Shop workers crisis: ‘I wake up worried about my job’
Chloe Haskett wakes up every morning wondering whether she’ll still have a job to go to.
She’s one of almost a million young people working in the retail sector whose future has been thrown into doubt by the coronavirus crisis.
Early December is normally a boom time for retailers when the festive shopping season is in full swing. But lockdowns across the UK have forced many shops to close or limit the number of customers they allow through their doors for much of the year, pushing more to shop online.
And that has had a devastating impact on the fortunes of some of the UK’s biggest High Street names, as well as the staff.
On Tuesday, Chloe woke up to find that she was one of more than 25,000 retail workers whose job was put at risk this week after Debenhams revealed it was set to close and Arcadia, the owner of Topshop, was put into administration.
Both firms have been hit by a dramatic fall in visits to UK shops, which are expected to be down 62% in the final weeks of the year, according to retail analyst company Springboard.
But the pandemic has merely accelerated a trend that was already visible on Britain’s High Streets, as shoppers swap bricks-and-mortar shops for online deliveries.
“This is my fifth Christmas in Debenhams, and over the years, every year, you just notice it getting quieter,” says Chloe, who works in the Portsmouth branch.
“Commercial Road, our High Street, is just dead,” says the 22-year-old, who works in a watch and jewellery repair concession in the Debenhams store. “Everything’s closing, nothing’s really reopening.”
She’s hoping for a Christmas rush when lockdown restrictions are relaxed in England. However, she worries that the news of Debenhams’ demise could put people off bringing their valuables in for repair.
Chloe blames the High Street job losses on the rise of Amazon, but also bricks-and-mortar retailers themselves for promoting online-only offers that put people off visiting stores.
‘Impossible to find a job’
She also worries about what will happen if the closure of Debenhams puts her out of a job.
Chloe, who has only ever worked in retail, says that trying to find another job after the coronavirus crisis has ravaged the sector is “an almost impossible battle”.
“I’d literally probably try anything at this point,” she says. “I used to be a bit picky before, but now I really can’t be, it’s going to be whatever pays money at the end of the day.”
Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of RetailTrust, an organisation for shop workers, said: “We’re closing in on 150,000 jobs lost in retail, across the course of this pandemic.”
Four million people work in retail and the supporting sector, making it the biggest employer in the UK, according to Mr Brook-Carter.
“Sadly there will be fewer jobs in retail going forward than have existed in the past,” he said.
The Centre for Retail Research estimates that job losses in the sector will hit 235,000 this year, with 20,620 stores expected to close their doors.
One of those to have already lost their job was Grant Docherty, 23, who worked at a Burton concession at the Debenhams store in Carlisle.
He was made redundant in October after being furloughed during the lockdown. But as he only joined the firm in February, he was ineligible for the wage top-up under the government’s job retention scheme, which left him out of pocket.
“Stores were seeing a massive lack of customers, sales were down, and stock was still in the wrong season as deliveries took a long time to get back into the swing of things,” he says.
He said the subsequent job hunt was very difficult. In the end, he was forced to relocate to Glasgow for a new job as a call handler for the NHS, which interviewed 500 people for the role.
That prospect of finding new work, possibly beyond retail, is now looming large for another 12,000 Debenhams employees.
Sarah (not her real name) works part-time in the chain’s Worthing store. She knew it was likely to be bad news when she received a message on the staff WhatsApp group asking her and her colleagues to dial into an all-staff conference call.
Sarah says the staff were told in “blunt” terms that they would “more than likely” be made redundant.
Another person on the line, who also did not want to use her name, said: “The call was really sad.”
“We don’t know when we will close but I am going into work today to prepare for reopening tomorrow and it is with a heavy heart,” she said.
“We unfortunately aren’t the first casualty of the pandemic and sadly I don’t think we will be the last.”
With Christmas just around the corner, many people like Sarah, Grant and Chloe face an uncertain wait as other big chains, such as Peacocks and Jaeger, announce cutbacks and job losses.
And with a third of retail workers thought to be 25 and under, that could leave thousands more young people looking for work.