Why does Zara look like my teenage bedroom?

Our favourite shops are in desperate need of a tidy up. What’s messing up today’s high street?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Last week, I visited Oxford Street for the first time in months. Like many who brave the lawlessness of London’s busiest shopping destination, I arrived at Zara flushed with pride. But barely three steps through the door, I wanted to run back out.

Piles of hanger-less clothes, balled-up jeans, and foundation-stained t-shirts greeted my arrival. The next store was no different. Nor the next. To cope, I pretended I was at some kind-of interactive Tracey Emin exhibition. Still, even this couldn’t make me plunge my hands into the damp bog of chiffon scarves that awaited me in H&M. 

It’s meant to be the crowning beacon of the UK high street; an iconic ode to capitalism that spits out millions of bursting shopping bags a week. Yet on Oxford Street, sales assistants increasingly seem to be drawing their decor inspiration from my teenage bedroom.

The timing is strange given retailers are meant to be putting their best foot forward. Between March 2020 and 2022, 9,300 outlets closed or went into administration in the UK, including tens of high street staples (although not the stationary chain, Staples, thankfully). 

With the government launching an inquiry into the high street and how stores might entice consumers away from online rivals, my own research trip suggests a clean-up is in order. So what’s messing up today’s high street?

The most obvious culprit is the customer (now is the moment to thank any retail worker who has managed to scroll, white-knuckled, this far down the article).

I appreciate that mine is the exact kind of Karen-esque rant that keeps shop assistants up at night. As someone who worked a service job for six years, I understand that — just like Batman and Bruce Wayne can never be in the same room — sales floors would not be sullied were it not for lackadaisical, airpodded shopaholics like myself.

Leaving aside human nature, though, the other cause is clearly workforce-related. Behind every dishevelled shopper, there used to be a patient, irritated retail worker tidying up. Where have they all gone? During the last days of Rome I witnessed last weekend, there were only a handful of weary staff members present. 

Understaffing is one of the biggest issues plaguing the industry today. Last year, retail headcount declined at its fastest rate in 14 years. In a Startups survey, conducted at the end of 2023, 25% of retailers named taking on new staff as their biggest priority for the next year.

Companies have even started digging recruitment shortcuts to smuggle in new hires. John Lewis published its interview questions online, while Aldi asked ex-Wilko staff to contact it directly for a role following news of the brand’s collapse.

Like many modern workplace issues, the problem comes back to pay. Retail is a low-income sector, where most staff members are on the National Living wage. I’m sure that if someone offered me under £12 per hour to tidy up after perspiring patrons I would not see it as an enticing offer.

Business leaders are realising this for themselves. UK supermarkets from Asda to Waitrose have rolled out a rapid series of pay rises for grocery roles, to complement the minimum wage rise introduced at the start of April. Brands like Uniqlo and M&S have done the same, with the latter announcing an £89m investment in retail pay last month. 

Million-pound bonuses make great headlines. Individually, however, retail wages are still far below what an entry-level office worker can earn. At most supermarkets, the updated rates remain around 50p below the recommended Real Living Wage of £12 per hour.

Savvier organisations have added to employee benefits, like raising staff discount rates or adding extra holidays, as a workaround. Whether job seekers will be convinced is a gamble.

What’s certain is that the UK high street cannot clean up its act without an army of happy, valued staff. Until it does, stores will keep putting off potential customers before they can even get through the door. 

When I was younger, my Mum used to offer me 20p for every day I could keep my bedroom clean. My bet? It will take more than spare change to keep retail workers motivated.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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