Understanding variability in retail work : an analysis of labour supply and skills demands in clothing, footwear and leather goods

Nickson, Dennis and Warhurst, Chris and Hurrell, Scott Alexander and Commander, Johanna (2009) Understanding variability in retail work : an analysis of labour supply and skills demands in clothing, footwear and leather goods. In: 27th International Labour Process Conference, 2009-04-06 - 2009-04-08. (Unpublished)

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Retail is now a significant part of the UK economy, accounting for £256 billion in sales and one-third of all consumer spending (Skillsmart, 2007). Indeed, it is the largest private sector employer in the UK, employing three million workers, or 1 in 10 of the working population. Retail though should not be seen in a homogenous manner and it should be recognized that retail work is highly variable. This variability can exist at a number of levels, for example by sub-sector and size of organization. With regard to sub-sectors, when broken down by 4-digit Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) descriptors the ‘retail sector’ totals 24 sub-sectors in the UK (Skillsmart, 2007). The variability between sub-sectors may be especially true with regard to the labour markets from which organisations seek employees and the skill demands of employers in the various sub-sector. With regard to that latter point Hart et al (2007: 272) note how skill requirements may not be homogenous across the whole sector and consequently ‘…little is understood about which specific skills are important to different retailers; whether and how the skills need differ for multiple or SMEs, or for different employee groups; and the extent to which retail employers meet these requirements’. The research reported in this paper aims to address this issue by providing an analysis of the labour supply and skills demands for the sub-sectors of clothing, footwear and leather goods. Recognition of the potential differences between sub-sectors is important to consider how issues of labour supply and skills demands may vary between sub-sectors. In particular, the paper argues that different sub-sectors will draw upon different segments of the labour market and that the product being sold will also have an impact on the skills required by employers. Buchanan et al. (2003) for example develop a continuum which ranges from goods which ‘sell themselves’ to those that ‘need to be sold’. The paper draws on a survey of 173 clothing, footwear and leather goods retailers in the Greater Manchester area undertaken as part of a broader comparative project with teams from Australia and Sweden. The results from the survey affirm a number of the findings from earlier research assessing employer skills demands in retail (Bunt et al., 2005; Nickson et al., 2005). For example, Manchester employers were concerned with the softer skills of applicants, such that having the ‘right’ attitude and appearance was considered essential to do front-line work. However, whilst there were a number of similarities with previous research assessing retail employers skill demands there were also revealing differences arising from the Manchester survey. For example, employers in the Manchester clothing, footwear and leather goods sub-sectors indicated an increased demand for product knowledge in their front line staff. The paper considers these differences to develop an analysis of the need to recognize the distinctiveness of sub-sectors within retail. In considering the segmented nature of the retail labour market the paper argues that clothing, footwear and leather goods retailers are less likely to suffer from labour shortages as there is greater cachet working in these areas compared to other parts of the retail sector. Thus the paper contributes to on-going debates about labour supply and skills demands in retail, whilst also offering some support for the notion of a ‘labour aristocracy’ (Warhurst and Nickson, 2007) in certain parts of the service economy.