The feminization of the retail workforce in Saudi Arabia is seen as positive for women in the country, but is proving difficult for the beauty industry to manage.
While much fanfare has been made of moves by the Saudi Arabian government to allow women to work as retail salespeople, especially in the beauty category, the practicalities of implementing the changes have thrown up significant challenges.
The third phase of the so-called ‘feminization’ of the Saudi workforce – the 100% feminization of the women’s retail sector (beauty, fashion, etc) – was initially due to be completed in October 2015, but to give retailers more time to adjust, the deadline was extended a further year to October 2016. The difficulties associated with training women who have never held a job – in both the basics of workplace culture, as well as in products and service skills – and the fact that retail outlets often require major structural renovations to meet the privacy requirements for women at work, have caused significant headaches. Retailers must also take into account issues such as women’s transportation, working hours, maternity leave and child care arrangements.
While some reports suggest that the feminization of the retail environment has created a significant number of new jobs, others say that beauty salons and services have suffered losses due to the difficulty of finding staff – trained or otherwise – and retailers are being forced to shut down for not meeting government requirements.
“Some [retail] owners have also expressed that some businesses are start-ups that do not have the budgets to fully hire committed female workers. These businesses can be shut down if the Ministry of Labor does not excuse them,” a labor ministry source told the Saudi Gazette earlier this year. “Men are prohibited from working in the sector. The Ministry of Labor has set penalties, including fines reaching up to SR50,000 ($13,323), closing down the business or both depending on the violation.”
Lack of Experience
The lack of training and experience of female staff is a major issue. A study conducted by Effat University into the feminization of jobs in Saudi Arabia which surveyed 106 people, of whom 86% were women, found that while 67% respondents said a female salesperson made them feel comfortable, most respondents disagreed with the propositions that saleswomen are well trained (58%) or have effective sales skills (62%).
“With the increasing demand on hiring Saudi female salespersons in women-only retail shops, and with the apparent lack of efficient training programs that provide such novice saleswomen with the needed and essential sales skills, an increasing number of Saudi female shoppers are finding it far more frustrating to be served by those young unskilled Saudis,” the Effat University report said.
Industry players report that the introduction of female beauty advisors, who unlike their male counterparts are allowed to touch their customers’ skin, has had an immediate positive impact on Saudi Arabia’s beauty market. However, for beauty retailers, training and retaining staff remains a long-term issue, with some stores initially having to implement a 100% staff turnover from men to women. Some experts suggest that training women in acceptable workplace culture and attitudes – getting to work on time, giving notice before resigning – is a process that could take up to a decade.