Retailers deploying staff 'in more efficient ways'

Changing dynamics within the retail industry, the shift to multichannel retailing and the continued challenges of cost control are prompting retailers – particularly grocers – to reconsider the way they deploy their staff, according to British Retail Consortium (BRC) director-general Helen Dickinson.

Consumers' preference for convenience top-up shopping, allied with greater competition within the grocery market and the impact of internet retailing, has required the traditional grocery model to change, she said.

Her comments come as the BRC-Bond Dickinson Retail Employment Monitor for the third quarter of 2014 found that the number of full-time jobs in retail fell by 1.3% compared to the same period last year.

The study indicated that the average number of full-time equivalent staff per store fell to a record low, which was attributed to a drive towards smaller format stores – particularly in the food sector. Grocers also reportedly cut back on the number of hours worked, compared with one year before.

"This is the fifth month in a row where we have seen a decline in the number of hours worked in retail," explained Dickinson.

"This quarter's fall of -1.3% in full-time equivalent jobs is, once again, driven by food retailers reacting to the significant structural changes that are on-going across the industry."

The director-general said that the latest barometer is a demonstration of how tightly retailers are controlling their costs in a highly competitive marketplace, as they battle for their share of the market while keeping prices as low as possible.

Earlier this week, Waitrose managing director Mark Price said that out-of-town supermarkets and the weekly shop have become a "thing of the past". Talking to the Daily Telegraph as the grocer promoted its annual Food & Drink Report, Price also suggested that the big four of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons are running supermarkets that are 20 years out of date.

His comments reflect much of what Dickinson has said about the changing structures in grocery, with time-poor consumers now keen to buy food and drink on the go. These trends are forcing businesses to become more agile in developing services and workforces to meet these modern customer requirements.

Heiner Evanschitzky, professor of marketing at Aston Business School, indicated this week that the big four are "rightly focused" on opening smaller format stores to serve their customers, but argued there is much more they can do.

"The days of the weekly shop are long gone – nowadays we are more likely to grab what we need, when we need it, often from smaller, convenience-style stores," he noted.

"Tesco and Sainsbury's led the way in opening these smaller stores, but now others are following suit. With competition hotting up, the big four need to do more to stand out and get close to the discounters snapping at their heels. Supermarkets need to strategically locate their smaller stores close to customers and – perhaps paradoxically – close to their competitors."

He also advised the grocers to look at retail innovation in regions such as Asia, for example South Korea, where virtual shelves are projected onto train station walls, allowing shoppers to simply click on the products they want with their phone, and order their shopping to home.

Ocado trialled a similar service in London in 2011, and all the major supermarkets have innovation teams looking at ways to enhance home delivery and provide more convenient access to their ranges, and it is clear that the role of the retail workforce will continue to evolve.

The industry will be looking for a short-term boost to employment figures over the coming months, with the festive season fast approaching. Amazon has announced a strong recruitment drive in the UK ahead of Christmas, while Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield is set to add around 2,000 staff in time for the festivities.

Announcements of this kind are set to be replicated by a number of the key players on the high street, judging by previous years.

"As we approach the vital Christmas period, retailers will likely add a large number of temporary staff to their workforce to help them meet increased seasonal demand," remarked Dickinson.

"Previously we have seen that a large percentage of these jobs turn into permanent positions."

Once the Christmas rush is over, it might be time for more retailers to investigate how they can best leverage their staff in a digital, convenience-led shopping era, and ensure they understand exactly what consumers now require from the retail workforce.

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