A nation of shopkeepers in need of help and “helps”
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us any lessons, it is the existential reality that the UK has a deeply conflicted, complicated, and paradoxical relationship with the retail sector. Whether you love or loathe shopping or retail therapy, this most public-facing sector is a lightning conductor of economic performance, which is both applauded and shunned in equal measure—an ambivalence that translates as tough love for tough times. Indeed, it is praised for keeping the nation fed during the darkest period of the pandemic while reviled for adding to the climate crisis through excessive food wastage, plastic packaging, and the promotion of fast fashion that will most likely end up in landfill.
With almost three million people in the UK working in this front-line service economy, and with sales of almost £4 billion last year, retail is a significant contributor to the nation’s GDP, but it is also criticised for its low wages and gig economy work practices that, it has been argued, artificially depress salaries across the country and hold back professionalisation of the sector that is enjoyed by retail workers elsewhere. This is far from fresh thinking and was probably best expressed by the benign dictator Napoleon Bonaparte when he uttered the famous, and often misquoted, phrase about England being a nation of shopkeepers, the full text of which (excerpted from Napoleon in Exile by Barry O’Meara) gives a more revealing and nuanced picture:
“Your meddling in continental affairs, and trying to make yourselves a great military power, instead of attending to the sea and commerce, will yet be your ruin as a nation. You were greatly offended with me for having called you a nation of shopkeepers. Had I meant by this, that you were a nation of cowards, you would have had reason to be displeased; even though it were ridiculous and contrary to historical facts; but no such thing was ever intended. I meant that you were a nation of merchants, and that all your great riches, and your grand resources arose from commerce, which is true. What else constitutes the riches of England? It is not extent of territory, or a numerous population. It is not mines of gold, silver, or diamonds. Moreover, no man of sense ought to be ashamed of being called a shopkeeper. But your prince and your ministers appear to wish to change altogether l’esprit of the English, and to render you another nation; to make you ashamed of your shops and your trade, which have made you what you are, and to sigh after nobility, titles and crosses; in fact to assimilate you with the French... You are all nobility now, instead of the plain old Englishmen.”
This antipathy towards retail has a darker side. On one hand, retail workers were clapped along with the NHS staff and other essential and front-line workers as part of a UK Thursday evening lockdown ritual. But in July 2020, when it came to protecting shop workers against the worst aspects of customer behaviour, including spitting incidents during the pandemic, the UK Government, which had called for and received thousands of examples of evidence of violence and aggression, held back from offering specific legal protection to shop staff, although north of the border a bill to protect their colleagues was unanimously voted through by the Scottish Parliament in September.
When looking for advocates for UK retail, the British Retail Consortium (BRC), the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), and USDAW, the shopworkers trade union, all of which provided evidence to the Home Office, are recognised as the champions for the sector and the people who work at the front line. But these organisations do not complete the picture.
Helps and Help Is at Hand
One charitable organisation that has been working on behalf of the sector for more than a century is finally stepping out of the shadows with high-profile campaigning focused on championing the health of retail at a time when the sector has been severely impacted as a result of coronavirus. According to retailTRUST, for all the reliance on the sector over the past months—and the importance of the sector now to any economic and social recovery—the industry is also one of the most exposed to the economic impact of the disease.
When Thomas Helps, a small artisan retailer, and his associates came together in London in 1832 to establish The Linen and Woollen Drapers, Silk Mercers, Lacemen, Haberdashers, and Hosiers Institution, little could they have envisaged that some 188 years later the renamed retailTRUST would have become a beacon of light in dark times, not just in terms of championing the sector but also in providing tangible and practical support for staff colleagues and their families. With Her Majesty the Queen at the helm as patron since 1948, the trust’s influence today remains forensically focused and more relevant than at the time of its founding fathers.
The Retail Week and the Retail Congress (RWRC) 100 index, the annual ranking that celebrates industry figures who are transforming retail, speaking out, innovating, making headlines, and driving growth, recently identified retailTRUST Chairman Alistair McGeorge and Trustee Mike Logue as two of the sector’s most influential leaders of 2020.
The charity’s mission is simple: retailTRUST believes that the health of all our colleagues is a foundation of the ongoing success of British retail. Since 1832, it has been at the heart of how the retail industry cares for, protects, and improves the lives of its most valuable asset—its people. Its vision is to build a coalition of businesses and leaders that recognises the responsibility the industry has to look after the people that contribute to its financial success, and build a healthy, happy, diverse, and inclusive workforce that reflects retail’s position as the premier industry in the UK economy.
