The retail workforce is facing “revolutionary” change and employers must adopt innovative strategies to reflect this, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned today.
At the BRC’s Retail 2020 Journey to Better Jobs conference in London, the organisation reiterated its previous estimate that increasing financial and technological pressures could lead to as many as 900,000 job losses in retail by 2025.
However, BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson argued that retail roles would ultimately “change for the better”: “There are 100,000 people doing jobs that didn’t exist five years ago – everything from a social media manager to a digital marketer. As new jobs are being created, others need to change.”
Leading fashion retailers agreed, telling Drapers they expected the number of jobs in the sector to reduce in line with rising costs and increasing investment in technology.
Fat Face chief executive Anthony Thompson said more consideration should be put into how retailers invest in staffing to avoid costly mistakes: “The margin for error is reducing because retailers are having to manage costs better. I think it is about using technology and data to make sure the right people are in the right place at the right time, whether that be through scheduling software or tracking customer traffic to stores. Businesses can’t afford to use old trading patterns to predict the new norm.”
He added: “Clothing is as much a people business as it is a clothing business. Customers need real people to serve them and help make choices but you have got to reconcile that with rising cost pressures – you can’t afford to make mistakes.”
Schuh managing director Colin Temple said the jobs landscape would continue to evolve as retailers increase their use of technology in stores: “From a store perspective, it has got to the point where everyone has access to the same product. So it is important for retailers to find new ways of standing out and improving technological efficiency to enhance customer service is a big part of that.
“We are at the point where the amount of technology we use is proportionate to our staff numbers, which we keep at a minimum. But having increasing technology capabilities means we have more opportunity to train our staff efficiently.”
Hallett Retail managing director Wendy Hallett agreed: “Retailers will need to improve data analysis and number-crunching capabilities to keep up with the changing nature of jobs. But we also need to ensure we have a core of talent with good gut instincts, to avoid the danger of slipping too far in the other direction.
“The sector will need better people in stores, even if there will ultimately be fewer of them. It is important to adapt the types of training and development on offer – it’s about being more inventive about this in relation to the budget available.”
Dickinson argued that ongoing investment in technology is a key element driving change in retail jobs. More than 15% of retail sales are made online and this is growing at about 10% every year.
At the same time, investment in physical space has fallen. The number of shops in the UK has dropped by 40,000 over the past decade, while an average of 10% remain vacant.
During a panel at the BRC conference, Maggie Porteous, director for shop trade at John Lewis, said the retailer is continually changing its methods to communicate across all its business units in line with changes in technology, adding that “there is a lot of experimentation”.
Porteous said providing apprenticeship options in different specialisms, such as cyber security, can be “helpful”.
Earlier this week John Lewis signed up to an initiative designed to open up more managerial positions to part-time workers.