It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected news that retail giant BHS has had to call in the administrators – an all too common trend among time served retailers. Of those who haven’t crumbled like C&A or Woolworths, many (WHSmith for example) have been close. Understandably, a common pressure placed on businesses to perform is that of its shareholders. They’ve made a financial investment which failure will see them lose, and conversely if the business is successful they may make significant gains. But what about other types of investments made in businesses – of time, of careers, of people? Retail workers don’t deserve to be mistreated, as has been the case in the past, or to be tainted with the mark of failed enterprise. They certainly do deserve our sympathy.
Even though our economy is now heavily service-based, retail workers are still getting a poor deal. Commonly exposed to insecure employment practices; at best they’re treated as seasonal. At worst, disposable. They may be part of the “new” economy where this is expected in the name of the double-edged sword that is flexibility, but retail is one of the oldest service-based professions around. However, in a society fuelled by consumerism, held together by adherence to the latest fad or trend, that professionalism is on increasingly shaky foundations.
In Sennett’s seminal book The Corrosion of Character he talks about visiting an Italian bakery a couple of decades apart. In the first instance the bakery is staffed by sweaty Italians kneading dough. Some time later, the retired Italians have been replaced by a mix of unskilled workers baking bread by pressing buttons on computers. They have no control over the product and the industrial bins outside are often full of burnt bread. The workers don’t see themselves as bakers; they could be staffing any shop. Although the workers have no attachment to the product, or even the company, it doesn’t seem to bother them. Neither does it really bother the company – despite the stoppages due to failed batches, the bread is still hugely popular. It’s the perfect microcosm of the modern retail conumdrum. There are no skills – which makes them completely transferable. And there’s no attachment, be it to an organisation or a product, again allowing complete mobility. Employee loyalty would appear to completely mirror fickle customer loyalty; an ever-fading memory in the search for the next best deal.
It’s easy to forget that we’ve done this to ourselves. When products are disposable, people and even organisations need to be too. Because there’s so much choice, and because turnover in the retail indsutry is so high, a customer will rarely see the same employee more than a handful of times in visiting a huge department store like BHS. What does it matter to us if someone else can easily give us something better, for cheaper, somewhere else? We are encouraged by the expectation that the hole in the high street will soon be swallowed by someone new selling something we actually do need (or so they tell us).
Some of the retailing trends we’ve witnessed over a century or so have been cyclical – such as getting your groceries delivered. Albeit it’s now a global giant on your doorstep who substitutes macadamias for mushrooms rather than a local familiar face who could tell you when the next shipment would be in. If we want a bit of quality and personality, it’s four times the price. Many retailers have been too complacent in spoon feeding us what they think we want, or worse, what they like to tell us we want. Of course it’s their people on the ground who could have told them that, but unfortunately it looks like they’ve stopped listening.