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Women and regional workers will be hit hardest by future job losses unless retail brands cooperate more to create an experience-led high street and upskill the retail workforce for the age of automation, a think-tank warns.

‘Retail Therapy: towards a future of good work in retail’ from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) finds high levels of precarity for workers in the retail industry, but also a growing customer appetite for innovation.

RSA analysis of government data reveals that 108,000 jobs were lost in sales and customer service roles between 2011 and 2018, 75,000 of whom were women [see Notes].

Over the same time period, ‘process, plant and machine operator’ jobs increased by 40,000, of which 31,000 were taken by men, indicating the new warehouse and distribution jobs being created by Amazon and others are being taken by men, and are not replacing customer services roles typically held by women.

The North East and the East Midlands have fared the worst during this period – both have suffered an 11% drop in the number of total retail jobs. In the same period, retail jobs in London climbed by 16%).

Changes in retail jobs by region (RSA analysis of Labour Force Survey)

 

Employment in retail

(2018)

Net change

(2011-18)

Percentage change (2011-18)

East Midlands

184,590

-22,553

-11%

North East

105,460

-12,671

-11%

East of England

242,531

-27,228

-10%

Yorkshire and Humberside

237,976

-23,457

-9%

South West

228,930

-20,640

-8%

Scotland

250,962

-22,226

-8%

South East

401,277

-7,039

-2%

West Midlands

253,900

7,814

3%

Wales

139,420

6,783

5%

North West

337,577

21,703

7%

London

354,693

47,651

16%

 

The report suggests the retail industry has an acute challenge with ‘one-sided flexibility' - with retail workers suffering from zero-hours contracts and inconsistent working hours. According to a recent Populus poll commissioned by the RSA [see Notes] 38% of retail workers are worried about changes to their job that will reduce their working hours, compared to 29% for all workers.

Working with major retailers such as Ikea, John Lewis and Tesco the RSA produced three possible scenarios for the UK’s retail industry in 2035: 

The Empathy Economy

  • Consumers seek out more authentic experiences
  • High streets and physical stores adapt to become more experiential
  • New jobs emerge in hi-touch customer service roles and new technologies augment human capabilities
  • Frontline workers see their working conditions and job satisfaction improve
  • Independent businesses increase market share

The Precision Economy

  • Consumers demand greater personalisation and convenience
  • High streets and physical stores are upgraded with IoT devices
  • New jobs emerge in hi-touch customer service roles as data analytics augment human capabilities
  • Gig economy algorithms are used to allocate shifts within and across retail businesses 
  • Increase in workplace monitoring but data is also used to improve job quality for frontline workers

 

The Big Tech Economy

  • High street retailers face increased competition from technology companies.
  • High streets and physical stores adapt to support the needs of local communities. 
  • Introduction of new technologies, including delivery drones and semi-autonomous trucks, results in a decline in manual jobs and widespread redundancies. 
  • New jobs emerge in hi-tech and hi-touch roles but opportunities to transition are limited.

 

This analysis is based on the RSA’s Four Futures of Work, released earlier this year, which used scenario-planning to envisage for possible futures for the UK economy in 2035.

The report also argues that the physical high street will survive – as long as retailers refocus their offer upon exciting in-store experiences and more empathetic customer services.

To solve chronically low productivity in the retail sector, the report argues employers need to refocus efforts towards life-long learning and re-training. Greater access to skills training could also future-proof retail careers from automation.

The report also calls for a high streets ‘sandbox’, which would allow for retailers and civil society groups to experiment with new initiatives which may otherwise be stopped by red-tape. This would be place-based, community-led, and would require collaboration between competing retailers.

 

Fabian Wallace-Stephens, researcher at the RSA’s Future Work Centre, said:

“Our research shows that the economic pain that comes with the decline of the high street is not being felt evenly. As ever more people are shopping online, and businesses are introducing automated technology like self-service checkouts, this is changing the types of jobs available. Women are being hit particularly hard, with jobs growth being contained to roles usually filled by men such as delivery drivers.

