HR · 14 September 2017

Productive retail sector contrasts with high employment, low wage economy

Portrait of a confident young man standing in the doorway of a coffee shop
Retail wages continued to rise faster than the national average

As UK unemployment reaches record low figures, while wage growth fails to keep up with inflation, experts have claimed the experiences of the high street retail sector “could not be more different”.

New figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) put unemployment levels at 4.3 per cent, the lowest since records began in 1975. Job vacancies have risen particularly sharply in the last month, with employers posting a 10.7 per cent year-on-year rise in available positions in August.

Meanwhile, inflation, at 3.9 per cent for August 2017, continued to rise above average wage growth of 2.1 per cent, leaving UK households with lower spending power in real terms than the same period in 2016.

Questions were also asked about Britain’s so-called “productivity puzzle”. A separate report from accountancy firm BDO put the country’s business output at 95.1 – despite experts claiming the rising level of employment should see the figure exceed 100.

While the wider labour market struggles to join the dots between employment, wages and productivity, retailers have demonstrated different fortunes.

New data from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) suggested the retail sector has outstripped the rest of the economy in terms of wage growth and productivity, with levels of employment actually in decline.

Average wages in retail increased by 3.4 per cent in the year leading to March 2017, compared to 1.7 per cent for the UK in the same year.

While the number of people in work continued to rise across Britain, ONS figures showed employment in retail continued to fall, with jobs down 0.5 per cent on 2016.

Commenting on the high employment, low wage picture of the wider economy, Rachel Lund, head of retail insight and analytics at the BRC, said “the situation in the retail could not be more different”.

“Even higher growth in wages is expected over the coming year,” she added.

Detailing the contrasting experiences between retail businesses and other industries, Lund explained that employers had responded effectively to technological advancement with better careers for retail workers.

“The fact is that, unlike the UK as a whole, retail is experiencing rapid productivity gains, both as technology is transforming the way we shop in the UK and as retailers are re-shaping careers in the industry towards better quality roles with people equipped with the skills to operate in this new era of retailing.”

Experts have warned a business rates hike could lead to “tsunami” of high street closures

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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