Retailers needs to attract graduates and workers with digital and customer services skills to boost productivity in the sector, according to a new report by the government's skills experts the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES).
The report, 'Sector insights: skills and performance challenges in the retail sector', highlights that recruiting technically skilled people and upskilling the existing workforce will be crucial for the sector to take full advantage of the changing retail landscape.
Improving productivity levels is particularly important, as the government's recently released productivity plan 'Fixing the foundations' identifies wholesale and retail as one of five sectors in the UK representing a "productivity shortfall".
Skilled workers are in short supply as many choose careers other than retail, and nearly one in five retail establishments reported skills gaps. UKCES's research says that the sector needs to improve its image, develop clear progression routes and promote opportunities to use technology-based skills in a higher-level retail career to undergraduates and graduates.
Online shopping currently represents 12% of the total value of retail sales, and retailers face the challenges of meeting the expectations of increasingly tech-savvy customers and providing an "omni-channel" shopping experience, with a seamless blend between online and offline offers.
The UKCES report highlights the importance of customer service assistants to delivering this consistent, high quality service in-store. Customer service workers make up half of the UK's 3.1 million retail employees, but retailers are reporting that it's difficult to find staff with good customer service skills, and that there are gaps in the customer handling skills of existing staff.
The research also found that older workers in particular will need to improve IT skills to keep pace with rapid technology changes in the sector.
Dr Vicki Belt, Assistant Director at UKCES, said: "The wholesale and retail sector is the largest sector in the UK economy by employment, but sector productivity is relatively low. There is scope to improve productivity by making full use of existing talent and ensuring that workers have the opportunity to build their skills and experience, and progress within the sector."
To this end, UKCES is working alongside the Department for Work and Pensions to develop progression pathways for low paid workers in the retail and hospitality industries. The recently proposed increases to the national minimum wage may also make the sector more attractive to entry-level workers and encourage employers to train and retain experienced staff.