Women hit hardest by decline of the high street

A new report shows how women are being disproportionately hit by job losses in retail, but outlines ways forward for the future.



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, according to a new report.

‘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.

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%.

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.

It outlines three different scenarios for the future: the ’empathy economy’ which would see a focus on customer experience and improved terms and conditions for workers; the ‘precision economy’ which includes greater personalisation and convenience, with gig economy algorithms used to allocate shifts within and across retail businesses, an increase in workplace monitoring but with data also being used to improve job quality for frontline workers; and ‘the big tech economy’ where tech companies increasingly challenge the high street, resulting in a decline in manual jobs and widespread redundancies.

The report 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, says: “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.”

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