Sophie Mackenzie – Senior Partner, AdMore Recruitment

I previously worked as a Recruitment Manager in the IT industry. When I resigned in July 2011 to join a specialist Retail consultancy there was many a raised eyebrow. There were gloomy headlines about the Retail industry and that has been pretty much the case ever since. There is no question that I have taken a leap of faith: faith in the potential of the business I have joined and the abilities of my new colleagues but also faith in the future of the UK Retail Industry. So why make this perilous move in the middle of a recession where, as usual, Retail gets the biggest hammering?

The thing is, I really love the industry. I love the variety, the heritage, the way it changes constantly and most of all, the people who work in the industry. There is a common thread that runs through most retailers – they are down to earth, pragmatic and real grafters. In most cases, retail businesses are meritocracies – rewarding the best performers and offering genuine opportunities for progression. Few industries can say the same. As the third generation of my family to work in retail, you could say it’s in my blood.

My Grandfather left school at 15 because his wages were needed at home and he started work in a fancy goods shop on the Golden Mile in Blackpool (a veritable Aladdin’s cave of toys, souvenirs, and ‘saucy’ seaside postcards!), working his way up to Manager. Before long, he decided to open his own shop, a local newsagents. Meanwhile, my own father left school at 17 and, after a couple of years as a bank clerk, joined Marks and Spencer as a management trainee. He remembers fondly the days when Blackpool was such a cutting edge place to be, that M&S used the store to trial all the latest ranges – how times have changed, sadly. 20 years later when my Grandad retired, my Dad left the corporate world to take over the family business.

Our shop was the hub of the village. Dad applied ‘big’ retail techniques to his small business and so, unlike so many of the newsagents and convenience stores you see – poorly stocked, windows obscured by posters and small ads – it was well lit and presented with a decent range of product and standards were meticulously maintained, not least by yours truly who worked as a Saturday girl while still at school. Although under increasing pressure from the tighter margins imposed by the newspaper publishers and the rise of the supermarkets, Dad didn’t take this lying down and tried to ensure there were other reasons for customers to come to the shop – a photocopier, fax machine (!), an extensive greeting card section and eventually a National Lottery machine. By anticipating changes in the market and through the sheer hard graft of he and my Mum they built a successful business. They had the largest delivery round in the area, employing around 40 local children to deliver papers, most who now have children of their own. They had a zero tolerance approach to lateness and poor performance but made a point of writing detailed references for them when they left for university or for their first ‘proper’ jobs. (Retail remains a great grounding even for those pursuing other careers, something Gen Y should surely be made aware of?)

After 25 years of 5am starts, 364 days a year, my parents retired and sold the business as a going concern. 8 years on, the shop has declined significantly – it is poorly stocked and shabby. Yes, market conditions are extremely tough and there are setbacks – the pub across the road has introduced Pay and Display parking which has affected the passing trade which the local shops benefitted from. However, the owner seems to have given up and the future looks decidedly grim. As my Dad said the other day “it’s not rocket science, you just need to think about what your customers need and adapt” however I think this simplifies it too much. If you really know retail and have energy and passion, then yes, it is relatively simple but that still doesn’t mean it is easy. You need to have the commercial nous to identify opportunities and get more from less, whether you are in a large multiple or a local newsagent. Running any small business is tough and in retail even more so. Being self-employed isn’t an easy option and, as in the retail industry as a whole, you have to have the right skills to succeed: commercial acumen, resilience and passion as well as an unwavering work ethic. As a recruiter, I know only too well how rare these qualities can be.

Clearly, the changes in the retail market are affecting everyone including the most cherished of brands and this is the new reality we must all accept. However, when I think about all the talented retailers who have been made redundant in recent months, I can’t help but wonder what they could achieve with ‘our’ little shop. What impact would it have for our economy if our ‘nation of shopkeepers’ had decent retail experience and we could find a way to harness the skills of the many individuals that have been displaced?

My parents are powerless to prevent the decline of their life’s work (and my Grandfather’s before them) and it is heart-breaking to see. However it is the brutal truth that, big or small, if you aren’t able to adapt, innovate, and do it quickly, the market will find a way to seal your fate. The challenge for all of us who love our industry is to understand this new landscape and do whatever we can to adapt, create new opportunities and ensure that these ruthless market conditions do not find us wanting. Above all, we must keep the faith!