Thomas de Freitas: Is there hope for London's high street?


The retail sector is chaos. Yet there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful

On 24 June Habitat announced all but three of its 30 UK stores would go into administration, cutting short its almost half-century reign as an upmarket, more accessible Ikea.

Three days later fashion retailer Jane Norman followed suit, hotly pursued by chocolate maker Thorntons which, on 28 June, made public its plan to close up to 180 stores and concessions to compensate for falling sales. 

The brands join dozens of retail chains that have suffered since the start of 2009 – the year in which the seemingly doomed tale of the British high street began with the collapse of retailers Wedgwood, Threshers, Whittard of Chelsea and Woolworths.

Although Habitat’s three London stores are poised to survive thanks to a successful sale to Home Retail Group for £24.5m, the situation across the latest three retail failures paints a gloomy picture, with the haul of redundancies creeping into thousands.

Yet there is strong evidence to show that talented performers in retail are still in strong demand.

According to a senior member of Habitat’s HR team, based at its head office just off Brick Lane, the international aspect of her peers’ skill sets is a sought-after asset.

“Our staff can easily adapt. Most people in my office work international jobs in which they have to cover business in a lot of different countries, so most of us speak several languages.

“There is always demand for people with international business experience who can speak a range of languages.”

Despite the choppy waters, she has yet to be approached for career advice by her colleagues.

A management position in retail typically demands a wide range of transferable skills including leadership, visionary thinking, planning and analytical skills and organisation which, coupled with senior-level experience, provide a sturdy basis to any CV.

In the weeks following the announcement of any large retailer entering administration, local newspapers often serve as a source of inspiration, with stories of go-getters made redundant from retail management positions setting up their own companies littered across their business pages.

Those lacking the entrepreneurial gene should make the most of their experience working in the larger retail market to move up the career ladder by attempting more senior roles in smaller firms poised for expansion.

Career guide Stephanie Mount, from Position Ignition, a company specialising in advising people looking to switch careers, agrees the future looks hopeful for those affected by redundancies in retail.

According to her, consultancy is a path well trodden for those with sharp communication skills, while those in roles that require good forecasting skills, such as buyers, often flourish in predicting trends in consumerism and spotting possible gaps in the market.

Mount says: “People should be asking themselves questions such as: is retail changing before our eyes? For example, is there opportunity in taking up retail space online?”

She cites ASOS as a prime example, a company that launched a Facebook store allowing people to buy its entire range from within the social network, expanding its client base beyond the UK to worldwide.

“The people in senior positions in retail will have a whole package of skills which are transferable to the areas in which retailers such as ASOS are now venturing.”

Mount also identifies branding and reputation management as growing areas.

 “What customers say about a business will make or break it. This has always been the case but I think even more so in the current climate where everything is so instant.

“The most crucial thing is to get to know yourself – identify what skills you have to offer before researching opportunities. Find out what your capabilities and talents are, what you want, and then start to get creative.”

While it is unlikely the body count of retail chains such as Habitat will decrease anytime soon, at least the picture for those caught in the crossfire is hopeful. It might also result in a positive outcome for the consumer.

Retail is a sector primed for change and, although the climate may not be ideal for the growth of chains, it could well be one in which the independent retailer can, once again, flourish.

One-off stores that cater to a niche market could replace the umbrella-style, one-taste-suits-all chains to which we have grown accustomed.

Thomas de Freitas is managing director of Communicate Recruitment Solutions