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Editor's view: Expert staff mean more than just a column on the balance sheet

It would be a brave wager to bet that all the retail redundancies linked to this recession have now happened. Deep down, we all expect more to come. By Matthew Valentine, editor

GENERAL MERCHANDISE

Editor's view: Expert staff mean more than just a column on the balance sheet

It would be a brave wager to bet that all the retail redundancies linked to this recession have now happened. Deep down, we all expect more to come. By Matthew Valentine, editor

Photographic specialist Jessops, for example, was open in its results statement this week when it said more redundancies might be on the cards, as it moved towards greater use of part timers to ensure more consistent staffing levels.

One of the great strengths of the UK re

tail sector is its intelligent use of staff, and its willingness to embrace the experience and expertise of employees who want to work part time or flexible hours. B&Q's policy of accepting older staff members has brought in invaluable knowledge, for example.

But a specialist retailer such as Jessops risks a lot if it replaces knowledgeable and experienced staff with - let's call a spade a spade - less-expensive part timers. It's a situation no doubt familiar to many specialist stores, where a single big sale can mean a significant proportion of the weekly turnover.

Anybody who has heard a group of professional photographers talk shop knows they inhabit a complicated world of numbers and jargon, bordering on the nerdish and impenetrable to outsiders. And they wouldn't have it any other way. So when they buy a new camera for thousands of pounds, the pros want a lengthy conversation with a sales assistant. All but the most experienced member of retail staff would be confused or bored half to death within minutes, and the photographer would head for the nearest specialist who could provide the detail they wanted.

If Jessops wants to sell to professional photographers, who form the only realistic market for the top of the range digital SLRs which cost as much as a small car, the chain must have staff who know the products inside out. In such a complicated market that is difficult for a part timer to achieve.

This level of knowledge might not seem so important at the bottom end of the market. But if a sales assistant can only offer the same level of product information shoppers can find online, where will they buy that camera? Wherever it is cheapest, would be the obvious decision.

Jessops is not alone in this quandary. All specialist retailers, in whatever sector, have difficult decisions to make about staff. But letting expertise slip away could surely be a false economy.

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