The word on the high street


The way we shop in the UK has changed dramatically in just the space of a decade. In 2008 less than five per cent of retail spending was online, and that share has almost quadrupled in the years since. The latest statistics published just this morning show that in March this year almost a fifth of retail spending was carried out online.

Our changing spending habits don’t just mean some emptier high streets and a surge in delivery vans whizzing around our neighbourhoods; they also have a profound effect on the lives of the near three million people that work in retail.

We detailed in a report published earlier this year the scale of this change in retail – and its impact on people and places. This work was drawn from our analysis of important metrics like pay and employment. But today I wanted to tell the story of these changes on retail workers past and present using their own words (as taken from two focus groups we ran for this report).

Here are four takeaways from this qualitative research that provide a rich understanding of what this wave economic change feels like.

  1. Retail workers quite like their job – and didn’t seem to want to move to hospitality

The majority of participants said that they, on balance, felt positive about their job in retail. The positives of work in the sector – hours that can fit around other commitments, relationships with colleagues, staff discounts and flexibility – seemed to outweigh the negatives – rude customers, workloads, a ‘them and us’ attitude from managers and the need to work on weekends and at Christmas.

We asked participants who were thinking about working elsewhere which sectors they want to work in, and there was near total consensus that the hospitality sector, a sector we’d assumed might be a preferred destination for many displaced retail workers, wasn’t the answer:

“No one would choose to leave retail to work in hospitality…it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire…[Retail’s] a good job to be in at the end of the day.” Female, aged 16-29, department store worker

 “The hours are better for retail than bar work – obviously nights don’t work if you have kids. So retail was better for me in that way.” Male, aged 16-29, supermarket employee

“Pubs are all closing too…and it’s hectic on the weekend isn’t it.” Female, aged 40-49, ex-retail worker

This finding has real-world relevance for policy makers. As retail declines and hospitality grows it might be tempting to think – particularly given that these two sectors are typically found in the same places – that workers in retail can just seamlessly transition into hospitality. But, our discussions with retail workers reveal that this isn’t likely to be the case. More unsociable hours and the prospect of less-enjoyable customer interactions mean that it’s not clear that retail workers will happily move into hospitality jobs, even if they are available.

Those we spoke to were more upbeat about jobs in the public sector, notably education and health. Again, hours and flexibility seemed to matter most here – and the avoidance of the great British public:

“I’m happier in my job, but my pay is worse than in retail. I didn’t think the pay could be worse – but I’m happier and I get weekends, and holidays and Christmas” Female, aged 30-49, former clothing retailer employee, currently working as a teaching assistant

“The pay was better in retail than what I’m getting now, the hours are better now though. I get longer holidays, I don’t work weekends.” Female, aged 50-59, former clothing retailer employee, currently working as a cleaner

  1. Productivity growth in retail hasn’t come easy – tech hasn’t transformed the sector yet

Our quantitative work revealed that productivity has increased faster in retail than in almost all other sectors since the turn of the century. But it took conversations with retail workers to get a richer insight into how this productivity boost took place.

The answer it seemed was an increased intensity of work for retail employees. Lots of participants had stories of staff numbers falling in their store but the overall amount of work that needed to be done remaining unchanged – without technology advancing to help reduce workloads:

“I’ve been in retail so long, what first enticed me to the role was a team. Where they’ve cut hours, every year there’s been cutbacks, because I’ve been there so long I know that I’m now doing the job of four full-time staff.” Female, aged 16-29, department store employee

 “They used to have 12 people on a department on an afternoon, and now you’ve got two to three. Customers know there isn’t enough people on the tills…They’ve cut a lot of hours and contracts. They do expect you to do a lot more, expect everyone to do different jobs – it used to be you worked on specific departments, for example menswear, womenswear et cetera, now you’re just a team member. You’re now expected to know everything…There is no such thing as a supervisor anymore, they’ve made the pyramid smaller.” Male, aged 16-29, clothing retailer employee

Sometimes it’s the things not said in a conversation that tell the real story of what’s going on. This happened when we asked retail workers about the impact that technology had on their workplace. Yes, we’ve all seen self-checkouts, but what else has changed in terms of technology impacting work?

