What lies ahead for the six million working in urban retail stores?

RETAIL SECTOR PROSPECTS POST COVID-19

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Inside a Big Bazaar store in Kolkata. Pic: Biswaroop Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

There is evidently not much good news floating around in the economy. First, some numbers. In 2019, according to ILO estimates, youth unemployment rate in India was at 10.51%. This figure has hovered around 10% for the past decade. But unemployment rate among the urban youth is much higher.


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According to data released by the Centre in its Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18, unemployment among urban youth in the age group of 15-29 years was at 23.7% in that December quarter, rising consistently over the three previous quarters of that year.

If that trend continued, and all reports indicate that it did, then the unemployment rate in the December quarter of 2019 must have been even higher. And this figure is BC (Before COVID), with enough evidence indicating that the urban youth will be in a much worse situation post COVID.

Why retail?

Let us focus on the retail sector, perhaps the single largest employer of urban youth in India. Overall, the retail sector employs around 50 million people, a large proportion of this work force comprising young people.

It is estimated that there are over 15 lakh modern retail stores in urban India, which generate business to the tune of Rs 4.74 lakh crore, employing 60 lakh persons. How many of them will still have their jobs after the lockdown is anybody’s guess!

According to Kumar Rajagopalan, CEO of Retailers Association of India (RAI), if the closure of retail outlets owing to the lockdown imposed continues, retailers will lose up to 50 per cent of their revenues. This in turn would affect jobs in the sector and almost 20 lakh employees could lose their jobs. Most of them will, in all likelihood, consist of urban youth.

Retooling time

And where will these youth find their next employment?

To try to answer that, we need to understand their current job profiles. Store operations constitute the major task in a modern retail outlet. Front-end persons including retail assistants, customer support executives, billing and similarly engaged employees generally account for about three quarters of all employment in the organised retail stores.

Particular skill requirements may vary slightly across different formats, functions within the store and the product categories, but the main requirement across all, at both-entry level and middle-level jobs, are good interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate proficiently in English and the regional language.

So now where do they go with these skills? The latest Times RecruiteX April 2020 findings are out. Almost all functional areas recorded no growth in demand during the past quarter. It is likely that the same trend will continue for the next two quarters, if not longer.

The research revealed that recruiters were presently seeking talent with the following profiles:

  • Content Writers, 
  • Digital Marketing Professionals 
  • R&D Professionals and 
  • Logistics Managers.

Conversations with two human resource professionals painted a gloomy picture on future hiring in this sector. Post COVID, they said, human interaction at the store level will actually reduce significantly. Many stores will employ less and move towards more automated product selection process by the customer. So it is very likely that even after the situation comes back to some sort of normal, the people who lose their jobs are unlikely to get them back without learning new skills, especially in terms of using the digital space.

Unless of course the sector witnesses a sudden boom and a significant number of additional stores get opened, which again the HR professionals are not very optimistic about.

On the other hand, one of them opined that with a fairly large number of trained and experienced young persons readily available, new avenues of brand promotions would emerge for which their current skills will be in demand. The other HR professional felt that a new wave of self-employed professionals will emerge.

Digital communication is bound to see a big surge. Also, the upswing in digital marketing will continue at a greater pace. In fact, digital salesmen may emerge as a distinct profession, replacing to some extent the old sales and marketing people. That is a skill set that young people will need to develop.

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