A Comparative Case Investigation of the Retail Industry: Comparing the Nature of HRM, Emotional Labour and the Influence of the Customer

  • Kimberley Cartwright

Student thesis: Unknown


Retail work constitutes an estimated 10.5 per cent of the UK workforce (British Retail Consortium, 2011). The literature suggests homogeneity in the nature of HRM in the retail industry with low formal skills, pay and trade union density associated with this context (Skillsmart Retail, 2010; Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2010). Furthermore, the downward pressure on the working conditions of employees is observed across front-line work in general and this, seemingly does not improve with competitive strategy (Kelliher and Perrett, 2001; Lloyd, 2005; Lloyd, Warhurst and Dutton, 2013). However, the service work literature reveals diversity at the workplace level in the performance of emotional labour (Bolton, 2000) and the different types of customer (Bolton and Houlihan, 2005). Yet there are gaps in the literature related to how the performance of emotional labour compares and contrasts across retail organisations through different management control mechanisms as well as how the employee-customer interaction may explain diversity at the workplace level. The thesis draws on a comparative case approach of four case study organisations in the retail industry each reflecting different market positions in clothing and electrical product markets. A total of 37 semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers and employees across the case study stores. In addition the methodology also included the analysis of the customer perspective which is traditionally missing in the work and employment relations literature (Korczynski, 2009) This included collecting data using eighteen customer shopping reports, a method based on qualitative diaries. The overall aim of the study was to compare and contrast management, employee and customer perspectives across different retail organisation contexts and explore how the nature of HR and the performance of emotional labour are framed and reframed by the dynamics and negotiations that take place between these three actors. The findings reveal homogeneity in the nature of HRM with no improvement in recruitment and selection, training, pay and collective employee involvement going up the quality chain in the retail industry. This confirms other studies in the service industry more generally (Kelliher and Perrett, 2001; Lloyd, 2005; Lloyd et al, 2013). However within this downward pressure on the nature of HRM there were elements of diversity in the management requirements for the performance of emotional labour and the conceptualisation of the customer which shaped the employee-customer interaction in much broader terms than Strategic HR theorists might have assumed. To understand diversity across the retail organisations it was necessary to analyse the nature of employee-customer interactions within the context of management performance strategies. This revealed that many of the nuances between the case study retailers related to the ways the customer shapes, and is shaped, by the performance of emotional labour. The thesis will argue for the continued relevance of the concept of triangular relations which has been recently criticised (Belanger and Edwards, 2013) because it recognises the three actors that shape the performance of emotional labour at the level of workplace relations.
Date of Award1 Aug 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester


  • Competitive strategy and HRM
  • Front-line service work
  • Retail work
  • Gender
  • Aesthetic labour
  • Best fit HRM
  • Customer segmentation and HRM
  • Strategic HRM
  • HRM
  • Emotional labour

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