1 in 4 know someone who found a new career in retail – time to future proof our workforce?

Retailers and retail workers have been working hard over the last few months to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 and ensure they’re able to provide essential supplies to those that need them. So much so, that the vast majority of Brits (77%) believe that retail workers deserve more respect within society, with over half 58% pledging to be nicer to retail staff following Covid-19. What’s more, one in four (24%) of us know someone who has been displaced from their career as a result of Covid-19 and has since found employment in retail.

As we begin to look beyond the crisis, it’s important that retailers remember the real, human value retail workers have added throughout this period, with research revealing that we’re more likely to have had face to face interactions with retail workers than friends, family and colleagues during the UK’s lockdown. With this in mind, new research has revealed that retailers would lose out on almost three quarters of their footfall if they replaced staff with technology, as 72% of Brits say they would reconsider shopping in store if there were no retail staff available. This figure rises to 83% of those aged 55+.

Indeed, the findings from jobs site RetailChoice found that retail workers (81%) believe that people are at the heart of the retail industry, despite the increasing presence of automation and technology in the sector. What’s more, whilst two in three (62%) retail workers are confident that they won’t be replaced by a robot, half (44%) of workers feel that their employer isn’t providing them with enough training to keep up with changes in technology. This is significant, as maintaining a competent, personable workforce is vital to a brand’s reputation. The research reveals half of consumers (51%) report the reason they return to their favourite stores as because of their exceptional customer service.

To help alleviate this skills gap, two in three (61%) workers would like their employers to hire an instore technology expert to help resolve tech issues. However, workers are also crying out for technology training, with 72% of workers wanting to undertake online training modules. The motivation to adapt is clear, as 81% of retail workers feel there will be opportunities to learn new skills as a result of tech’s growing presence in retail. RetailChoice’s research highlights that employers need to upskill their staff and give them the necessary tools to keep adapting to changing circumstances, ensuring they can continue their essential work, no matter what the future holds.

It’s not Retail Worker v. Technology

There is certainly an appetite for tech within the industry, as 80% of retail workers say they are excited by the opportunities new technologies pose for the retail sector. Retail workers see tech as being most beneficial to check if a product is in stock (58%) or to locate a specific product in the store (48%), while consumers would rather interact with a worker in all instore scenarios, bar checking the price of a product, for which 51% would prefer to use technology.

This preference is reflected in the consumers retail workers support. Only 27% of Brits said they would be comfortable being served by a robot in a store, highlighting the continued need for personalised, human customer support. This is particularly pertinent for retailers serving older customers, as only 13% of those aged 55+ said they would be comfortable being served by technology.

Looking ahead to the future, while 60% of workers feel that their role has changed due to developments in technology, this rises to 74% who feel that their role will change significantly in the future, suggesting that the greatest changes may be yet to come.

Oliver Wren, Jobs Expert at RetailChoice, says:

“Whilst there is appetite from retail workers for more instore technology to automate basic functions, our research highlights that people are still very much at the heart of the industry. Retail staff recognise the value of their work in providing personalised customer service and shoppers prefer to speak to retail staff over technology, particularly when it comes to advice or support.

“With this in mind, retailers must be careful not to over-automate their stores. Too much technology, which might falter or over-complicate the retail experience, is likely to frustrate workers and consumers alike. What’s more, the research shows that half of retail workers don’t feel they have received the necessary training to keep up with changes in technology. Employers need to invest in their staff as well as investing in new technology, to ensure retail workers can focus on delivering what they do best: exceptional customer service.”

Good Customer Service = More Sales

Clearly, shoppers still value the presence of retail workers, as two thirds of shoppers (67%) say they are more likely to purchase a product if they receive personable and friendly customer service. Retail workers recognise this too, arguing that friendly and familiar retail staff are the main reason shoppers return to their store (63%), followed by staff taking the time to understand shoppers needs and requirements (42%).

What’s more, stores could see a fall in sales if they were to move towards a total digital service, with the average consumer not wanting to spend more than £158 instore without being able to speak to a retail worker. This highlights real concerns for major retail outlets who rely on big ticket spends. Furthermore, this figure falls to just £28 for those aged 75+, meaning corner shops and grocery stores are at risk of disenfranchising entire demographics. Retail workers acknowledge their role in facilitating high-ticket sales, with 83% stating that consumers are reassured by the presence of shop floor employees when purchasing more expensive items.