There was little in the way of answers to this question, other than one participant who cited a smaller stock room and more efficient deliveries. Despite the hype about checkout-free stores and the transformational impact of tech on workplaces, the evidence – from our qualitative research at least – that tech boosts pay, productivity and improves the quality of work in retail, particularly on the shop floor, is relatively limited so far.

  1. Redundancy and business closures are brutal – there’s little in the way of support for those at the sharp end

We’ve grown used to seeing big name retailers stumbling (and Mike Ashley flirting with buying them), this doesn’t only affect the high street but also takes its toll on those who lose their jobs. Our discussions with those who’ve faced redundancy revealed how, as expected, the need to look for a new job and the sudden onset of insecurity is difficult to face. But also we learnt that the process itself could be better managed.

In the first instance, this is about the communication of the bad news of redundancy. Some retail workers who’d been made redundant told of how they and their colleagues found out over the television, getting home to see on the news that their place of work was closing down. Finding out that you might be about to lose your job is tough at any time, even more so if everyone else finds out at the same time as you – and you’re not able to ask questions and seek support at work.

Even those who did find out the news from their managers didn’t necessarily have a better experience. Both managers and junior staff described how news was often delivered by cold, legal announcement read out to relevant staff with little space for empathy or support:

“It was very legal. We had a script to read out to the staff, it was just really heartless as you were basically telling them that their job didn’t exist anymore. They’re friends, you know, people I see more than my own family. It was so cold, I couldn’t say anything other than the script for legal reasons.” Female, aged 16-29, department store worker

“Our regional manager had to do it last week, stand there with a script. It’s heart-breaking. They’ve got to reapply…4 deputy managers…those jobs are no longer. They’ve made them all redundant” Male, aged 16-29, supermarket employee

There also seemed to be a lack of support offered in the weeks leading up to store closures. None of the participants in our focus groups were able to cite examples of employers or trade unions being on hand to offer support and advice. In fact, what seemed more common was a chaotic situation in which staff numbers declined rapidly and workloads increased, with employees finding they were left to figure out a way forward on their own:

“They were getting rid of us over a period of time until there was only four of us left with the manager. We were doing the whole store, so it was ridiculous hours. Then the just got rid of us all in one day. I knew it was closing because of all the sales, they gave us a date (with one months’ notice) and that was that.” Female, aged 16-29, clothing retailer employee

While economic change is never going to be easy (and it is a ‘cold’ legal event by its very nature), it does seem as if employers can do a better job of cushioning the impact of that change when it takes place. For example, it would be good to hear more examples of retailers thinking carefully about the lived experience of their employees, and being more open to allowing trade unions and other experts in employee support to provide assistance.

  1. High streets matter a lot – it shouldn’t surprise us that politicians are focussed on ‘saving’ them

It seems that at least once a year the government announces some sort of pilot, project or plan to help save the high streets. Others have written in detail about what a sensible approach to reviving high street should look like, but here it’s worth focusing on the motivation for all of this political action.

We asked participants how they felt about the changing nature of their high street, and this was the question that elicited the most animated responses. Everyone had something to say, and all were in agreement that the decline of their local high street was a big issue – “depressing”, “sad”, “disappointing” were just some of the words used to describe this decline:

 “I can remember a vibrant town, with loads of people happy and smiling. Now people just go straight through…it’s depressing.” Female, aged 40-49, ex-retail worker

“I remember as a kid it used to be the place to go. It had everything down there but there’s nothing down there anymore, just a couple of supermarkets for the students – that’s it.” Female, aged 16-29, ex-retail worker

Fixing our high streets (however it’s achieved) and serious action to reduce rough sleeping in district centres were clearly issues that the people we spoke to felt very strongly about. When emotions run this high on an issue, maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that politicians have a tendency to announce new initiatives that look to be solving the problem.

Overall, this qualitative research brought home the importance of listening to real world experiences to find out what is really going on. Statistics don’t always allow us to get under the skin of economic change and they certainly struggle to convey what change feels like. As the Resolution Foundation delves deeper into economic change in the UK in the coming months, we’ll be sure to continue to bring insights from qualitative research into our understanding of its impact on people and places.