The UK’s retail sector is a vital part of our economy, providing one in eight jobs in the UK. It’s been vital for providing women’s employment and jobs for those without qualifications. Many employers are proud of their staff advancement through training and know happy staff equal satisfied customers.
Now this vital sector faces a profound transformation, not just from online but also new technologies that pose a risk to the high employment mode.
Of course, profound changes have occurred before - with the advent of supermarkets in the 1960s, checkout tills and streamlined store ordering, and more recently self-service tills replacing the checkout operator. But, until recently, the changes were offset by the increasing number of jobs available overall as more and more stores opened. Retailers can sell vast amounts without a physical shop front - relying on a vast infrastructure of depots, and an effective online presence, as well as consumer choice exercised through social media, meaning that shoppers often know more about a product from the internet than any member of staff.
AI, big data, social media, cloud computing, automation, robotics, the internet of things, are combining to radically change jobs and entire professions. And the productivity gains likely to accrue in retailing through new technology as elsewhere threaten a major reduction in employment numbers, especially given the emphasis on cost-cutting and the bottom line, which too often sees staff as simply a cost.
It is urgent that retailers and employees together explore how to make these challenges work for rather than against staff - through the re-expansion of customer services on the floor, developing the expertise of shop floor staff, as B&Q is seeking to do, as well as devolving decision-making to local stores and staff, as Ikea is proposing.
At the heart of navigating successfully through these challenges must be a deep, consistent and ongoing engagement with employees in the sector, and their representatives, at every level.
National dialogue around the findings and implications of this should be a priority. A partnership approach towards the challenges and opportunities, with dialogue and debate at national as well as individual company level, will be vital to retain the confidence of staff that their interests are being considered.
Employees need to know their opportunities are being maximised, rather than being first in line for cost-cutting, through innovative ways of relating to customers, along with improved training and development, and through improved rather than diminished career opportunities. Retaining engagement and morale will be essential.
Staff in bricks and mortar stores know what customers think and what they need better than futurologists.
Listening to staff, rather than jumping on the latest bandwagon without thought for its consequences, may well pay better dividends.
Nita Clarke is a member of the Fabian Society’s retail taskforce and a director of the Involvement and Participation Association