As retailers fight to succeed in the Digital Age, they mustn’t forget their staff

Author Ken Daly, CEO of JML

THE ‘RETAIL APOCALYPSE’ has become a ubiquitous term for the changes taking place in the retail industry. Many of us in the sector, though sympathetic to the struggles faced by other retailers and the collapse of household names like Toys R Us and Maplin in the UK and Sears in the US, might feel the term is overly pessimistic. The world is changing quickly and retailers must change quickly, too. We’re in a time of dramatic change, yes, but reports of the death of the retail are, to quote Mark Twain, an exaggeration.

Retailers must adapt quickly in this brave new world. But that doesn’t mean they should forget their staff. Last week, Mark Price, the former managing director of Waitrose, wrote that retail staff are among the most unhappy of any industry. His engaging works website analysis used a questionnaire of 13 questions revealing around subjects like reward, recognition and wellbeing. Most saliently, only 58.2% of retail workers answered yes when asked, ‘Do you feel happy at work?’ The average is 64.7%.

You might say that this is unsurprising, given the trials facing the sector. But that doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with those higher up the ladder in retail. In order for retailers to become agile, to adapt and to be efficient and productive, their workers must be engaged and passionate about what they do. The new state of play means that if companies compete on product alone they might not remain standing. Instead, retailers should launch fast, fail fast and move on. They need to turn continuous business model innovation into a core capability. And to do this, at speed, they need a workforce that is willing and able to contribute and generate ideas freely. They need a happy workforce who are properly trained and comfortable in an ‘ideas space’.

Retraining and upskilling is therefore essential, as is giving the workforce room to be heard. Price’s data has found that retail scores nine percentage points lower than average for employees agreeing with the statement, ‘Do you feel you’re being developed?’ and seven percentage points lower than average for, ‘Do you feel that your views are heard at work?’ Clearly, throughout retail, senior executives and bosses are not doing enough to develop their staff and not heeding their feedback, and this needs to change. A culture of constant development and skill acquisition is a vital part of a broader culture of innovation and flexibility. What’s more, those on the shop floor offer a different perspective that allow bosses to make the right decisions with all the information available to them. Often the best thing a senior retail executive can do to protect their staff in a tumultuous time is to run their business so as to keep their workforce in a job and happy with the progress of the company. But they cannot do that without their staff doing their jobs and ready to pivot and take on new responsibilities if the landscape dictates. Nor can they do it if they do not listen to the concerns over those ‘beneath’ them in the business hierarchy. Human capital is a company’s greatest asset. Retailers will do well to remember that as the disruptive forces in retail roll on.