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Upskill or proceed to self-checkout

It is undeniable that even in the past five years, technological progress has revolutionised how retailers sell and customers buy, but what does that mean for the role of the employee in this shape-shifting sector?

self checkout

Throughout 2017, it is likely that the retail industry will experience 50% of growth from online sales, with more heavily-staffed bricks and mortar retailers and leisure businesses putting the shutters up on hundreds of poorly performing stores, pubs and restaurants.

So, if we say that walk-in stores and restaurants are typically the biggest employers of human resource, but a lot of these are being closed down, where will all the jobs in retail be? Furthermore, head offices are changing as Board members painfully surrender to shareholders’ lack of forgiveness for evolution-failures. The ongoing drive towards ‘e-commerce’ typically translates to mean ‘computers and robots’ and not people, so presumably the job market in the retail sector is in trouble? 

No it isn’t! 

Yes, the rises in minimum wage and the evolution of technology are eating away at the general workforce and it is expected that up to a third of current jobs in the retail sector won’t exist in the next 10 years. But, the retail sector is evolving at such a pace that it is creating new jobs, better jobs and jobs that embrace and harness those new technologies. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that so many of these new opportunities are so forward-thinking and are tackling challenges that we’ve never seen or needed to address before that they require new skills that barely exist yet. Such vacancies certainly haven’t been around for long enough to rely on a limitless supply of experts to fill them.   

The CEO of the British Retail Consortium (Helen Dickinson OBE) in her submission to the Chancellor in October 2016, suggests that 100,000 employees in the retail industry are now in jobs that didn’t exist five years. New roles require new skills, including high levels of technical, digital and scientific knowledge. For example, as businesses focus more on the customer and their buying behaviours, obtaining “big data” and understanding how people spend their money by analysing their Tesco Club Card or Nectar Card require new roles. Positions such as Chief Customer Officer, Head of Customer Experience or Head of Analytics barely existed until recently. It’s a similar story in Digital with vacancies such as Chief Digital Officer only appearing in the last decade. The difficulty for executive interim head-hunters in the retail space (like me) is that unlike other positons where I can draw on candidates with deep experience obtained over 25+ years, these new positons are much harder to fill, as essentially no one is a highly experienced expert, yet.

So, the employment market in retail isn’t disintegrating, it is just upskilling. It’s clear there is a need to be training, re-training and obtaining new skills which cater to the new breed of challenges facing our sector but this is in our control. Yes, we will see a declining number of retail assistants or those stocking shelves but there will still be a need for more customer-facing roles across all levels and for retail workers to better their technological literacy to operate new systems both in store and in the back office. It is reported that The UK Commission for Employment & Skills has predicted that over the next few years, lower skilled workers in retail will face a basic choice of upskilling or face redundancy due to automation and mechanisation. A scary thought, or a world of exciting opportunity?

Richard Lindsay is Principal of Retail and Leisure


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