Could L&D professionals be the saviours of the retail industry?

As thousands of retail employees face an uncertain future, Christopher Schyma explores how L&D could come to the rescue.


At the start of June 2018, around 12,000 retail jobs were said to be at risk following store closure announcements from Mothercare, Poundworld, and House of Fraser, according to a Guardian report of the High Street of 2018.

In the last month alone, further closures, profit warnings and annual losses have been revealed from the likes of Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, and New Look, and the list is still expanding.

Whilst many are quick to bemoan the loss of these stores, it is the employees that really suffer. If the retail job loss trend continues (and it shows no sign of slowing down) then tens of thousands of retail staff members could join the legions of those worried about losing work, or who have already lost it.

A report by the Centre for Retail Analysis predicted that 552,500 retail job losses could occur by 2022.

It is an unpleasant time for all – both the worried shop floor employees, and the head office departments who want to resolve the situation but are unsure of how. Offering alternative jobs can cause logistical headaches, especially when location is a major constraint.

Relocating hundreds of staff members to headquarters is unlikely to be a feasible option. Much has been made of the transferrable skills that can be taken by staff into new jobs in other sectors – customer service, or hospitality, for example – but to lose out on so many loyal and experienced employees would be a setback for retail UK-wide.    

In-store sales may be depleting, but staff members currently working on the shop floor could be reskilled and redeployed to drive the growth most brands are seeing in their digital offering.

Many of the current retail workers are younger, digitally savvy individuals whose skills could be put to much better use. Other employees may not have the digital skills, but they understand the brand, have lived and breathed the company in their time in-store. Losing staff with that level of knowledge and advocacy would be a massive blow to any company.

The only real option for struggling retailers to survive and save their employees is in retraining for the digital age of retail. Learning and development professionals need to take the helm here, having frank conversations with retail bosses and delivering plans to ensure this future becomes a reality, rather than an ideal.

If L&D can ensure a strong focus on how the workforce is transformed, new jobs for employees can be future-proofed and retailers will receive the digital skills that are currently desperately lacking. Mobility and connectivity must be leveraged to offer jobs in the employee’s location of choice, whilst investing the time to train, coach and mentor the new digital workforce.

Focus should be put on jobs in areas such as data-science, data cleansing, artificial intelligence, content management, and content moderation; jobs that are in huge demand and where many retailers need to operationalise and sustain at scale.

The biggest challenge in implementing this will be training and monitoring a disparate workforce with varying levels of expertise. Retailers will rightly shy away from this because it’s yet another operational challenge that could distract from the day-to-day.

The solution is to appoint the right partner organisation that brings best-practice in managing outsourced operations on a large scale, in particular as a managed service. But also a partner that is equipped with its own remote-working proposition to own the retraining process, ongoing coaching, and performance management to deliver the right outcomes.

This will provide retailers everything they need in order to support existing and future digital business needs, while supporting the digital skills shortage, with the least amount of effort.

Retailers need to act now if they want to survive these challenging times and especially if they want to save staff from job losses while protecting their ‘digital business’.

This is an opportunity for the learning and development and HR communities to demonstrate the power of upskilling to transform a workforce, resurrecting an entire industry as it does so. The time to take action is now – when store closures and redundancies look like a business’ only option, it is already much too late.


About the author

Christopher Schyma is director of retail (EMEA) at Sutherland. 


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