Almost 40,000 retail jobs disappeared from communities in England in the five years to 2019, an analysis of Government data has revealed.
Calls for the Government to step up efforts to create a long-term retail strategy have intensified in the wake of the recent collapse of major high street brands Debenhams and the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop.
But analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit shows the problem of job losses pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic, with industry bodies warning thousands more could vanish next year if action is not taken now.
Office for National Statistics figures show there were 2.29 million employee jobs in physical shops in England in 2019 – a decrease of 38,000, or 1.6%, compared to 2015.
These figures exclude jobs in online retail, market stalls, and door-to-door sales, as well as the entire car, motorbike and other motor vehicle retail sector.
The clothing, footwear and leatherwear sector has been particularly badly hit – jobs in these specialist shops are down by 6.1%, or 21,000 roles.
And in department stores – which we are defining as all non-specialised shops excluding those like supermarkets where food or drink are the main goods sold – have shed a whopping 47,000 jobs since 2015, or more than one in five positions.
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) says it “cannot overstate” the scale of the crisis the pandemic has brought about for retailers.
But general secretary Paddy Lillis said “high streets were already suffering” because of the imbalance between bricks and mortar and online retailers.
He added: “This, combined with the direct impact of the pandemic, has been catastrophic, pushing many retailers to breaking point.”
The ONS figures reveal significant regional variations in how jobs were holding up prior to the pandemic – while London lost 10.3% of its jobs between 2015 and 2019, the North East saw an increase of 8.3%.
Figures for Great Britain show there has been a shift away from full-time positions toward part-time work, with the former shrinking by 6.6% while the latter swelled by 0.7%.
The British Retail Consortium, a trade association representing UK retailers, says firms are working hard to make Christmas a success but that if sales do not recover over the period we “could see many jobs disappearing in the new year”.
Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation, said: “Much will depend on the future of business rates and extended relief will be essential for many firms who have been struggling under months of forced closures”.
Usdaw echoed the call for action on business rates – a tax on non-domestic properties set by central government – adding the Government must intervene with a long-term plan to get the retail industry back on its feet.
It also called for an online sales levy set at 1% of online sales, which would raise £1.5 billion to help fund a cut in retail business rates, and a reform of UK tax law to prevent online retailers avoiding tax.
Frances O’ Grady of the Trades Union Congress said ministers must not “watch from the sidelines” as stores close and jobs are lost, and that unions stand ready to work with ministers and employers on an industrial strategy.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it has taken “decisive action” to support retailers including through the extension of the furlough scheme.
A spokesperson said: “To further support retailers during this critical festive period while helping to keep shoppers safe, we are also enabling councils to extend Monday to Saturday trading hours.
“We stand ready to support anyone affected by redundancies. If people need financial support quickly they may be able to claim Universal Credit, New Style Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance.”
It also highlighted its £3.6 billion Towns Fund which will help towns in England reshape their town centres.
It did not comment on an online sales levy, a reform of tax law or a long-term strategy for retail.