Next celebrated its 40th birthday in style last month. The retailer’s feted boss, Lord (Simon) Wolfson, mingled with head-office staff and store managers in a carnival atmosphere at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre. Guests loaded up at the free bar and danced the night away. Others enjoyed the dodgems and the waltzers. Some just sat back in a deckchair with an ice cream.
A casual observer would never have guessed it, but behind the scenes, the mood among some of Next’s 43,000 workers has, in reality, turned toxic.
The tens of thousands of people working in Next’s stores and warehouses — who were not invited to join last month’s festivities — have borne the brunt of a disastrous implementation of a new Oracle payroll system.
Workers on the minimum wage have been significantly underpaid, while others are being overpaid, causing some to lose access to their benefits amid the worst squeeze on living standards for 60 years.
As serious as the current situation is, though, the issues at Next appear to run much deeper.
In this investigation, we reveal that:
● HM Revenue & Customs is investigating whether Next is paying workers the national minimum wage.
● Next inadvertently over-claimed money from the coronavirus job retention scheme without giving 4,000 members of staff the furlough payments that they were due.
● HMRC has reclassified Next from a low-risk taxpayer to a medium-risk taxpayer.
These revelations appear to stand at odds with the widely held perception of Next as a well-oiled machine. Under Wolfson, the fashion chain has defied gravity on the high street, pumping out record pre-tax profits of £823 million last year. And last week, it raised its profit forecast for this year by £10 million to £860 million after shoppers flocked back to stores.
Meanwhile, workers have been suffering. “More than a dozen people in my store didn’t get paid right last month,” said one shop-floor employee. “One girl was overpaid, so her benefits were stopped and she had to borrow money off her parents to pay her bills and feed her young son. Another girl literally didn’t have the money to pay for her bus fare to work. Morale is awful — I have never known it to be as bad as this.”
The hardships inflicted on staff pose difficult questions for finance director Amanda James and operations director Richard Papp, who oversaw the roll-out of the Oracle software system.
Wolfson, 54, is a master of detail who immerses himself so deeply in the business that he personally signs off requests for additional headcount in shops and warehouses. The Conservative life peer meticulously managed the leases on Next’s portfolio of 477 stores to ensure it had the flexibility to close poor performers as trade drifted online. And he decisively capitalised on Next’s advantages as a one-time catalogue retailer by establishing a service to run other retailers’ online operations. Any investors who bought Next shares 21 years ago, when Wolfson took over, would now be sitting on a near 2,000 per cent return.
Prudence is the watchword at Next. Wolfson prefers to utilise its in-house expertise rather than rely on consultants or third-party software providers. The retailer has largely designed its own systems, developed and supported by a vast IT department of about 1,000 workers. The attempt to integrate those systems with Oracle’s has been at the heart of the operational meltdown.
HMRC requires companies to use a licensed, third-party payroll provider. Next had to find a new one after learning that its previous software would be discontinued this year. In 2018, it is said to have signed a five-year licence with Oracle, and has paid the software giant more than £10 million to date. Oracle did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The implementation of the payroll system has lasted the best part of four years. As the deadline neared, a team of more than 50 people worked round the clock to try to ensure the system was ready, with some workers putting in dozens of hours of overtime at double pay for several weeks.
Staff have complained of not being paid, being paid too much, or having deductions taken for paid-off student loans
Next even dished out an “implementation bonus” — a reward for failure that irritated some head-office staff.
The retailer blamed the botched implementation on the pandemic, which led Next to divert key team members to establishing its furlough payments system. It also acknowledged that it had tried to replicate too much of the functionality from its original payroll system in too tight a timeframe, meaning that Next went live with an untested system.
One source close to the failings, though, said that the company’s insularity and the attitude that “Next knows best” was at the root of the problems — a characterisation the company rejected.
