Next week BBC2 airs its new documentary Shopgirls, charting the rise of women in retail. It will describe how 150 years ago, in an industry where shops were owned and staffed by men, being served by a woman was something of a novelty.

But in the Victorian era the so-called shopgirl became a new and growing phenomenon.

What’s important is that these unsung heroines of our industry didn’t just plug a gap left by the employment of growing numbers of men by industrial factories.

With a growing middle class - including many female shoppers - they enabled retailers to become more closely attuned to the customers’ needs. In short they helped change the face of retail by ensuring shops across Britain became more customer-focused.

That’s a legacy we shouldn’t forget today. Ultimately our people - both male and female - are absolutely vital in ensuring we can meet the specific and changing needs of our customers. (Mike Snowdon) is a fantastic example of this and I’m delighted he has been honoured as Store Manager of the Year.

All too often, retail jobs can be viewed as transient and short-term. But those on the front line who know our customers best should be seen as the lynchpins of any business that prizes customer service.

That’s just as important in a digital world. The customer transaction may be different - with shopping delivered to a doorstep or picked up from a welcome desk - but that makes the skills and experience of employees even more important in anticipating and responding to customer demands, particularly when a transaction could be made in seconds rather than minutes.

”Shopgirls ensured retail became more customer-focused”

That’s why, over the next few weeks, eagle-eyed shoppers in our branches will notice our partners wearing badges marking their length of service. As part of an annual celebration of being an employee-owned business, in our shops, depots and offices, we’ll be presenting badges to 24,000 partners with more than five years service, including 7,000 to those with us for more than 15 years.

This is a small, symbolic way of showing how much their experience and dedication is appreciated by our business - and ultimately by our customers.

Topping our long-service league table is Roy Harvie, a supermarket assistant at our Weybridge shop, who has been with Waitrose for 56 years.

When he joined the business there were only 32 shops and just six of those were supermarkets. Today, there are 319 shops (from superstores like Mike Snowdon’s Food & Home to small City centre c-stores), opening seven days a week. It’s a whole different world.

But what hasn’t changed is Roy’s passion for customer service. Roy is trusted by customers - a relationship he uses to ensure they get the best possible servicet. Like those early shopgirls, Roy and thousands like him are the heartbeat of our business who work so hard to meet shopper needs.

Whether it’s one year or 56, their experience, insight and instincts are precious assets.

Rob Collins is Waitrose retail director