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The UK high street is changing – who’s going to be most affected?

You don’t need to have been working in the insolvency sector to notice the ever increasing list of high street brands falling victim to the volatile British highstreet. 

Just this week, Arcadia retail group (including Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, and others) have announced a near £500 million loss for 2018, more than 31 times worse than the fall recorded in 2017 – furthering rumours that Sir Philip Green will be looking to break up and sell his empire.


The retail sector is one of the largest in the UK, employing 2.8 million workers, of which 70% are female. Yet, despite the Office of National Statistics (ONS) recording an increase in retail sales in July 2019 (up 0.2% on the previous month), it also noted a 6.9% rise in non-store purchases.  This shift in behaviour, with British consumers increasingly favouring online shopping, creates an uncertain future for the British labour force.


The Royal Society of Arts released its findings of a recent study regarding the future of retail in the UK. 

According to this report, women have been the hardest hit group, making up 70% of the retail workforce, a sector that’s seen a net decline of 108,000 jobs in related areas (sales, customer services), causing it to shrink by 7%.

However, a decline in retail cannot be held solely accountable for a lower rate in employment of women generally. Shown in the graph below (courtesy of the ONS), these statistics struggle to accurately demonstrate the extent of unpaid care responsibilities. With women taking these responsibilities on disproportionately, the high levels of women within the retail sector can generally be associated with the accompanying flexibility to accommodate such commitments.


The report has also indicated a strong regional trend to those affected, with the pinch being felt the most in the East Midlands and North East regions. The drop in retail jobs in these areas was the biggest during 2011-2018, which was of -11%.

This data, however, isn’t necessarily corresponding to levels of personal insolvency reported by The Insolvency service (see my previous blog about insolvency based on age, gender, and region), with the North West seeing a 7% increase in retail employment despite having the highest levels of personal insolvency.

So what’s next?

Business bosses and ministers are being urged to consider what the future holds, both for retail and for the British highstreet. Some progress has been seen – with high streets minister Jake Berry pledging £1 billion to the future high streets fund. The fund is aimed at “identifying the challenges that are being faced by high streets and identifying the town centre areas across England that are experiencing these challenges.” 

While this is good news for those affected on a regional basis – it has yet to address the disproportionate gender bias, posing the question – what will replace the jobs that have already gone?



Claire Jones is the Principal Resourcing Consultant in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.

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