Retail as a
While technical skills will continue to form occupational foundations, to achieve longevity and advancement with your career research indicates that investment into soft skill capabilities is essential.
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Retail careers may start front of house, but they can end in a CEO position. What’s difficult to understand is how to fix the problem of student and parent bias so that we can drive a larger proportion of our students into retail.
Skills and Employment Trends for 2023 and Beyond
As the second largest employer in the country, the retail sector accounts for nearly 9.7% of all current workers in Australia. Employment within the retail industry has continued a steady growth, year-on-year, over the last 20 years, with nearly 1.4 million people currently employed within the sector, and a projected increase of 4.3% (or 55,000) new jobs over the next five years.
Australian retailers have long been challenged by the availability of talent to fill buying, planning and digital retail roles. However, the National Skills Commission – National Skills Priority List 2022 further highlighted additional roles within retail trade as having moderate-to-strong current or future demand, including: Retail Manager (General), Retail Supervisor, Visual Merchandiser, Pharmacy Sales Assistant and Wholesaler. Most notably, Retail Manager now ranks 7th in the ‘Top 20 Occupations in Demand’ across Australia.
Often categorised as an entry level, transient and low skilled sector, the Australian retail sector faces complex challenges and operating environments characterised by change and ongoing disruption. The entrance and influence of international brands, record labour shortages and rapid innovation and digital technology advancements have created ongoing competitive pressures within the industry, resulting in shifts in traditional retail operations, leading to skills gaps, further capability requirements, and diverse career pathways which are far broader than those traditionally associated with the services industry.
Beyond serving customers, occupations in retail continue to expand into creative roles across branding, marketing and visual merchandising as well as positions in buying, supply chain functions, digital and e-commerce, data and analytics, human resources, learning and development, finance and accounting, marketing and creative, public relations and communications, security and loss prevention, risk management, sustainability, business management and more.
As the new retail world continues to rapidly evolve, an agile and highly skilled workforce is paramount, with a broad mix of skills supporting the on-going success and advancement of individuals, businesses and industry. As technology enhancements enable many routine technical tasks to be automated, businesses are increasingly relying on skills such as critical thinking, emotional judgement and problem-solving skills to not only understand what technology is saying, but analyse why it is saying it and what ought to be done. And although globalisation offers businesses access to a broader customer base, it also exposes businesses to increasing competition. Being able to understand the needs of customers from different geographical and cultural backgrounds, communicate meaningfully and deal with complex and ambiguous problems can be the key to differentiation. In this complex environment, the need for continuous development of critical ‘soft skills’ is intensifying.
Broadly defined as non-technical skills, ‘soft skills’ are not only applicable to current and future job functions, but can also be transferable between industries and occupations. They include areas such as communication, teamwork, problem solving, critical thinking, adaptability, creativity, emotional judgement, resilience and more.
According to the Deloitte Access Economics report ‘Soft skills for business success’ the number of jobs in soft skill intensive occupations is expected to grow at 2.5 times the rate of jobs in less soft skill intensive occupations. And by 2030, it’s predicted that soft skill intensive occupations will make up almost two thirds of the workforce, with demand for soft skills exceeding supply by up to 45%.
Whilst technical skills will continue to form occupational foundations, to achieve longevity and advancement with your career, research indicates that investment into soft skill capabilities is essential, with the World Economic forum ‘Future Jobs Report’ informing the following:
Top 10 Soft Skills for the Future
Creativity is not something which can be automated, nor is it something which is the exclusive domain of those in the arts. In a highly competitive business environment, the ability to demonstrate initiative and originality, to view things differently, identify opportunity, bring ideas together and connect the dots using disparate information to present something novel or new, is vital.
COMPLEX PROBLEM SOLVING
The ability to solve novel, ill-defined, multi-dimensional problems in complex, real-world settings is in demand. With the rapid and continuously changing work environment, people need the skills to generate ideas and work through process to realise and implement the concepts.
The mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.
Effective leaders and managers have real social influence and can develop, motivate and inspire their teams, maximise their productivity and respond to their needs.
