about a career in one of the most challenging, fast-paced but, ultimately, fulfilling sectors in British industry.

Retail Week teamed up with learndirect to discuss the question of prestige in the retail industry with a group of leading retail HR and talent development directors at a think tank debate breakfast in central London. Joining the debate was Lloyd Thomas, group apprenticeship manager at the Co-operative and chair of the Retail Trailblazer, who spoke passionately about the retail industry as a sector where people can develop skills and build a career. From the challenge of reducing staff losses to the importance of apprenticeships, the retailers round the table discussed the complexities of attracting, recruiting and retaining the very best talent.

The question of prestige in retail is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. Take staff retention: do store staff tend to have a transient relationship with businesses because of the lack of esteem in the job, or is the lack of esteem because it’s seen as a short-term profession?

Of the retailers around the table, many seemed to feel it was the latter. One said the whole image of retail is one of short-termism, and that’s what the industry needs to tackle.

They said: “A lot of people see this as a job not a career. I don’t think people always see the big picture; they see the entry level but not the full path. We need to show people a career path for the entry-level people.”

Another HR director described “two distinct populations” of staff at their stores. They said: “There is a long-term population and the revolving door population. For us
the challenge is to find the passionate people who want to stay in the first group. It’s especially true for us because when people come into our stores, they want to talk to someone who knows what they’re talking about and they might not get this with a short-term colleague.”

How can this problem be addressed?

One leading high street retailer said a way to encourage more long-termism is through proper training to lay out the future for staff. The retailer said: “We offer staff training, and staff earn more money with the more training they do. We want to show people that it is a career; it’s not just stacking shelves. We’ve got dozens of examples of senior people who started out on the shopfloor and we share those stories.”

Moving up the ladder within a business is one thing, but unless people are being attracted to the business in the first place, there will always be a problem. Which is exactly why the group agreed that there should be more interaction with schools and colleges to attract students exploring the career options available to them.

One retailer said: “We need to ask, how can we get young people to feel proud of working in our industry? In schools people are threatened with working in a supermarket.”

Changing perceptions

How to counter this negative image was a key part of the discussion. One HR director said: “I don’t think careers advisers ever suggest retail; we have to start challenging some of those perceptions externally. You can get a CEO to give a talk at a school but for young people the real role models of those people are three or four years older than them.

“If you are in a specialist market I don’t think there’s too much of a problem as there’s real passion for products; but there are other areas where things like stacking shelves are not seen as being exciting.”

There was also agreement around the table that much of the responsibility lies with the retailer, particularly in having the right approach at the recruitment stage.
One retailer explained: “We think sometimes we have been mis-selling a job and we were pitching at too high a level. You can’t expect someone with years and years of experience to stay in a low-level role and you can’t expect people looking for entry-level roles to have years of experience. With a lot of the people going for a job it’s their first ever interview.”

In the world of huge national chains with tried-and-tested retail models, it’s understandable that a staff member can feel like a small part of a very big machine. So could this be one of the reasons why staff feel there is a lack of prestige associated with working in retail? One of the guests at the breakfast said it was - and suggested how
to counter the problem.

They said: “I don’t think you can have the view that the board should set every agenda. We should be thinking about how to empower local managers. We should think that a local store manager is the leader of the business in that local area.”

But perhaps the most contentious issue on the retailers’ minds was apprenticeships. Not least because of a big announcement by the Government on a new plan to levy funds from retailers to contribute towards a national apprenticeship scheme (see box). The decision was met with a mixed response by those at the think tank debate. Many retailers already run their own apprenticeship schemes through providers such as learndirect, and there are already doubts about the need for a mandated scheme.

One retailer said: “If the scheme delivers what we’ve always wanted then great, but I have doubts about being forced to pay a percentage of the payroll on it. Will we see a return on the investment?”

Boosting Appreticeships

The Government has outlined radical changes to boost apprenticeship numbers and drive up the quality of courses. It believes an apprenticeship levy - set to be introduced in 2017 - will level the playing field so every big company plays their part in delivering the new generation of skilled apprentices and industry-led training standards to meet their needs. The move is part of the Government’s pledge to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020.
Retailers are encouraged to share their views on the introduction of the apprenticeship levy by visiting

With the scheme being rolled out widely, not simply in retail, arguably the same problem - of making retail particularly attractive - will still exist. Which is why, according to one HR director, it will still be important for retailers to work hard at recruitment. They said: “If the apprenticeship scheme was just retail, maybe it would bring back some prestige, but it isn’t; we have to work out how we can offer something different and unique to people. We have to be able to say to people when they come for an apprenticeship that we will set them up for life.”

Speaking to the group, learndirect UK sales director Steve Morris acknowledged that scepticism about apprenticeships still existed, but said retailers need to embrace the opportunity and work with the Government during the consultation phase while also preparing for its enactment in 2017. He said: “We need to re-establish that reputation and make people realise that you need apprenticeships in your industry.

“I would advise retailers to respond to the Government at this point; it doesn’t matter how many times you respond. And start to devise a strategy before it comes in, not after.”

But perhaps most important, one HR director said, is the idea of making people feel excited to work for your business because it’s the perfect match for them, and for you.

“You have to look for the right personality type for the right job,” they said. “You don’t necessarily need to recruit for specific experience, you look for the right strengths
in people. If you have the right strengths and the right personality for a role there is no limitation to what they can do.”


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