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HR in the Retail Sector

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 12 Jul 2016

HR in Retail

To work as an HR professional in retail you have to love retail itself. HR leaders in the sector say this gives you the necessary focus and commercial outlook to thrive in an industry that is fast-paced, relentless but also fun and passionate. An ability to handle large volumes of recruitment is essential too and a new focus on up-skilling store managers to deal with employee relations issues is seeing HR move away from transactional based work.

What’s the culture like?

Helen Alkin, Head of Future Talent Recruitment, Marks & Spencer says that the industry suffers from some misplaced ideas about it, largely built around our own experiences as customers, but she says it is incredibly fun. Miranda Jones, Head of People at The White Company says that people outside the industry might not know just how much passion there is within it either: “In order to create beautiful products and a lovely store there are lots of people that work really hard and are very passionate about what they are doing.”

The White Company recently assessed levels of engagement and were delighted to find that ‘being proud to work there’ was ranked as the highest. Whilst this is not always the case for retailers, there are marked improvements across the industry and loyalty is improving too, particularly amongst managers. Jones who has worked at the business for nine years says: “I think every day about how lucky I am to be doing the job that I do. I wouldn’t have been here this long if I didn’t love it.”

Which HR skills does the Retail sector demand?

Ability to work in a fast-paced environment: Jones says that any HR professional working in retail needs to feel comfortable working in a highly competitive and fast moving environment. Her background in HR at fast-food outlet McDonalds gave her a great grounding in that. “Speed of reaction in retail is crucial. Retail has to get under your skin and you have to be energised and passionate about working in it. I think that enjoying retail as a customer is really important as well as being naturally inquisitive about it. You need to be excited about it for it to be a good fit.”

Business acumen: Alkin agrees that you need to be incredibly commercially focused to work in retail: “Working in retail is all I have ever known. I joined M&S on the graduate training scheme but from speaking to others that have joined us from other sectors, the thing that they say that has surprised them is the level of commerciality that is required. You need to be very tuned into the business to work here.” The HR business partner model at M&S provides a framework for this to happen with the HR business partners working hand in hand with regional managers to drive the business strategy forward and provide consistency across the stores too.

What are the HR challenges in the Retail sector?

Recruitment: The retail market is highly competitive and added to that is the huge volume of recruitment that happens within the industry. Alkin says: “The sheer number of people we need to find is a challenge, added to that is that recruitment peaks and flows at different times, so you are turning it on and off all the time.” For Jones it is about finding the best people: “Getting brilliant people into your business is a challenge and you are also trying to appeal to different generations. Take the Millennials who are more transient. We have taken a big step at the White Company to deal with that and around six months ago we disbanded the HR team and founded a new people team that has five departments including learning and development, pay and reward, business partnering and an internal talent acquisition team as well as a communications and engagement team.” This new structure has allowed the business to focus on getting the best people on board and developing them in-house.

Legislation: The National Living Wage (NLW) introduced in April 2016 sees a hike in the minimum wage. This has had a big impact on employers in the retail sector which is heavily reliant on part-time staff on lower wages. Jones says: “The White Company takes the view that it is all about how we approach the NLW. The legislation gives us a framework within which we can work but it’s about where we pitch ourselves in the market.” Alkin agrees that it is about how you react to changes in regulations including the NLW but also the Apprenticeship Levy and, how you go about moving the organisation forward.

Engaging and managing part-time workers: For M&S, part of the challenge of working with a part-time workforce is more to do with the geographical factors than anything else. “Some areas are more affluent than others but we try to advertise opportunities that are meaningful by offering permanent maximum hours’ contracts, but by having part-time workers we are able to ensure we have the right number of staff to cover our peak trading times and this gives us some flexibility.” Alkin admits that bringing staff together to improve engagement has been a learning curve and strategies have been put in place to improve matters: “Engagement has been more of a challenge. We have worked hard to align shifts and streamline them so there are clear points in the day when store managers can engage with their staff, whether that is team briefings or other things. It ensures that the person that is working on an eight hour shift once a week, doesn’t miss out.”

The White Company has taken the approach of up-skilling area managers so that they are capable of dealing with employee issues themselves: “Managers feel empowered to manage situations on their own. This has been helped by our area managers embracing us as a department.” Jones adds that the White Company’s CEO wanted to create an HR department that wasn’t about crisis-management and putting people at the heart of everything has gone a long way towards achieving that aim.

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“I think there are preconceptions about what it’s like working in retail because of our interactions as customers but it is very fast-paced and whilst you are working towards a very clear goal and strategy sometimes the route to get there is ambiguous. The focus on driving the business forward is huge but it is incredibly fun, but you need the tenacity to enjoy it.”

Helen Alkin, Head of Future Talent Recruitment, Marks & Spencer