With twice as much UK shopping now online than in 2011 and amid a wave of store closures, about 75,000 jobs as sales assistants or checkout operators previously taken by women have gone in the last seven years. Men lost 33,000 of the jobs over the period 2011 to 2018, but these were offset by increases in roles in warehouses and as delivery drivers which are largely taken by men, according to research by the Royal Society For the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
“It is women who are on the front line of this,” said Rowan Conway, RSA director of innovation. “The traditional female skills of caring, welcoming and being customer service driven are lost when you are behind the wall of a logistics company or an Amazon warehouse.”
It is part of a long-term trend which has seen the share of female employee jobs in retail fall from 16% in 1996 to 11% in 2018. Over that period around 270,000 jobs occupied by women were lost, according to figures produced by the Resolution Foundation.
“The government has tied itself in knots to respond to charges that technology is decimating men’s jobs,” said Sophie Walker, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust which supports under-30s, especially those living on little or no pay. “Its response to this latest assessment is pitiful in comparison to the millions set aside to prevent closures of car factories and other male-dominated industries.”
The warning of the gender-specific impact of high street upheaval comes as separate data this week revealed shop, pub and restaurant closures are rising at the fastest rate in nearly a decade. In the past two years Debenhams and House of Fraser were among the retailers to go into administration while Arcadia, which owns Topshop, and New Look are among those closing stores. A fifth of UK retail spending is now carried out online and with this predicted to double in the coming years.
The biggest job losses in sales and customer service occupations came in the East Midlands, the North East and in the East of England. Meanwhile, there was a 16% increase in the number of retail jobs in London between 2011 and 2018, the RSA found.
“The economic pain that comes with the decline of the high street is not being felt evenly,” said Fabian Wallace-Stephens, one of the report’s authors. “As ever more people are shopping online, and businesses are introducing automated technology like self-service checkouts, this is changing the types of jobs available. Women are being hit particularly hard, with jobs growth being contained to roles usually filled by men such as delivery drivers.”
In the longer term, those warehouse jobs also appear under threat. Food retailers, Ocado and Adsa, already operate fully automated warehouses, which in Ocado’s case picks goods at the rate of one every six seconds. One of Ocado’s automated warehouses was hit by a major blaze in February when a grocery-carrying robot caught fire.
Tesco, John Lewis, River Island and Ted Baker were among retailers who collaborated with the RSA to try to predict the future of shop work. “In-store influencer” was one of the new roles mooted for workers in high street stores. Another was “line manager for robots”. The RSA described an influencer’s role as building a brand’s relationship with customers directly, rather than lower-skilled work such as stock control or checkouts. In supermarkets this might require shop floor workers to gain skills in cooking and nutrition so that they can host cooking classes, or advise customers about diets and recipes using new ingredients.
One retailer told the study: “Empathy is already becoming a business need.” Another said “staff will have to be much more credible, otherwise people will just shop online”. All this will improve job satisfaction, retailers predicted, because workers “will add value by making people feel good about themselves”.