"That said, we are optimistic that the high street’s decline can be reversed. If retailers collaborate more with each other, offer exciting in-store experiences and make customer service roles higher skilled – with staff becoming more like in-store 'influencers' – then we still see a vibrant future for the British high street.”

 

Edward Story, partner and head of the Consumer and Retail sector group at international law firm Taylor Wessing, added:

"Recent times have seen some of our most-loved and notable brands struggle to survive in a tough and highly competitive operating environment. This is sobering news for consumers and workers in the sector who face uncertainty and the real prospect of job loss.

"On the surface, the outlook is rough. However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Arguably retail is the sector most enhanced and disrupted by technology and the online revolution. For many retailers this has yielded opportunities to connect with new markets, engage with customers in fresh ways, revolutionise how they do business and change working practices. There is a bright future ahead for the British High Street if it can leverage innovative technology to ensure its survival."

ends

 

Contact:

Ash Singleton, RSA Head of Media and Communications: ash.singleton@rsa.org.uk, 07799 737 970.

Will Grimond, RSA Media and Communications Officer, will.grimond@rsa.org.uk, 07972470135

Matthew Clark, PR & Communications Adviser, Taylor Wessing, 07587 039822. 

 

Notes:

The RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce] is an independent charity whose mission is to enrich society through ideas and action.  

Our work covers a number of areas including the rise of the 'gig economy', robotics & automation; education & creative learning; and reforming public services to put communities in control.  

 

About Taylor Wessing

Taylor Wessing is the trading name used by a number of law firms providing professional services to clients around the world and by other related entities. Each law firm is a separate and independent legal entity or partnership and a member of or affiliated to a member of Taylor Wessing Verein. Taylor Wessing Verein does not itself provide any legal or other services to clients. Further information can be found on our regulatory page at www.taylorwessing.com/en/regulatory

 

Taylor Wessing is a leading full-service international law firm with over 350 partners and 1100 lawyers in 19 jurisdictions around the world. We work with clients in the most dynamic industries helping them succeed by thinking innovatively about their business issues. Our focus on the industries of tomorrow has enabled us to develop market-leading expertise in: Technology, Media and Communications, Life Sciences and Private Wealth. 

 

Changes in retail jobs – RSA data analysis methodology

The RSA analysis of changing nature of jobs in retail sector was conducted using Labour Force Survey data from the UK Data Service (https://ukdataservice.ac.uk). Analysis compares Oct-Dec quarter between 2011 and 2018 for SIC 47 Retail trade, except vehicles.

Table 1: changes in retail jobs by gender and occupation group (RSA analysis of Labour Force Survey)

 

 

Men employed in retail (2018)

Net change in men employed in retail (2011-18)

Women employed in retail (2018)

Net change in women employed in retail (2011-18)

Total employment in retail

(2018)

Net change in total retail employment

(2011-18)

Percentage change in retail employment

(2011-18)

Managers, Directors And Senior Officials

222,826

-19,295

138,436

-16,702

361,262

-35,997

-9%

Professional Occupations'

52,036

-1,070

38,978

-5,975

91,014

-7,045

-7%

Associate Professional And Technical Occupations'

71,863

9,440

97,578

-2,702

169,441

6,738

4%

Administrative And Secretarial Occupations'

52,725

10,765

128,475

3,513

181,200

14,278

9%

Skilled Trades Occupations'

75,318

5,589

35,668

2,396

110,986

7,985

8%

Caring, Leisure And Other Service Occupations'

4,483

222

14,815

7,405

19,298

7,627

65%

Sales And Customer Service Occupations'

455,521

-33,317

969,866

-75,108

1,425,387

-108,425

-7%

Process, Plant And Machine Operatives'

96,136

31,236

20,705

9,150

116,841

40,386

53%

Elementary Occupations'

197,008

-7,045

120,141

-13,585

317,149

-20,630

-6%

Total

1,227,916

-3,475

1,564,662

-91,608

2,792,578

-95,083

-3%

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