The retail industry has an elephant in the room – it suffers from one of the highest employee turnover rates of all industries in the UK.
Deeply engrained perceptions around retail jobs being poorly paid – reinforced by so-called zero-hours contracts – with limited growth prospects, are pervasive. It is little wonder that some retailers struggle to attract and retain talent on the shop floor.
However, it does not have to be this way. Change is afoot through initiatives such as retail skills academies and the British Council of Shopping Centre’s Retail Matters campaign (this year focused around September 26 – 30). The BCSC’s campaign aims to highlight retail talent, the initiatives created by the retail property sector and the career opportunities offered by working in retail.
While I am not denying that many challenges remain, there are countless examples of people who started on the shop floor and have enjoyed a diverse, successful and ultimately lucrative career in the sector.
To name just two: Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe, and Alex Gourlay, co-chief operating officer for Walgreens Boots Alliance – the parent company of Boots – both started with Saturday jobs at these companies before later progressing to the highest levels within them. Both show how some of the best UK retail talent often has genuine experience of the shop floor and how much this is needed at the top of the retail tree.
We need to see more people like Rowe and Gourlay become industry figureheads and leaders by the promotion of retail as a challenging, exciting, long-term career.
Of course, this ambition only carries weight if it is matched by investment and collaboration between retailers themselves and other stakeholders, from shopping centre operators to local education establishments.
At London Designer Outlet (LDO), Wembley Park, we marking the one-year anniversary of the LDO Skills Academy, which delivers support to our retailers, free of charge. The academy was made possible by LDO’s owner, Quintain, which provides premises, while first-year funding was secured from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
The academy drives greater awareness of the opportunities a retail career can bring and more importantly it equips graduates with vital skills to help them progress. The academy’s original schedule provided three sets of cohorts with 12-week courses consisting of two modules: Service & Standards, and Selling Skills in Retail. The schedule has been revised for 2017 and each ‘term’ for this year is already over-subscribed – illustrating the strong demand for relevant, high-quality retail training and education.
At LDO’s Skills Academy all participants are provided with a tailored mentoring plan, as well as close mentoring throughout to help them progress their career. We also work closely with our retailers at LDO to deliver this element of the programme.
In an increasingly digital retail landscape, we also constantly review our training to ensure it is fit for the constantly evolving industry. For instance, a new IT suite has just been launched to ensure our students have the technology skills they need to thrive.
In its first year, 57 per cent of the first set of academy graduates received improved earnings and promotions.
We believe there is no time to waste on investing in the retail industry’s most valuable resource – its employees. This is partly because the high employee turnover rate across the industry exposes a worrying disconnect between retailers and their customers. After all, shop workers are daily brand ambassadors, a human touch-point between the customer and the brand.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. For store-based retailers, the challenge from online means that an enhanced guest experience is a critical differentiator in these uncertain post-Brexit times.
These challenges provide additional reasons to support and invest in the human face of our industry, and this will be a core theme during Retail Matters Week next week.
Starting out and progressing in the retail industry requires hard graft – there is no doubt about that. The hours can be long and physically tiring.
However, for people who love interaction with others and have a commitment to delivering great service, retail is a dynamic, exciting, fast-changing and always topical industry that provides opportunities aplenty.
If the retail sector can truly embrace training and skilling up its workforce, the potential of these people is enormous in the UK – the world’s most-famous ‘nation of shopkeepers’.
Sue Shepherd is the Centre Manager at London Designer Outlet