High street high achievers: the truth about women in the retail sector


I'd never worked in fashion or retail. I just needed an undergarment that didn't exist.” Those are the words of Sara Blakely, the American businesswoman with a net worth of $1 billion, named the 93rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes and the saviour of women the world over thanks to the single product she created out of personal necessity back in 1995: Spanx.

Her statement blows apart one of the single biggest and most persistent myths about the retail sector in the 21st century: that retail success is the preserve of massive conglomerates and long-trusted brand names.

Blakely combined perseverance with her life savings of $5,000. And of course that one genius idea (she took a pair of scissors to her hosiery to wear under an outfit that required the tummy sucking-in qualities of shapewear together with bare legs and seamless toes). The result created an entirely new product category that re-shaped female silhouettes – and self-confidence levels – on every continent.

As the 2015 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Ambassador Programme prepares to honour the remarkable women disrupting and redefining the dynamic retail landscape in 2015, we go beyond the window displays to uncover some of the biggest myths pertaining to the high street and beyond.


MYTH: Consumers are spending less so there are fewer retail jobs.

The latest government figures reveal that the retail sector contributed £180 billion to the UK economy in 2014 (11% of the total) and grew by 5% with each and every passing quarter. And it’s set for continued growth: already employing 4.5 million Britons or nearly 16% of the working British population (the largest private sector employer in the UK by number and proportion of employees), the retail sector, predicted a 2013 report, will experience a surge of 54,800 brand new vacancies by 2020.


MYTH: The majority of jobs in retail are low paid, non-professional positions.

More than three quarters of new retail positions created between now and 2020 will be managerial roles. Disruptive technology, changing customer trends and more sophisticated supply-chain management will mean that demand for highly skilled creatives, technologists, logisticians and customer service managers is at an all-time high.

Already one of the biggest employers of new graduates (in 2014, the retail sector was the fourth largest private sector employer of college finishers after accounting, engineering and banking), retail is set to employ 14% more graduates in 2015 – a 41% rise in intake over the past decade. Furthermore, starting salary ranges are on a par with those offered by accounting, law, banking and media (£21,500 - £42,000).


MYTH: Unless you start out in a graduate programme, you’ll never be successful in the retail sector.

“Time and again we have heard the words 'shelf-stacking' used in a disparaging way,” says Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Justin King. But, he insists, the retail sector is arguably one of Britain’s most meritocratic industries: “The vast majority of our store managers, and those in other retailers, started out shelf-stacking and they will tell you it was a vital part of their development.”

Many of the women named Retail Ambassadors through our annual Specsavers programme started on the bottom rung of the retail ladder and went on to leave a huge mark on the industry. In 2012, we inducted Vodafone’s Claire Barron into the retail hall of fame, whose 18-year career with the telecomms giant saw her grow from sales advisor to customer experience manager responsible for service in over 350 stores. The following year, Hobbs store manager Claire Kirkby, who cut her teeth in retail in a Saturday job at House of Fraser, was recognised for leading her Glasgow store to become one of the brand’s most profitable outlets. And in 2014, we honoured Noor Ali, who now runs the World Foods division for WM Morrison after joining the supermarket as a checkout assistant.

A meritocratic culture isn’t the only reason that Saturday jobs on shop floors have the potential to springboard school leavers to executive positions; the retail sector accounts for 12% of the total training spend by UK employers. That equates to an average of £1,275 worth of training for every retail employee in Britain every year.


MYTH: Starting out in the retail sector means shop work

A report by Skills Mart Retail – the training council for the retail sector – reveals the range of roles available to industry newcomers. The nine broad areas to choose from are: store operations (sales and merchandise), human resources and training (personnel and recruitment), finance and administration (analysis and accounting), buying (product procurement), contact centres (customer service), marketing (PR and advertising), logistics (movement, storing and handling of products), information technology (software and systems) and automotive skills (fitting, selling and vehicle operations).

As everywoman Retail Ambassador and New Look’s Head Of Retail Elaine Wrigley says: “There is a lack of understanding outside retail in terms of the sorts of opportunities it can offer. I don’t believe that many people go through school saying ‘I’m going to be successful in retail’. [A] teacher actually said to my daughter ‘You have to be careful, or you are going to end up working in a shop’.”

“Retail has afforded me opportunities I don’t believe I would have had anywhere else. I was lucky enough to go out and work in Greece for Marks & Spencer, work in an entirely different culture and set up a new business. I’ve been fortunate enough to work within the fashion, food and DIY sectors, which has really helped to broaden my experience,” she said.


MYTH: Few women progress past management roles in the retail sector

The retail industry actually has the most impressive record in gender diversity in the UK. It has the highest share of female non-executive directors of any industry – at 25.8% it’s double the average. And its share of female executive directors is also higher than the average for all industries (8.2% versus 6.2%). While there is much work to be done to bring more female executives to the retail boardroom, the sector is leading the way for other sectors to follow.

What’s more, rising numbers of self-employed women are giving rise to a growing trend of female British e-tailers. Thought to be driven by the need for flexible working, the number of female entrepreneurs rose by 28% between 2009 and 2014 compared to a 10% rise in males, 17% rise in French entrepreneurs and a 2% decline in Germany). Britain is now home to the highest proportion of specialist online retail businesses by women – 54% compared to 46% by men. That’s good news all round since self-employed female retailers are more likely to create jobs – 10% of women starting online retail businesses employ others, compared to just 2% of men.


MYTH: The retail sector is governed by shop hours and therefore offers little flexibility

Retail employment is among the most flexible in the UK, with some of the highest percentages of part-time workers, 84% of whom combine their work in retail with studying, caring, or other commitments. 5% of jobs in retail are advertised as offering flexibility – more than double that of IT, marketing, engineering and manufacturing, and almost double that of finance, banking, science, technology, arts and media.


MYTH: Retailers don’t innovate and so the sector isn’t a good fit for creatives

Big names Argos and Amazon were praised in a report of 2015’s most innovative organisations – the former for being the first organisation to introduce ‘click and collect’ shopping.

But major brand names don’t have the monopoly on the most creative thinking disrupting the retail industry today. In 2015, almost a quarter (23) of the private businesses listed in the 17th annual Real Business Hot 100 list were retailers. And women are often leading the charge for headline-grabbing innovations sparking major new trends in digital and high street retail, both of which they are the biggest consumers of (women spend £460 million of the £718.7 million spent online every week in the UK).

Past everywoman award programmes have recognised the enormous contributions of women disrupting the retail space. Winners of a Natwest everywoman Award include Alexandra Tamasan, whose website PetShopBowl has radically disrupted the purchase of pet supplies in the UK; and Helen Pattinson, whose discovery of the cocoa bean on a career gap year led to the launch of Montezuma’s, one of the most disruptive brands to emerge in the UK chocolate industry in recent years. Our retail programme, meanwhile, has honoured the achievements of yet more women operating off the high street. Anna Bance, Founder of Girl Meets Dress became a Retail Ambassador in 2010 following the success of her designer dress for hire web business. Meanwhile in 2013, we recognised the achievements of Melissa Burton, Managing Director of Goody Good Stuff, a candy range whose plant-derived bio-gum technology eliminates the need for animal-based gelatine and other nasties found in most traditional sweets.