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Does social mobility hold the key to retaining staff in the retail sector?

AuthorsDanielle PhillipsMegan Carden

5 min read

Retail & Leisure, Employment

Does social mobility hold the key to retaining staff in the retail sector

Many young people get their first taste of the working world in retail — a sector that has an above average proportion of employees from disadvantaged backgrounds. This places retail in a unique position when it comes to advancing social mobility.

Certainly, when it comes to entry-level positions, retailers have ample access to talent. However, a key challenge is how to retain and progress this talent into roles that require more experience.

Here, Danielle Phillips and Megan Carden explore why and how retailers should develop their approaches to attracting and retaining talent from diverse backgrounds. 


Data holds the key

In July 2023, the Social Mobility Commission published a toolkit for retailers on socioeconomic diversity and inclusion. This highlighted several areas where improvements could be made within the sector and encourages retailers to make informed decisions to establish a more diverse workforce. 

By collecting data on both employees and job applicants (which may include things like the type of school they attended and whether they were eligible for free school meals), retailers can better understand the backgrounds of their current and future employees — a crucial first step on the journey to inspire and enact change. 

If the data shows little diversity in the workforce — especially in senior roles — this can indicate that current policies and procedures may not support those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to reach their full potential. One example of this might be requiring university-level education as a minimum requirement to be considered for a supervisory position. 

Retailers may wish to review their current methods of recruiting — including any eligibility criteria — and consider adjusting these to widen outreach and appeal to more diverse communities. This could include providing better training to current employees to help them progress in their careers or consider expanding into “social mobility coldspots”.


Retaining your people

The Social Mobility Commission notes that while research shows 44% of those working in retail come from working class backgrounds, it’s evident that the sector struggles to diversify its workforce when it comes to ‘professional’ roles. There is also a strong correlation between ‘frontline’ roles being filled by working class people from diverse backgrounds while professional and managerial roles are occupied by those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.

31% of people from professional backgrounds are working in professional roles in retail, compared to only 20% of those from working class backgrounds. In today’s society, it’s imperative that all individuals — regardless of background, culture or socioeconomic factors — are given the opportunity to grow and learn new skills. It has become increasingly important for businesses not only to be seen to fulfil their social and moral responsibilities, but also represent the diverse communities that their products or services appeal to. 

As noted by Visionpath, maintaining a strong socially-mobile presence within the workforce is key to truly know the views and values of customers. For retailers, understanding customers’ needs and desires is central to providing high-quality goods and services — which in turn creates a better customer experience. 

Maintaining strong diversity can also be seen to benefit retailers both commercially and economically. As highlighted by McKinsey & Company in its 2023 report, the more diverse a company is, the wider a talent pool they have to recruit from. This improves employee morale and customer experience — all of which leads to better performance.


Success stories 

Many retailers are already using social mobility to their advantage. By filling senior positions from within (rather than hiring externally), retailers are able to benefit from the wealth of experience and relationships such employees have gained by working their way up from more junior positions. 

Dame Sharon White DBE — Chair of the John Lewis Partnership — spoke at a recent social mobility event to explain that there have been several members of the executive committee that had previously worked in individual branches. She also shared the story of a colleague who — having started out in the canteen at Peter Jones & Partners — went on to become the branch manager of John Lewis & Partners’ Oxford Street Store. 

As highlighted by Retail Week, three (current or recent) CEOs of large retailers “started life on the shopfloor”, including Sainsbury’s Simon Roberts. Such examples prove that in environments where social mobility is encouraged, it’s possible for individuals to climb the career ladder and reach leadership positions.

One retailer to recognise this is Co-op, which aims to recruit for professional and managerial roles internally. In 2023, Co-op conducted a report to examine the extent to which it supports social mobility, inclusion and belonging for its workforce. This found that certain leaders in the business had started their careers on checkouts at a young age and worked their way up through the ranks. They noted, “one employee started in a warehouse role as a school leaver and, receiving support with career development to progress to an HR role in Co-op’s support centre”. 

Such leaders who have worked across multiple business areas within Co-op were stated to have developed a “wide range of transferable skills and knowledge”, which meant that they were able to progress through to management positions and excel at what they do. It was also noted that such leaders “described the importance of their personal drive and work ethic, which they linked to their working-class backgrounds and a desire to achieve a better standard of living for themselves and their families”.


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