Today, thanks to the support the industry gives retailTRUST, it helps retailers look after the well-being of their most vital asset, their people, via access to career-changing learning and development; financial, emotional, and physical well-being services; and supported-living estates. retailTRUST offers everything from a well-being helpline and self-help support to non-repayable grants to improve the lives of all involved with retail and the supporting service industries. This includes wholesaling, distribution, and manufacturing for retail and all allied services. Increasingly, many of those it supports are from digital retail backgrounds, reflecting the growing influence of online retailing.
For a 180-year-old organisation that is driven by that old-fashioned word “benevolence,” the charity’s goal of dealing with day-to-day dramas impacting industry colleagues from increasing violence against staff to their mental well-being at a time of COVID, has never been more apposite. Chillingly, the Centre for Retail Research predicted 20,622 stores will close this year, and job losses will increase to 235,704. This is supported by the British Chamber of Commerce, which has reported that 29 per cent of businesses plan to cut the size of their workforces before the end of 2020, while Next boss Lord Simon Wolfson said the sector was facing an “uncomfortable” future with thousands of physical jobs no longer being “viable” as a result of a corona-fuelled shift to online shopping.
According to retailTRUST, the response of the Government and the measures to support retail have divided opinion. Although the most headline-grabbing financial packages announced recently have been pointed at the hospitality sector, the coronavirus crisis has accelerated the changes retail has been experiencing for two decades, a shifting of the tectonic plates that will permanently alter the high street landscape.
But, the trust argues, important parts of the sector’s DNA will endure—most significantly that retail is a sector that draws its strength from its colleagues and its position as the UK’s biggest private sector employer. In return, the trust maintains that retail is central to tackling issues like social mobility, youth unemployment, and leadership at a time when the sector and the nation need to reset the moral compass and steer a new path.
While one in four adults in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lifetime, the trust launched its #forthefour campaign in October focusing upon all those retail workers who experience a setback or difficult life event. Focusing on Mental Health Awareness Day, National Work Life Week, and its first virtual event, the trust created a month of activity and conversation about health and well-being in the retail industry. The three-day programme of content equipped colleagues with the skills to manage their emotional, physical, vocational, and financial well-being and protect their health and happiness during these unprecedented times. You can access the content on demand by visiting retailtrust.org.uk/forthefour.
More than 200 of the UK’s biggest retailers now pay into the trust’s funds to help support this vital 24/7 lifeline for colleagues that range from leadership in the sector to address the negative perception of the industry that Bonaparte highlighted, to educational support and helping to drive the well-being agenda. For example, up to 400 students are currently studying the Retail Leader Apprenticeship Degree, the first of its kind in the sector. The programme is preparing colleagues to face the challenges of leading in the ever-morphing high street environment by developing “capable and resilient” retail leaders. In the first year £825,000 worth of apprenticeship levy funds were accessed and reinvested in the industry in order to develop the next generation of retail gurus who can take the sector forward.
Education is the catalyst to this forward-thinking approach, whether its internal training provision or external grants to enable those in the sector to complete their qualifications. Two distinct examples of this would be the fact that retailTRUST supports retailers to improve the lives of their employees, performance, and the bottom line through workshops designed specifically for the demands and challenges of the sector. Using a national network of seasoned facilitators, all of whom have experience in retail and mental health, the trust has invested in helping organisations to design bespoke workshops to suit retailers’ specific challenges. For example, since 2018, retailTRUST has delivered well-being workshops to over 800 of Aldi’s managers.
Non-repayable educational grants are another vehicle of support, even when the recipient is a family member of a retail worker. When Esther Umoh’s mother lost her retail job, the undergraduate suddenly found herself facing the prospect of losing her degree. Left with unmanageable university fees, increased living expenses, and on furlough, the student, who has lived in the UK for fourteen years, turned to retailTRUST for support.
Esther said, “In my third year of undergraduate studies, a series of unforeseen circumstances occurred. My mother, who was supporting me to pay my tuition fees, lost her full-time job. We were given short notice to move out of our home as the landlord put the house up for sale. We found a new property, but it was increasingly expensive. With the current pandemic, I was placed on furlough and could not do the desired extra hours to continue to self-fund my studies. I was left with an outstanding balance of university fees to pay off. Until the outstanding fee was cleared, I was denied access to my degree classification and transcript. This prevented progression into postgraduate studies and work.”