PERSUASION, INFLUENCING AND NEGOTIATION
A key to greater interpersonal communication, being able to persuade, influence and negotiate with your colleagues, managers, clients, suppliers and teams is vital to both individual development and driving business success.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AND SOCIAL PERCEPTIVENESS
EQ is the intangible skill that helps people tune into the kaleidoscope of human emotions, to identify and regulate one’s own emotions and understand the emotions of others. A high EQ helps to communicate more effectively, build relationships, reduce team stress, motivate staff, defuse conflict and much more.
JUDGEMENT AND DECISION MAKING
Given the speed at which data can be generated and accessed, there is a growing need to analyse information, identify actionable insights and choose the best course of action to support business strategy and make informed decisions.
Being able to use logic and reasoning to interrogate an issue or problem, consider various solutions to the problem, and weigh up the pros and cons of each approach.
This is all about actively looking for ways to help people, shining a spotlight on end users/consumers experiences and anticipating what their needs will be in the future.
ADAPTABILITY AND RESILIENCE
The ability to remain open, flexible and calm amidst uncertain or stressful periods, environments or situations is critical to supporting both personal health and the wellbeing of others.
Honourable mention: Active learning and learning strategies
The modern workplace is fast-paced and ever changing. This requires people to embrace continuous learning (formal and informal) and the ability to quickly convert their learnings into practical application as part of their standard work practices.
Addressing the Retail Staffing Problem
Parents like to give advice. Side note: that could be the understatement of the year, right there.
Sometimes it’s spot-on. Mum, you’re right – I shouldn’t have left this packing to the last minute. Dad, you’re right – turns out, it’s not worth testing the ‘fill your tank’ warning on the car. But other times we just roll our eyes and mumble a perfunctory ‘thank you.’ But when it comes to career choices 89% of current year school leavers look to Mum and Dad as their first source of information, which – scarily – has greater implications than last minute packing.
Career advice can direct students to their dream job or a dead end.
Things have changed a lot since our ‘number one influencers’ finished high school. Industries that didn’t even exist when they left school are now some of the fastest growing in the world – take data analytics or UX design, for example, while once prestigious courses like medical science are being labelled the ‘arts degree of our generation’.
Another notable influencer for the 10,082 students surveyed was ‘television and movies,’ which scored fourth place (out of eight) in terms of influence. ‘Social media’ scored fifth place, while notable sources like ‘a university website’ and even the ‘school career advisor’ sat back in sixth and seventh.
What this tells us is that student decisions are still likely clouded by media-based stereotypes (often perpetuated by parents) and the unrealistic media perceptions of particular industries.
Let’s look at how retail is depicted in the movie world. It’s someone’s part time job where you’ll wear a name tag, lanyard and skinny jeans.
So, it’s not hard to understand the connection between misinformation and the lack of pipeline into retail. But as everyone reading this article will know, retail careers may start front of house, but they can end in a CEO position. What’s difficult to understand is how to fix the problem of student and parent bias so that we can drive a larger proportion of our students into retail.
When we were asked to submit this piece, I sent a survey out to 1000 students who were ‘not’ considering retail and to 1391 who ‘were’ considering the industry. I wanted to understand the ‘why’ behind their intention. Almost unanimously the ‘no’ audience agreed that retail wouldn’t offer a clear path of progression for them. They didn’t see the trajectory that the industry offered. We went on to do a focus group with five of these students.
They were all interested in studying either business or finance yet were not considering working in a $400 billion sector. The irony.
They were all interested in studying either business or finance yet were not considering working in a $400 billion sector. The irony.
'MANAGER' OR 'BUYER'
Of the students who were considering retail, the majority (84%) knew someone working in the industry. Some of the jobs or specialities they listed within the industry included ‘buyer’, ‘manager’ and ‘marketing manager.’ What’s interesting is the use of the word ‘manager’ in these student answers. They are aware that retail doesn’t stop at casual employment and they have obviously seen through lived experience that there is progression.
