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Restless retailers

For more than 20 years, online trading has been dominating the world of retail.


I still remember launching Waitrose’s “@work” online shopping and home delivery service in 1997 – and since then, increasing numbers of books, records and toys have been bought online, causing many established high street brands to go out of business.

E-commerce continues to grow in all areas, offering new jobs and business opportunities, but also applying economic pressure to the traditional shop model.

That pressure has been added to by increases in business rates, upward-only rents, the apprenticeship levy and the National Living Wage. And you can add to that increased import costs following the devaluation of sterling, which have largely not been passed on to consumers, with competition so fierce, resulting in a further challenge to profitability.

And not far over the horizon must be the possibility of a cyclical or Brexit-driven consumer downturn.

Put it all together and it's a somewhat depressing view of the retail landscape, with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) stating last year that it expects 900,000 of the 3 million jobs in the sector to be lost over the next four years.

So it will probably not surprise you to learn that retail employees are among the most unhappy of any industry, according to my engaging.works website, which measures the workplace happiness of thousands of individuals.

Our analysis includes asking 13 questions about issues such as reward, recognition, empowerment and wellbeing. Against every single one, the retail sector scored worse than the average of all other sectors.

In response to the most relevant question of all – do you feel happy at work? – 58pc of retail workers said as such. That's compared to an average of 65pc elsewhere and makes it the second worst result.

t’s tempting to say that this must have something to do with being a service industry, but the hospitality sector (made up of restaurants, hotels and customer attractions) consistently scores at or near the top of the table for happiness, as I reported last month. In fact, hospitality outscores retail on all survey questions, with 71pc of hospitality workers saying that they were happy at work.

So if this is not about working with tricky clients and unreasonable customers, what is it about? You can find the reasons behind such retail dismay when you examine some of the poorest scores.

Under-developed and uninvolved

First off is career development; retail scores nine percentage points below the average for employees agreeing with the statement: do you feel that you’re being developed?

Next are workers feeling recognised (“do you feel recognised when you do something well?”) and heard (“do you feel that our views are heard at work?”), both of which scored seven percentage points below the average.

For any individual, being able to play a part in shaping a more certain future for your company (and your career) in turbulent, uncertain times is vital; no worker wants to operate blind – the axe of redundancy hanging over their head.

Having a say is important in the context of great change. There’s a temptation for chief executives, boards and senior staffers to go into their caves and come up with an answer without any input from those lower down the chain – and the numbers say as much, with 71pc of retail managers saying that their views are heard, versus 60pc for non-management.

But change such as that seen in retail affects everyone, from the bosses to the shop floor staff to the warehouse workers – and so everyone must be involved in tackling it, which means involving and listening to them, and enabling them to develop and not stagnate.

A cocktail for restlessness and discontent

There are other areas for improvement, with big gaps in the scores between managers and the managed – the largest being around feeling empowered (75pc versus 58pc) and trusted to make decisions (74pc versus 62pc).

Those are far poorer scores than elsewhere and again highlights the importance of arming your frontline staff with the authority and freedom to deal with issues themselves, which will improve their self-worth (and therefore their happiness)

There are also gaps between men and women, with 75pc of male retail workers saying that they feel empowered and trusted, versus 67pc of women. By those same scores, women said that they did not have enough information to do their job well.

Put all that together and it paints a picture of a workplace where information is not being shared freely (and not enough of it); where staff feel unheard and underdeveloped.

That's a heady cocktail for restlessness and discontent. In such an event, it’s hard for individuals to manage their futures, and as a solution, employers must take responsibility for retraining and enabling their employees to take some control over their lives.

That will surely be better for business and society.

Mark Price is a businessman, writer and was previously minister of state for trade and managing director of Waitrose