Either way, the consequences have been dire. The company had expected that the switchover would prevent it from being able to hire staff for its retail business for two weeks — but it was actually unable to hire anybody for six weeks. Some employees who had paid off student loans years before noticed deductions suddenly restarting. Meanwhile, pension contributions were deducted from staff pay packets without being invested — although Next said it was confident that no workers would ultimately lose out from these mistakes.
The disruption, cruelly, has been most severe for Next’s shop-floor workers, who are paid the minimum wage of £9.50 an hour. The switchover to the Oracle system in February resulted in thousands of staff being paid incorrectly. One member of the retail workforce said that despite not being paid what they were owed, staff were having to work harder because they had been told to re-label thousands of garments with higher prices.
“Some people just weren’t being paid for months. Affected staff have been calling up crying and, in the worst cases, they have even been suicidal,” said one head-office insider. Another source said that workers in the payroll department “just looked broken”.
Next said this was not a fair reflection of the general interactions. “We acknowledge the frustration many colleagues have felt and reiterate our sincere apologies. We have made huge progress and continue to work very hard to resolve the situation,” a spokesman said.
The retailer’s response was to write another system to catch and correct errors produced by the payroll software before money is paid to staff. Despite that, 219 retail workers were underpaid in Next’s latest weekly payroll cycle and a greater number are thought to be getting overpaid, with the risk of benefits being withdrawn. The company said all underpayments were now being rectified within five working days and that improvements in the process were dramatically reducing error rates.
Lord (Simon) Wolfson, the chief executive of Next
CHRIS RATCLIFFE/GETTY IMAGES
Like many retailers, there is a chasm between the earnings of workers and Next’s top brass. Last year, Wolfson was paid £4.4 million, equivalent to 245 times the average Next employee. Papp and James earned £2.2 million each.
“I was underpaid by more than £500 … I have just given that up,” one warehouse worker said. “Now the system is telling universal credit I have not been to work, so I received almost £800 [in benefits] that I wasn’t due. I have been told that I have to go and look for a job with the job centre, but I am working damned hard because we are that short-staffed. It is demoralising.”
Next said it believed there were no outstanding underpayment queries among warehouse workers that were more than two weeks old.
Jo Mackie, leader of the employment practice at law firm Slater and Gordon, said that, theoretically, HMRC can punish companies if software issues lead to staff being underpaid — although the liability would be subject to the terms of the contract between the employer and the software provider. In 2013, National Grid agreed to pay £4 million to compensate more than 8,000 American workers after the botched implementation of a SAP payroll system meant it failed to pay overtime to workers repairing damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
Wolfson, though, has other problems to worry about. In May, HMRC wrote to the directors of Next advising them that it had opened an investigation into whether the retailer was paying its workers the “correct rate” of national minimum wage.
The inquiry is understood to have been triggered by a complaint from a member of Next’s retail workforce. HMRC has informed Next that the investigation will encompass its entire corporate structure, including any subsidiary companies. HMRC declined to comment.
“In general terms, it is not uncommon for HMRC to audit large employers and their adherence to national minimum wage regulations,” a Next spokesman said.
If the taxman finds companies guilty of underpaying staff, it can force them to make good the underpayment and levy penalties of up to 200 per cent of the arrears.
HMRC also reclassified Next from a low-risk taxpayer to a medium-risk taxpayer. The change came after the company admitted that it had over-claimed £4.3 million of furlough cash, which it repaid in January. After making what was intended to be a final disclosure, Next is said to have realised it had over-claimed an additional £3 million, which has since been repaid.
Additionally, the retailer discovered it had underpaid roughly £2 million of furlough cash to about 4,000 employees. It has repaid all current employees who were out of pocket, but admitted that about 900 former employees, who have been contacted, have yet to be repaid. Next attributed the mistakes to the regular amendments of the Covid scheme, adding that they were a challenge for all companies to deal with. The company said it had a “clear path” to return to a low risk rating with HMRC.
Still, the litany of accurate mis-steps will shock Wolfson’s acolytes in the City. Just like Next’s staff, they will be hoping these are no more than a blip.