It’s widely acknowledged that by providing clear paths for employees and moving them through job titles on a regular progression over time, employers can help boost perceived career opportunities and limit harmful stagnation, which often ends in resignations. Though the message from the data above is clear, we need to start telling this narrative earlier. We can’t wait till they are in the workforce to start sharing success stories; we need to start at the grass roots, high school level.
The age-old advice, “if they can see it, they can be it” rings true here. We need to get better at shaping realistic perceptions earlier – for both parents and students.
The technology industry is leading the charge when it comes to high school engagement and there is much to learn from its shift in strategy. One tech firm told us “if they aren’t studying the right course – or a relevant course – they aren’t in the recruitment pool when they finish university. So it’s imperative to start earlier.” While retail roles do not exclusively require tertiary qualifications, the same principle applies. If we don’t show students opportunities as they leave school, we lose them from the careers funnel altogether.
The Careers Department worked with Westpac to produce three work experience modules that aimed to debunk misconceptions about careers in technology. The aim was to expand the awareness of technology roles by introducing students to UX design, cyber security and artificial intelligence. The UX design task asked students to design an app UX that would allow parents to allocate a chore to their children and then pay their children pocket money upon completion. In a one-month period the task was completed 5362 times nationally. In a survey to students who completed the module, 88% of students did not know what a UX designer did before the task and 68% of students would ‘consider the role in their future.’ Again, the data tells the same story – if students can see it, they can be it. We just need to give them access to industry.
A retail virtual work experience task could be a ‘buying’ module where students need to look at buying data and build a schedule for a store over Christmas, a ‘data analytics’ module where students need to look at an ecommerce site and make recommendations, or a ‘rostering’ module where students need to staff a store or restaurant. The options are unlimited! But the key is to teach students about the reality of careers in retail that go against the stereotype. Showing students the business, strategy and people skills that underpin the industry will attract the pipeline that the industry needs.
There is a clear acknowledgement that the challenge to prepare young people for a working life is radically different from that of previous generations – so let’s not recruit or market the industry in the same way it’s always been done. We need to teach skills, debunk stereotypes and drive intention.
Why would anyone want a Career in Retail?
If you are reading this, you no doubt have a career in retail or a retail-related career. Whether that career was developed by design or you have an accidental retail career, there was a point in time in which you, like me, decided that this would be the career path for you. What made you make that decision?
I made the decision to have a career in retail when I was twelve. I went shopping with my mother for the perfect outfit for multiple events in the lead-up to Christmas. After an exhaustive day where I was left empty-handed, disappointed, disillusioned, and not to mention frustrated, I turned to my equally exhausted mother and asked:
“Who chooses what goes into these stores?”
“A fashion buyer,” she responded.
“Well, that’s what I will do when I finish school. Be a fashion buyer. I must be able to do a better job than these people,” I said.
So, on that day, standing in the middle of a store, I decided that I wanted to influence retail. To improve things for customers, remove their frustration and bring them what they were looking for. My career in retail was born out of immense frustration, but what drives people into retail careers today?
Does your business lead in an authentic way that shows genuine care for the team, operates with a high level of trust, and encourages, recognises and rewards the team for its impact on the customer and to society?
People want to feel that they are invested in.
How many retail businesses today are investing in their teams? Investing into their growth and development? Investing the time and energy to work with the people in their teams to develop a transparent plan that shows where their career can lead and the steps they need to take to get there?
How many companies offer coaching and mentoring to their teams, or at the very least that the people within their teams take the initiative to coach or mentor others as they see it as their responsibility to do so? It is hard to find retail businesses today that not only offer formal coaching and mentoring support to those in their teams but embed a way of working that encourages the sharing of skills and expertise in a way that develops and elevates others that can therefore organically form a robust succession planning tool.
