My retail journey began in what must be fairly typical style. I was eighteen and the family had recently moved from the leafy suburbs of Surrey to Bournemouth – or viewed through the eyes of a teenager, the world’s dullest backwater. I couldn’t even get Capital Radio, this was a disaster.
But of course, as these things tend to, things began to mellow a little and I got a Saturday job at the local music store; Minns Music. It earnt some petrol and beer money and satisfied my desire to be around guitars and amps. Minns sadly folded many years ago.
From there, I moved on to another icon of the Bournemouth retail scene – Beales of Bournemouth. This time it was a full-time job as hardware storeman. I checked in, priced up and put out on the floor, everything from Star Wars toys to Le Creuset kitchenware.
It was a blissful time and I met a lot of great people during my time there. But here’s the thing, in my mind I was always treading water, waiting until I could make up my mind about what I really wanted to do. And the sad thing is that forty years later, hardly anything has changed. Retail is still seen as something of a stop-gap, something to do to earn some money while deciding on a ‘proper’ job.
Retail is the UK’s largest private sector employer with around three million people working in it, however, attracting new talent to a sector, now burgeoning with digital disruption and innovation, appears to be not the work of a moment.
Ironically, the breadth of different roles now on offer within the sector is greater than at any other time, from warehouse operators to shop floor roles to data scientists to SEO and everything in between.
However, it is a sobering thought that whilst the UK has some 164 universities, whatuni.com reports that just 16 of them offer 26 retail degree courses.
And this lack of opportunity and encouragement for school-leavers to consider retail as a credible career option is supported by one education CEO I spoke to who confirmed that there is little interest displayed either by retailers to attract new talent and consequentially no desire on the part of students to join a sector they perceive as nothing more than stacking shelves.
The superstars of retail – think Sir Stuart Rose, Archie Norman, Sir Terry Leahy – are all towards the latter stages of their careers, and apart from a few notable exceptions such as Gymshark’s Ben Francis, on the face of it, the talent pool is in danger of running dry.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Whereas our established retail leaders began their careers on the shop floor in an era when a pocket calculator was leading edge technology and bar codes were decades away, according to Internet Retailing, the under-25s are now driving an online start-up boom.
In the same report, a survey of 2,502 aged 16 to 24 across the country, carried out by Censuswide for GoDaddy, shows that the retail industry is highly popular among young entrepreneurs, with 15% launching a retail business since February 2020.
So, if retail represents a digital opportunity, what does this mean for more traditional bricks and mortar retail businesses? The truth of course is that the two should be able to co-exist in harmony, as one business. However, one can only speculate as to how many of those young entrepreneurs will be willing to embrace the cost, risk and complexity of physical retail, in favour of an entirely digital life.
But of course, digital retail also happens to be physical, it’s just that it doesn’t have any stores. It still has to have a supply chain, including warehouses and trucks, even if they are third party owned. So, rather than hoping for the best and relying on young millennial and older Gen Z digital natives embracing retail as an ecommerce opportunity, shouldn’t there be a more pro-active attempt to encourage talent to the sector across all the different types of roles?
Other than the few university degree courses, opportunities to study retail appear few and far between. There is the Fashion Retail Academy, and of course the excellent Saïd Business School which runs the OSS Masters, now owned by the British Retail Consortium.
The late withdrawal by many big technology vendors from the annual National Retail Federation conference in New York last month drew much criticism, however, one thing is clear; technology and retail are now inextricably joined at the hip. And what’s more, there is a clear opportunity for them to become even more integrated with the industry.
A big tech backed retail academy, now that’s something to conjure with.