Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd

Everything must go: The changing face of retail recruitment

The retail sector is undeniably changing – is this impacting how it recruits?
Everything must go: The changing face of retail recruitment

Toys R Us. Maplins. House of Fraser. Carphone Warehouse. New Look. Marks & Spencer. PoundWorld. All are, or were, household names on the British shopping landscape. All struggled, or are still struggling, with retail trading conditions in 2018. All are, or were, large employers.

Whether these firms, along with many others, have had to cut the number of shops they trade out of, enter administration or cease doing business entirely, the affect isn’t just on shareholders and owners – employees, too, bear the brunt.

Reports vary as to how many retail jobs have been lost or imperilled this year. BBC 5 Live’s Wake Up To Money programme broadcast 22,000 as the figure of lost jobs thus far. Press Association cites a total circa 50,000. Just last month, PoundWorld’s collapse put 5000 jobs at risk. Toys R Us’ closure earlier this year made another 3000 redundant. These are headline-making numbers.

With the job losses so great, and so obvious, it would be easy to conclude that retail recruitment would also be struggling – which firm would hire when the whole industry is regularly reported, due to financial difficulties, to be unable to keep the staff it already has?

However, Shane Hawkins, Managing Director of C2 Recruitment, a retail and hospitality recruiter, explains that his agency are actually in a boom period – perhaps subverting expectations.

“We’re busier than ever,” Hawkins explains. “We’re working with companies in the news at the moment who you might think are struggling. Whilst the mainstream retail area, along with recruitment for the high street, is a little bit quieter we’ve seen other areas, such as discounts and the luxury side, are still very busy.”

Hawkins notes that there’s still an appetite for jobs in the sector too. He cites a growing trend of candidates approaching the agency for jobs, rather than C2 having to approach the candidate. Whilst this could easily be put down to being the individuals who’ve lost their job in one closing or struggling retail business looking to quickly get another job, this answer wouldn’t do enough to note the changing face of retail – and would ignore that some new opportunities exist in the sector.

“[Candidates] have got to be aware that there’s going to be a point where the high street are more focused on their online sales – people need to be aware of this,” Hawkins explains. “Companies such as ourselves need to give them piece of mind about what their next move looks like.”

It's a crucial point - one that could easily be forgetting amongst the hubbub of the big number of job losses - that Hawkins alludes to: that recruiters must practise proper canidate care. Hawkins adds that recruiters need to be “choosy” about the firms they’re sending candidates to – especially if that firm looks like it might close or enter administration. “We just have to be selective,” he concludes.

With three million people currently employed in retail, the chance for work in this sector still exists – for now at least. “There are still opportunities but the competition is tough,” Hawkins notes. Yet, the fact that retail currently provides a large tranche of domestic employment opportunities does not mean it always will. Oliver Shah, Business Editor at The Sunday Times, spoke to the Wake Up To Money programme, noting how difficult the sector has become.

'It’s impossible not to feel nervous when they see large companies go under'

Since 2008, he said, the retail sector has been a “savage” environment. Higher business rates, lower consumer confidence, a weaker pound, and less foot traffic - the result of internet shopping - has been “absolutely brutal” to retail. Yet, one of those areas is still providing jobs: customer service. Steve Pritchard, HR Consultant for Ben Sherman concurs: “customer service roles are growing, to deal with online enquiries. Instant messengers and social media are becoming more and more pivotal in the world of retail, so many jobs are opening up in the digital sector of retail.”

And whilst Pritchard, much like Hawkins, has witnessed an increase in applicants for retail jobs – adding that the internet and apps have made it easier for potential hires to apply – it doesn’t mean the collapse of big-name players isn’t felt throughout the sector. “It’s impossible not to feel nervous when they see large companies go under,” he says. “The key is to stay afloat, to see what happened to those companies and take steps to ensure you steer away from falling into the same traps.”

'Candidates have got to be aware that there’s going to be a point where the high street are more focused on their online sales'


With hiring conditions so undeniably tough, it’s not just about having the right employment package but aiming them at the right kind of staff. Michael McHale, Head of Recruitment, at sporting goods retailer Decathlon explains that both recruiters and firms have to be in sync with the step change that the sector is experiencing.

He said: “The retail sector has placed a progressively greater focus on e-commerce, the in-store retail experience has had to shift from being purely transactional, to a more experiential offering.

“Retail roles and responsibilities have naturally evolved to reflect this step-change and hiring staff who have genuine passion and knowledge for the products your business sells has never been more crucial, as access to this expertise is a customer experience that cannot be replicated online.”

It’s if this is done that Hawkins, McHale and Pritchard still see a positive future – despite the obvious changes.