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Retail HR departments - the challenges ahead


Senior HR professionals’ top three organisational priorities for the next 12 months have been listed as managing costs, growing the business and focusing on customer need.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) HR Outlook survey, from where these figures derive, also shows that key targets for the HR function are managing change & cultural transformation, employee engagement and improving performance management & reward.

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, senior HR staff in the private sector are more focused on employee engagement than those in the public sector, where managing costs is the most pertinent issue in the wake of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review.

Grocery HR

But what is the situation in the retail sector? The top grocers in the UK have varying staff retention levels, suggesting that some businesses in the industry are better than others at engaging their workforce.

Waitrose, which is part of the John Lewis Partnership, provides a long list of staff perks, including a share in the company’s profits through its annual bonus scheme, which means it is often namedropped as one of the top places to work in industry surveys .

A spokesperson for Waitrose told Retail Gazette that the company’s staff retention level is 17.7 per cent - a favourable rate compared to the grocery market average.

“Our Partnership model has a direct impact on our good levels of staff retention,” she added.

“Its ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.

“As the Partnership is owned in trust for its members, employees share the responsibilities of ownership as well as its rewards - profit, knowledge and power.”

On the other hand, and in the week that the company saw two senior members of staff leave to start jobs at rival retailers, Sainsbury’s Retail Resourcing & Development Manager Duncan Ingram admitted that his business’s “retention levels are currently below or at the industry average”.

So how can retailers find the right balance? CIPD Adviser Rebecca Clake, who worked in Boots’ HR team for three years earlier in her career, thinks the wider retail industry should try to instill a particular workforce ethos because success does not just come from a set structure.

Commenting on the Waitrose situation, she said: “The Partnership structure is part of the company’s success, but it also has a lot to do with how the firm involves staff, treats people and the consequent culture this creates.

“People need to feel respected, trust their manager and play a part in business decisions - it’s about building a place of employment where you would want your friends and family to work.”

She added that HR issues in the retail industry are not evidently different to other sectors - challenges tend to be set in relation to size of company rather than type of business - but there is perhaps more need for customer focus than in other industries.

“Focusing on customer needs should be at the forefront of retail HR people’s minds as that is at the heart of what they are trying to achieve,” Clake stated.

“But whatever industry you operate in, you must meet the needs of that particular business.”


How is this best achieved though? HR is a key department for every organisation, including those involved in the retail world, but there are a number of steps people in this profession need to take to improve the way they work.

One area of HR that employees can develop, according to the CIPD, is the behaviour described by the group as “curiosity”.

The organisation’s new HR Profession Map indicates that while being personally credible, driven to deliver and collaborative are high on the list of skills possessed by the UK’s HR staff, knowledge about the environment they work in could be better.

Clake said: “Being driven to deliver - a skill that is very relevant to those in the retail sector - is a key HR behaviour, but more people can show an active interest in their internal and external environment.”

More manpower in the months ahead

Developing in such a way can help make HR departments even more integral to their respective businesses as we move into a new year, and it appears there will be more manpower in the coming months to help departments achieve these goals, with CIPD’s HR Outlook showing senior HR professionals are preparing to invest in future talent.

Some 27 per cent of those questioned expect to take on HR graduate trainees in the next year, which is 20 per cent up on the number who did so in the last 12 months. Perhaps this shows that HR departments are now ready to expand again after a period of transformation, which saw 51 per cent of respondents saying their HR function had changed structure in the last two years.

CIPD’s study also claims the majority (53 per cent) of HR professionals have had a pay rise in the last 12 months, while the proportion of interviewees that experienced pay freezes and pay cuts in that time total 40 and three per cent respectively.

Whether pay levels will continue to go up remains to be seen, but with unemployment likely to increase considerably across many industries in the next few years, more companies may look to hold tight and freeze salaries.

As well as managing costs, be it in retail or in other industries, a key challenge for HR departments will be to weave their way into the fabric of their respective organisations in the months ahead.

Clake remarked: “What we would like to see - and it is something going on at many companies at the moment - is HR priorities being set based on the business’s overall priorities.

“HR must be involved in the business planning stages. HR must be plugged in.”

It is clear that representatives of the retail industry agree, and as 2011 progresses retailers may wish to increase HR departments’ overall involvement in business strategy. After all, as Sainsbury’s Ingram explains: “An efficient and effective HR department contributes towards the bottom line for a company.”

Published on Thursday 02 December by Editorial Assistant

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