Shop work is an abused profession, says Julian Richer

Electronics tycoon Julian Richer has warned shop work has become an ‘abused profession’ as he steps up a drive to improve the way big firms treat staff.

The founder of the Richer Sounds chain – known for his morale-boosting staff initiatives – said the rise of ‘giant retailers’ has tarnished the reputation of what was once an attractive area to work in.

He told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Whoever wants to go into retail? It’s an abused profession. No one wants to go into it.’ He added: ‘When you’re employing hundreds of thousands of people, they look at it as a numbers game and labour is dehumanised. It drives costs down at the cost of employees, and a lot of them I’m sure feel exploited.

‘Retail is one of the worst sectors for paying the real living wage, a lot of workers are vulnerable to having zero-hours contracts imposed on them and it offers little opportunity for career advancement.’

Over the years, extra pay for working unsociable hours in shops has been drastically cut or scrapped as stores extended opening hours. Pensions have been diluted, paid breaks binned and the days when staff at some chains might enjoy clothing allowances are long gone.

Richer, 61, who is advising Marks & Spencer on company culture, says he takes a different attitude to his own staff: ‘We treat them as human beings, not as machines. It’s particularly important for retail as staff on the shop floor are customer-facing and you want them to give their best and be positive and friendly. If they’re downtrodden and bitter towards their bosses then they’re not going to do that.’

Richer is a self-styled ‘ethical capitalist’ and handed ownership of the 51-store chain to a staff trust last year. He still runs it but has also embarked on a ‘responsible crusade’ to change corporate Britain and launched his Good Business Charter last year.

Designed to ‘accredit’ responsible companies, it demands strict compliance in areas such as diversity, the real living wage and ethical sourcing. TSB, Capita and Deloitte are among those accredited.

Richer said his work at M&S with its CEO Steve Rowe had been hit by Covid-19 but they had been appearing as a ‘double act’ addressing staff on company culture.

He began mentoring Rowe on workplace culture in 2018. The pair regularly meet in a windowless back room of a Mayfair café which they dub the ‘naughty room’.

Richer’s parents met working at an M&S store in north London: ‘[M&S boss] Steve Rowe jokes that he’s going to put a plaque up because he believes I was conceived in the changing room of the Kilburn store,’ he laughs.

He first advised Rowe’s chairman Archie Norman during his time as Asda in the Nineties on customer service and staff motivation.

Richer believes M&S’ stiff, corporate image has changed: ‘They were such an august, formal institution – I remember they had three different types of carpet depending on what kind of grade executive you were and different dining rooms. Those days are over, Archie sits in the staff canteen now. He’s a man of the people and he does get it.’

Richer believes selling off its freehold properties has cost M&S but added: ‘I do have confidence in them, I have shares in M&S that I haven’t sold and I absolutely believe in the company. It’s such a strong brand.’

Richer’s industry clout was underscored last year by a u-turn by Britain’s supermarkets, which handed back £2 billion in funds weeks after he and others vented anger at their receiving a business rates tax break while enjoying a Covid trading boost.

The launch of the Good Business Charter follows his efforts to improve corporate governance which has included the Zero Hours Justice campaign, Tax Watch to expose corporate tax abuse and now the Good Business Charter.

He added: ‘Everyone says they want to support the good companies but we don’t know who they are. The problem is the bad companies don’t advertise that they’re bad. We know about the odd scumbag out there.

‘Some companies appear to be good – they have huge marketing budgets but you don’t know if they’re using slave labour, paying their taxes, you don’t know if they’re paying minimum wage.

‘We needed a third party organisation to praise the good guys and signpost these companies for the public. It’s never been more necessary than after Covid – the state has supported so many companies as a blunt instrument very quickly, the government has spent the money on behalf of the public and the public don’t want to hear that these companies don’t pay their taxes and aren’t good companies.’

Richer founded his eponymous stereos-to-TVs retailer in 1978 and has built it into a national store chain, which turned over £171 million in its last published accounts. The retailer is deemed non-essential, forcing stores to close during the three English lockdowns. Richer also runs a string of charities and drums in a funk band called Ten Millennia.