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This paper summarises our enquiry into the future of retail. We explore possible future challenges and opportunities for the sector and outline a set of prototype policy and practice interventions, developed in partnership with major retailers, policy makers and wider civil society.

The retail sector is at a watershed moment and livelihoods are at stake, with retail employing over 2.8 million workers – one of the largest sectors in the UK economy.

Between 2011 and 2018 there was a net decline of 95,000 retail jobs. However, there was also a significant shift in the types of jobs that retail workers were doing. These shifts have had a disproportionately negative impact on women and an uneven impact across different UK regions.

  • Between 2011 and 2018, there was a net decline of 108,000 workers in sales and customer service occupations, eg sales assistants or retail check out operators, most of whom were women (75,000). This occupation group shrunk by 7 percent, falling from 1.53 million to 1.42 million.
  • There was a net increase of 40,000 process, plant and machine operators, most of whom were men (31,000). Workers in this occupation group in retail are often in roles such as delivery drivers or other jobs associated with warehousing and logistics. This occupation group grew by 53 percent, from 76,000 to 116,000. 
  • Particular regions have borne the brunt of this decline, including the North East, South West and East Midlands, while London has seen strong jobs growth.

In March 2018, the government launched the Retail Sector Council to provide a platform for industry and government to work together to address several priority areas for the sector. To contribute to this process, the RSA convened a Future Work Lab for the Retail Sector, bringing together key employers and policymakers together, sharing insights about the future of work and catalysing discussions around the solutions needed to meet the sector’s existing and future challenges.

In this paper we give a detailed outline of the RSA Future Work Lab methodology. We then illustrate possible future challenges and opportunities for the sector, through a series of vignettes that build on the RSA’s four scenarios for the future of work in 2035. After this, we explore three critical challenges for the sector in more detail. Finally, we outline a set of prototype policy and practice interventions developed in partnership with major retailers, policymakers and wider civil society - for the sector to take forward, test, and iterate.

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