A mentor is: A wise or trusted adviser or guide
Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers
Having a mentor can be a life-changing experience for both the mentor and mentee, as has been evident throughout The Retail Mentors voluntary mentoring program. Having someone to trust and be guided by can have such a positive impact on someone’s confidence, openness and willingness to develop, learn and grow. Having the opportunity to spend time with someone that has walked the path before them, who has the experience and expertise that they are open and willing to share, who challenges their thinking and approach, opening their minds to new ways of thinking and working. A priceless and often immeasurable opportunity and experience.
People want to work in businesses that are innovative in thinking and implement with speed.
Retail businesses in Australia and globally are finding it more and more challenging to recruit people interested in developing a retail career and retain those that show great promise and talent. Speaking to people within The Retail Mentors community and those working in retail more broadly, the messages are consistent but are also all things that leaders of retail businesses can influence.
People want to work in businesses aligned with their personal values.
Today working for companies that share the values of each of us is crucial. These need to be genuine and authentic values, not just words put up on a wall. Values that are inherent in the way in which people within the business consistently act and how they treat others. Values that come naturally to those within the company and that are genuinely felt and shared as opposed to forced.
People want to feel high levels of trust and respect, personally and holistically, across the company. They want to feel empowered and supported, with the opportunity to develop and grow.
They want to receive open and consistent communication from their leaders and feel a level of genuine care from these same people. And last and probably most importantly, they want to be heard, truly heard, and therefore valued and recognised for their ideas, contribution and work.
Are your leaders visible and accessible, and do they communicate in an open and consistent way?
Retail is a fast-paced industry, but the fast pace of innovation and newness has been replaced with an overwhelm caused by procrastination and over-analysis. The retail stores of today are a sea of sameness, and for me, the frustration I felt at age 12 in not being able to find anything I like still exists today. It is obvious that what is available in stores is driven by numbers (science) and lacks the creativity and innovation (art) that would bring together a heavily curated and customer-focused range. The balance has shifted towards science-based, analytical-based decisions over a balance of the art and science. Retailers need to shift the balance by introducing a more meaningful investment into the art (creativity and innovation) of the planning and decision-making process, which will result in their businesses being more nimble and agile but, more importantly, more focused on differentiation away from the sea of sameness for their customer.
Today, with the speed at which technology is changing and new industries are evolving, retail needs to not just keep up but also step up. People are being drawn to businesses that operate at a fast pace, are focused on innovation, evolution and change, and are invested in the role that they can play in implementation.
If retail stores are a sea of sameness, decisions are driven by data paralysis and overcomplicating the simple, why would anyone want to invest their time and, more importantly, their own careers into an industry and businesses that are stuck and stale?
It is time for retail leaders to take note and invest as much time, energy and money into their teams as they invest in marketing, systems and data. The people should be the greatest asset of any company and should therefore be invested in accordingly.
Visible and accessible leadership, with consistent and open communication, will drive high levels of trust and respect within the company. Alongside this, leaders who support and guide, develop and nurture their people while recognising and rewarding their contributions, will create a high-performing, united team of people who are proud to work for your company and who will not only be your greatest asset but your greatest ambassador to your customer, their friends and to society.
To quote Simon Sinek:
“Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.”
About the authors
Aaron leads the education and training division of the ARA, providing targeted skills training and staffing assistance for ARA members, and supporting individuals in commencing and progressing their retail careers through retail education programs.
The Careers Department is a SaaS content platform licensed by Australian schools and parents. With distribution channels reaching more than 1,000,000 Australians, the content led platform helps drive a greater awareness of industry and the future of work for the next generation.
Sally Coates has led merchandise, design, and e-commerce teams for leading ASX-listed companies, including David Jones, Wesfarmers, and Woolworth’s Limited (Australia), and has held CEO roles in SMEs specialising in turnaround and growth. In late 2020 Sally founded The Retail Mentors, a global network and community that brings people in retail together to share and learn from each other through various programs, including the facilitation of a voluntary mentoring program that is now running in ten countries.
Today Sally is the CEO of a Fashion Accessories company, the Founder and Director of Kalon Brands, a merchandise licensing company focused on partnering with and supporting purpose-driven brands and is focused on bringing people together through The Retail Mentors community with the true belief that together, we can reignite retail through people.