Squire Sanders recently co-hosted The Retail Debate: Fight or Flight in Leeds to consider the shape of the UK retail industry in the current economic climate and what the future may hold in the ever-changing retail landscape.

A number of key themes emerged from the “People Power” breakout session and it became clear that many of the issues facing UK retailers are shared by employers more widely, including:

  • Engagement:  There was a general consensus that the most successful retailers are those who engage their employees – employees who feel involved and “live and breathe the brand” are happier and more likely to deliver exceptional customer service.

But how do employers encourage staff engagement?  Communication was one of the main drivers – keeping employees up to date with what the company is doing helps to inform and change behaviours. Seeking feedback from employees was identified as another important way of stimulating engagement, but it comes with a warning that unless the feedback is then taken on board and acted upon to some extent it can damage rather than increase employee engagement.

  •  Generation Next:  How do employers help the 1.5 million under-25’s into work?   There are no easy answers in the current economic climate but all those retailers who were present agreed that this is an issue that cannot be ignored and various strategies were discussed for addressing it, including wider use of apprenticeships.

Employers shouldn’t be afraid of giving young people responsibility and trust.  For example, their careful use of social media can increase engagement, loyalty and ultimately customer service. Employers may also need to think about flexible working patterns and different ways of working as the next generation may be less prepared to work the static hours most businesses have and will want hours that fit in with their lifestyle.

  •  Cultural shift:  Linked to the question of how to get the next generation working is the question of how employers ensure their staff have the right social skills?  Concerns were expressed that in this brave new world where young individuals increasingly interact with each other via social media sites rather than in person, employers are struggling to find people who have the right skills for customer-facing roles. There was a strong feeling that employers will have to invest in basic training to ensure their staff have the right social and business skills, whether it be literacy, numeracy or simple conversational aptitude. Importantly, this starts at the recruitment stage, making sure they have the right recruitment procedures in place to select the right personalities for these roles.

At our main panel session David Ciancio of retail strategist dunnhumby http://www.dunnhumby.com/ observed: “The feedback from 11.5 million customers is that they expect price to be fair but for people to be great”.  The struggle for employers is to ensure their staff are engaged, in touch with their brand and culture, inspired and incentivised to provide that great service, without breaking the bank.