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You don’t need a subscription to Retail Week to know that the British high street has been an unforgiving place of late. Like the markets it serves, the Retail industry has been polarised by recession; a mix of thriving businesses, household names in administration or liquidation and not much in between.

Yet it’s this stark landscape which has thrown light on an emergent theme in Retail strategy: employee wellbeing and engagement.

High levels of employee wellbeing and engagement unite the success stories of Retailers as diverse as John Lewis Partnership, ASOS and Pets at Home, all of whom have managed to defy the economic conditions and achieve growth. Crucially for the sector, it’s this philosophy that provides a model for other Retailers to achieve sustainable success too.

Whilst there has been little coverage in Retail trade press of employee wellbeing as an emergent trend, organisations such as the Retail Think Tank (RTT) have hinted at a sea change for HR, particularly in those most successful companies. Gone is the simple mantra that engaged employees equal better customer interactions. The best companies look further than that transactional view of Retail where discretionary effort and expertise delights the customer. It may still hold true, but it belies the impact that a positive culture can have right across the new Retailing business model.

It’s the unique combination of current market conditions that has brought this thinking to the fore – whilst the UK is moving out of recession there is still no let up for Retailers who are seeking to maintain their margins and offer a competitive level of customer experience. Inflation may be low but so too is consumer confidence and businesses are having to work harder for customers with greater choice and expectations of value for money.

The challenge for Retailers is to react to these constant pressures; there’s a need to design new processes and technologies, integrate sales channels and innovate brands, whilst competing for the talent which can help to do all this. That is a mighty challenge for any business, and one which will only be met by viewing employees less as overhead than the driving force behind success.

The rise to prominence of online retailing is another challenge to add into the mix. For those seeking to drive their online channel, the engagement culture that is vital for successful, innovative organisations has been signposted by the likes of ASOS. From the bright young things of online fashion Retail, ASOS are now an established, highly profitable business and quote their engagement culture as key to their success in ‘…providing a great place to work, both via a stimulating and enabling physical environment and culture, and also by promoting engagement with, and pride in, our business’ (annual report 2012).

John Lewis and Pets at Home have a similar ethos, with their commitment to their employees and unique cultures acknowledged publically at Board level. However these examples are perhaps the exception to the rule and HR faces a challenge to gain buy-in from other Retail business leaders. The investment needed to prioritise employee wellbeing, whether that’s training, new facilities or reward schemes could be seen at odds with many Retailers’ current task of keeping costs down. There is also the issue of whether employees are willing to be engaged, especially if they are working in an environment of insecurity – a problem which Ben Moss has addressed previously on this blog.

On July 2nd 2013 Robertson Cooper are bringing together some of the sector’s leading figures to discuss the current challenges for Retail and how employee wellbeing and engagement can play a key role in overcoming them. To chair the event we’re excited to be welcoming John Timpson OBE. With over 40 years experience in Retail, the current Chairman of the Timpson chain and resident Telegraph business agony uncle John is uniquely placed to comment on the challenges facing the sector. Robertson Cooper will also be contributing expert guidance on how wellbeing can help to address those challenges in a sustainable way. 

In the meantime, if you work in Retail, we want to hear from you about your experiences – whether that’s as a HR practitioner, senior leader, or working on the shopfloor. What is the reality for employees in Retail and their levels of wellbeing and engagement?

Retail is fundamental to the UK – 10% are employed in the sector so it’s still true that we’re a nation of shopkeepers. It’s HR that can make sure it stays that way; by ensuring high levels of employee engagement and wellbeing are at the centre of the modern retail model.

Find out more about Robertson Cooper’s Retail roundtable event or request a place – please note places are limited so get in touch as soon as possible to guarantee yours.