The retail industry’s meritocratic reputation has always been celebrated.

Social mobility campaign logo

With its enviable track record of embracing people of all backgrounds, it has for decades been a place where people can succeed through innate ability – aided by the oft-acknowledged shop floor-to-boardroom career path. 

As former Tesco boss Sir Terry Leahy puts it: “Retail is one of the great engines of social mobility. In every town and every community, they’re the local employer.” 

Yet retail’s standing as a proponent of social mobility, and with it a strong track record for youth employment, is now on more fragile post-pandemic ground. 

More than 125,000 job losses, hundreds of store closures and acceleration of the shift in consumer spend to online channels – boosting the need for tech and digital talent – all have the potential to reshape the retail workforce demographic. 

This once strong engine of social mobility risks grinding to a halt, replaced by a conveyor belt delivering an even greater number of the more privileged and university-educated to head offices. 

Leahy, a council-estate boy from Liverpool, is one of the ambassadors of Retail Week’s No Limits campaign that launches today. 

After months of sector upheaval, the aim is to raise awareness of and reinvigorate a focus on social mobility as a benefit to us all as individuals, the teams we work in and the society in which we live.

As another of our No Limits ambassadors, AO.com founder and chief executive John Roberts, says: “Talent is evenly distributed. Opportunity is not.” 

In part owing to the Black Lives Matter movement, the conversation about addressing diversity on all four corners of the world has been fuelled over the last six months. Race and gender inequality remain, thankfully, high up the agenda. But diversity of socioeconomic status is not always viewed and debated in the same way. 

Over the coming months, the No Limits campaign – in association with Retail Week’s existing Be Inspired diversity programme – will highlight the vital role that all retail leaders have to play in helping to ensure social mobility is not forgotten in the immediate fight to trade and survive, and the longer-term journey to transform and thrive.

As retail’s strategies and business models shift, the sector needs to work even harder to build on all it has achieved for many hundreds of thousands of people from all backgrounds, as well as to continue its reputation for providing young people with opportunities.

“The passion with which our No Limits launch ambassadors discuss social mobility, and the way in which retail has transformed their lives, sums up how important it is for businesses across the sector to contribute”

To help retailers do exactly that, Retail Week is joining forces with the Social Mobility Commission, which is launching a new toolkit for retailers next year – a charter that will be designed to help retail leaders promote social mobility within their businesses and across the sector. We are encouraging retailers to engage with the commission over the coming months to help it shape that toolkit.  

The passion with which our No Limits launch ambassadors discuss social mobility, and the way in which retail has transformed their lives, sums up how important it is for businesses across the sector to contribute to the Social Mobility Commission’s drive.    

Sainsbury’s regional managing director for the North, Bridget Lea, was a single mum living in a council flat in Manchester when she took a filing job at the Co-op looking after graduate trainees.

The Body Shop boss Linda Campbell worked her way up from a part-time job at an Estée Lauder counter.

Roberts’ first role was on the very bottom rung of the retail ladder. “I think retail is so well-positioned because you can start in the real basement of retail. I started in a warehouse,” he says. “That was my career, I wasn’t great at school, and I worked my way through. I didn’t need any qualifications for what I did.” 

“We’re imploring every leader in retail to evaluate their culture and think differently about how they can play a role in helping level the playing field”

Covid-19 has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots, and perhaps permanently impacted the life chances of many children from disadvantaged or low-income families. It could rob them of the sorts of opportunities Lea, Campbell and Roberts describe. 

We’re imploring every leader in retail to evaluate their culture and think differently about how they can play a role in helping level the playing field. 

This can seem an added challenge amid a fight to keep the lights on and protect jobs. But this is not about the short term. The No Limits campaign is not just for the benefit of individuals; it’s about the future health of the sector. 

Diversity of all kinds leads to a greater purpose, more creative thinking, better decision making and better financial performance. 

As former Waitrose boss and campaign ambassador Lord Mark Price says: “If we exclude people because they haven’t been born into a certain place or title, then no business, society or country can achieve its best.”

Together, we can ensure retail is at its brilliant best.

Get involved in No Limits

If you are a senior retail leader and want to get involved in the No Limits campaign, or if you are a retail employee with an inspirational story of how the sector has changed your life for the better, contact Retail Week editor Luke Tugby on luke.tugby@retail-week.com

Join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #RWNoLimits.