The WDC recently published the first in a series of ‘Regional Sectoral Profiles’ analysing specific economic sectors in the Western Region and identifying key policy issues. The first sector examined is Wholesale & Retail. Two publications are available:
- WDC Insights: Wholesale & Retail in the Western Region (2-page summary)
- Wholesale & Retail in the Western Region: Regional Sectoral Profile (full report)
Download both here
42,510 people were employed in the Wholesale & Retail sector in the Western Region in 2016. At 12.7% of total employment, it is the region’s second largest employment sector, after Industry. It is somewhat less important in the region than nationally (Fig. 1). At 13.3% of all employment, it is Ireland’s largest employer.
Among western counties, Wholesale & Retail is most significant in Mayo (14.4%) and least so in Clare (11.2%). Two other largely rural counties (Roscommon and Donegal) had the next highest shares working in the sector in the region. Wholesale & Retail accounted for a higher share of total employment in 2016 than a decade earlier in all western counties (except Donegal) and most notably in the most rural counties.
52.3% of people at work in the Wholesale & Retail sector in the Western Region are male, similar to the national average. Males make up the majority in all western counties (at 55.2% Sligo has the greatest male majority) except Clare (50.8% female) and Galway city (50.9% female).
Wholesale & Retail Employment in western towns
Wholesale & Retail is the largest employment sector for 16 out of the region’s 40 urban centres. There is no clearly discernible pattern in the relative importance (as a percentage of total employment) of the sector across the 40 towns, ranked by descending size (Fig. 2). Factors such as location, distance from larger urban centres, diversity of its economic profile and alternative job options combine with a town’s size to determine the role played by the sector.
Boyle (20.2%), Ballina (20%) and Castlebar (19.1%) have the highest shares working in Wholesale & Retail in the region. These, and other towns with a high share, are important rural service centres located quite some distance from larger centres and serving wide rural hinterlands. The sector is least important for Strandhill, Newmarket-on-Fergus and Moycullen; all are towns located close to large urban centres which are likely their main retail centre.
Self-employment in Wholesale & Retail
The Western Region is characterised by greater self-employment in Wholesale & Retail than the national average (15.5% of total employment in the sector is self-employment compared with 12.7% in the state). Every western county, except Galway City, also has an above average share of self-employment, meaning the sector in the region is characterised by more family or owner/ manager run businesses, likely smaller in scale.
The share of self-employment declined in all western counties (except Sligo) between 2011 and 2016. This indicates a changing composition of the sector with fewer family or owner/manager run Wholesale & Retail businesses and the expansion of multiples and chain stores with a growing share of those working in the sector being employees.
Census data on employment in the Wholesale & Retail sector is sub-divided into 17 separate activities. For ease of presentation here these are grouped into five broad areas: Motor trades; Wholesale; Food/beverage retail; Clothing/footwear retail; and All other retail.
In 2016, the largest sub-sector in the Western Region was ‘Food/beverage retail’ (Fig. 3) accounting for 27.7% of all employment in the Wholesale & Retail sector. The largest element of this is supermarkets. The next largest sub-sector is ‘All other retail’ (e.g. furniture, computers, petrol stations etc.) followed by ‘Wholesale’. The relative importance of the five sub-sectors differs across counties. Generally, ‘Food/beverage retail’ is the largest with close to 30% working in this sub-sector in Clare and Leitrim. Two exceptions are Galway City and Roscommon where ‘All other retail’ is bigger.
The sub-sectors have performed differently over time. For the Western Region, ‘Motor trades’ saw the most significant jobs growth between 2011 and 2016 reflecting strong recent growth in car sales and recovery from substantial job losses during the recession. ‘Clothing/footwear retail’ was the only other area to show some growth with the other three sub-sectors declining in the region. This is in contrast to the national picture where all sub-sectors grew except ‘Food/beverage retail’.
Key Policy Issues
Wholesale & Retail plays a critical role in the regional and rural economy as it is more widely dispersed than many other sectors. It is a highly visible sector and its performance has a major impact on the viability and vibrancy of towns. It also provides important job options for people with lower skill levels and younger people. There has been growing policy interest in this sector in the past number of years. Some of the key policy issues include:
- Increased consumer mobility & rural areas: The trend of travelling to large urban centres to avail of wider retail choice presents opportunities for the region’s largest centres but may have negative consequences for small and medium-sized rural towns.
- Town centre renewal: Towns are trying to adapt to their changing role. Retail is just one of the services they provide and for many it is declining in relative importance. Taking a broad approach to town centre renewal is critical to making towns more attractive retail and service destinations.
- Growth of online sales: Online sales continue to grow but the majority of spending leaks out of Ireland. While online can be seen as a threat to traditional retail, it also presents an opportunity to expand beyond local markets.
- Declining self-employment: While self-employment remains higher in the region than elsewhere, it is declining. Fewer family or owner/manager run enterprises impacts on the local distinctiveness of the retail offering of individual towns.
- Quality of employment and skills development: While Wholesale & Retail offers many high quality jobs, it also employs a lot of younger and lower skilled workers. Improving the quality and security of jobs in this sector is important for worker rights and also for the sector’s ability to adapt to emerging trends.
Opportunities exist to grow online activity and to restructure the retail and service offering of towns to meet changing consumer needs. However, grasping these opportunities will depend on proactive policy to support the sector, a willingness to adapt among retailers, increased capacity for businesses to compete with larger national or global retailers and a collaborative approach to help towns adapt to their changing function.
More detailed analysis and discussion of these policy issues are available in ‘Wholesale & Retail in the Western Region: Regional Sectoral Profile’
 Appendix 1 of the report provides data for all 17 activities.