Esther found retailTRUST online and applied for a non-repayable educational grant. The trust was able to support her with her university fees allowing her to progress in her career. Esther continued, “This support has given me hope to progress with the next steps in my studies and career. It has given me the ability to graduate and receive my degree classification. I would most definitely recommend retailTRUST because the charity has supported me with financial provision, which in these unprecedented times, I could not have obtained.”
Driving the right behaviours in retail is part of the trust’s well-being agenda. Whether it’s dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 or lifting the rock on taboo issues, such as domestic abuse, as it impacts staff, or the menopause and how retail HR teams can help normalise the debate and advise staff, the trust is leading the debate.
Cliff Lee, head of well-being at retailTRUST, said the tentacles of the trust stretched beyond traditional help. “The BRC may be seen as the voice of retail, but our strength is supporting people, from their emotional to their physical well-being. We cover a lot of ground for a lot of people—from supporting with daily living expenses to providing tens of thousands of pounds for home adaptations for those with disabilities,” said Cliff, who began his retail career at Dixons over twenty-five years ago before taking on a regional manager role at Iceland. “The industry has made great strides in the well-being agenda in recent years, but there has long been an understanding that in terms of issues such as supporting colleagues going through domestic abuse and menopause, for example, more needed to be done to prevent these issues slipping under the radar. These approaches don’t cost millions but can really help a business implement policies quickly.”
Now, the virus and the impact of furlough on the sector is adding further complexity to the well-being dilemma across retail. The trust has launched a fundraising campaign with the aim of raising £10 million to provide the financial, emotional, physical, and vocational support for retail workers and their families who were ineligible for Government support during the health emergency. According to the trust, the appeal would offer a vital lifeline to those on retail’s front line who are putting their customers’ health and well-being before their own, including contractors and temporary staff, those who have already been left out of work, and employees who needed more than just financial help. Emotional and physical support was also required by those who still have jobs as they coped with the stress of meeting heightened demand in essential stores and risking exposure to COVID-19 on a daily basis.
“We launched this campaign at the beginning of the pandemic as a short-term fix, but we are all learning now that the ramifications of this will be felt longer and deeper—we know we have to help more people as they get into difficulty,” said Cliff. “There has been a lot of demand on our counselling services, but more and more requirements for financial assistance and our grants.”
Cliff, who left retail in 2008 to follow his passion and set up a well-being service within a social enterprise before joining the trust 18 months ago, said that COVID-19 will not only change the high street landscape but also day-to-day customer behaviours as stress and fear for the future manifest themselves in often anti-social activity, all of which impacts store colleagues who may be going through their own situational anxieties.
He continued, “We have seen a rise in challenging behaviour in store, and this includes violence. Staff roles have moved from that of just ensuring the highest levels of customer care to marshalling queues, managing social distancing, and the wearing of face coverings, which can cause aggravation with customers. These are customers who may also be stressed, and waiting in a queue makes matters worse.
“As the situation has gone on longer, patience is wearing thin and compliance more difficult to police. We have seen rising cases of mask shaming, customer-on-customer conflicts over face coverings, and this is bringing out people’s unconscious prejudices. In addition, we have the issue of more retail crime as a result of job losses and the recession, which could lead to a perfect storm and a really challenging road ahead for many people. Christmas is usually a golden quarter for retail, but there may be many retailers who won’t make it through this period. They are having to negotiate with landlords around rent and linking it to turnover, for example. It is a busy time for us as we make sure that we are there for all colleagues working in retail during these difficult times.”
On a political level, the trust is also trying to help businesses navigate high-risk issues around Black Lives Matter and how that translates on a day-to-day basis.
“Retail has a high proportion of black and ethnic minority workers, and during COVID there has been a lot of misinformation around [Black and minority ethnic] workers being at higher risk of contracting the disease, and again, this is bringing out unconscious prejudice,” Cliff said. “Retailers have never had to have a position on these issues. Inclusion is a massive issue. Whether its BLM, well-being, menopause—HR teams must feel like they are juggling with chainsaws—2020 will go down in history as a really difficult time for retail.”
retailTRUST is probably the sector’s best-kept secret. The trust has transformed itself multiple times over its 188 years, developing with the needs of the industry to provide the health support that ensures the sector’s people thrive, the next generation of retailers find work, and former colleagues are looked after.
Retail is going through a period of dramatic transformation that not all will survive, but at least help, well beyond that envisaged by Thomas Helps in the nineteenth century, is at hand both to support and guide colleagues beyond 2020 and the COVID crisis.