For the past year or more, the primary discussion topic has been the unforeseen yet swift onset of the recession.
Worsening unemployment, reduced availability of credit and our static housing market all combine to keep the economic environment subdued. Certainly, during this period, UK retailing has had to
cope with lots of difficulties.
However, perhaps the recession’s most insidious impact lies in its brutal assault on trust and confidence. Indeed, where occasional fragments of good news do emerge, our misgivings often remain.
Yet, against international comparisons, British retailing is one of our most advanced, innovative and resilient sectors. Our 2.8 million employees comprise 11% of the total UK workforce, delivering sales in excess of £287bn last year.
The sector has no shortage of dynamic and charismatic leaders – not only at the top of companies but in our stores in cities and towns throughout the country.
And many retailers give personal time and other resources to community involvement, often seeking to address education, social inclusion or other needs in local neighbourhoods. So it’s unsurprising that stories about retail and retailers feature every day in the news – there’s a lot going on across our sector.
So why doesn’t retail have a more positive image as an employer? Time and again, employment within our sector is described in faintly disparaging terms. The interpersonal and planning skills associated with successful retailing too often are imperfectly understood.
Yes, working in retail is demanding. At times, considerable physical effort is required. Standards and goals tend to be specific and measurable. Most of our staff do not operate in quiet offices, but constantly can be accessed by customers and other visitors to our stores.
Yet here, too, is the enjoyment and opportunity. Independent surveys affirm that retail staff generally enjoy the natural human experience of face-to-face communication, particularly in seeking to provide high quality service to customers, or by “going the extra mile”.
Equally, personal fulfilment is gained from being part of a dedicated team. Many long-term friendships arise from working with colleagues or customers in a retail environment. Our sector can meet our staff’s personal skills and career development aspirations. Some superb formal training programmes are supplemented by ongoing practical coaching and mentoring from knowledgeable and experienced colleagues.
The route to store or area management is tangible and provides a considerable degree of autonomy. Similarly, entrants to our sector can explore prospects in buying or merchandising, logistics or supply chain, marketing, HR, finance or IT.
We already have a number of trade associations that are well-equipped to communicate opportunities in retail and to support learning and development initiatives. So let’s spread the good news a little more confidently and let’s encourage our colleagues to provide active support – not least by our own participation.
- Leo McKee Chief executive, brighthouse