RETAIL has long competed with other sectors to attract and retain talent. That rivalry has stiffened in the last few years of relatively low unemployment as other parts of the economy have sought to up their game, notably the hospitality and care sectors.

Today, retail is striving to be seen as a career of choice for as wide a talent pool as possible, with better pay, benefits, conditions, and progression opportunities. Something which is more and more important, especially for younger workers, is being part of an organisation which has a wholehearted and proactive commitment to diversity and inclusion (D&I). Retailers increasingly recognise having a diverse and inclusive workplace and culture isn’t just good ethics, it makes good business sense too.

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It’s also where customers are. As our population becomes more diverse, it’s likely shoppers will reward businesses which reflect their own beliefs and perspectives. Brands which don’t reflect modern Scotland may well find trading increasingly difficult.

By its nature, retail tends to be at the forefront of these changes. The British Retail Consortium’s new report with The MBS Group published last week, based on data from 200 retailers employing over one million people, shows 98% of retail businesses surveyed have a diversity and inclusion strategy.

That’s a decent start. As are the lengths retailers are going to in order to collect data on diversity of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, age, and social mobility. However, the challenge now is to shift gear to drive the changes that will make the most meaningful differences and ensure workers from every background have equal opportunities to flourish.

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Positive shifts are happening – albeit unevenly. We should acknowledge what is working so far and celebrate this progress.

For example, board-level ethnic minority representation has almost tripled over the past four years – up from 4.5% in 2021 when the data was first collated, to 12% this year. Women make up 58% of the retail workforce and 56% of head office roles. Thankfully board-level gender diversity has improved by 10 percentage points over the four years, from 32.6% to 42.3%.

When asked how progress has been achieved, retailers cited newly appointed D&I leaders, investment in training and mentoring, and support for employee-led initiatives.

Our research suggests there is a significantly higher proportion of LGBTQ+ colleagues in retail than across the population as a whole, replicated across both store and head office roles. This is said to have been helped by more Pride related activities within firms and other practical measures to enhance visibility and opportunities to progress.

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All this should aid employee engagement, lower staff turnover and absence rates, and improve productivity. But we cannot get ahead of ourselves as challenges remain. Retail leadership may be more diverse than ever but one in three retail boardrooms is all white. Disabled leaders are even fewer and farther between, with a mere 11% of retailers able to identify a disabled leader in their business. Of course, not all disabilities can be seen, and there is no doubt more progress is needed.

There are barriers when it comes to improving D&I. The sensitive nature of some data can make it hard to collect. There is a constant challenge for resources at a time when for many firms the primary focus is trading profitably against a backdrop of weak consumer demand and spiralling costs.

But identifying these hurdles is the first step to improving things and making progress more widespread, as is the tone from the top of the business and a clear plan of action.

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Retailers are working collaboratively to better our industry and overcome ingrained biases to ensure that every employee, no matter their background, can achieve their potential in the workplace. Of course, it’s difficult to overturn embedded societal structures and inequalities overnight, particularly against the backdrop of the economic turbulence of the past few years. It will take concerted effort.

However, it is little surprise that retail is helping to shift the dial and putting itself in a better position to succeed and compete for talent in future.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium