The retail industry has emerged from the pandemic to a vastly altered labor environment. Many blue-collar workers learned new skills during that time to help find jobs with higher pay, better benefits, and more flexibility. At the same time, these employees have been strongly affected by difficult workplace and financial conditions. The result is a pool of “new collars” with a different set of needs and expectations that retailers must satisfy if they are to remain competitive.
Part of the toll on retail workers stems from inflation and market volatility. Last year financial stress caused 29% of them to take on a second job or other additional work and 20% to ask their employer for a raise. Meanwhile, challenging workdays, on top of personal struggles, have created widespread mental health challenges. To illustrate, about 60% of retail employees say they feel exhausted and frustrated on a typical day at work, Mercer’s 2022 Inside Employees’ Minds Study finds.
Little surprise that retail underperforms compared to other industries when it comes to employee fulfillment. Fortunately, we have identified five key methods that employers can use to improve the employee experience, which in turn positively impact the customer experience and thereby support business performance.
Become an employer of choice
Becoming a sought-after employer is especially hard to achieve in the retail industry, which historically does not have the greatest reputation for being worker-friendly. But there are ways to better compete for talent. Retailers need to find ways to create a feeling of achievement among their employees and empower them to make a difference in their day-to-day work. Flexible schedules are a must, as are robust health and wellness benefits. Workers also want their employers to lay out career path options and offer them learning opportunities that help them move up in the organization.
Leverage technologies to redesign your workforce, not replace it
Another important but perhaps less obvious area to elevate employees’ experience is the use of technology. Innovations have been transforming retail work for some time, mostly by automating repetitive, manual processes and streamlining operations. So-called smart shelves, for example, track inventory and enable dynamic pricing, reducing the amount of time employees spend on pricing and promotions. Technology has even been used to replace employees but that formula has not proven that effective to date. Amazon, for instance, recently closed eight of its new cashier-less Amazon Go stores.
A better application of technology is to redesign employees’ responsibilities and shift how they are asked to deliver them. Workers who spend less time updating price tags can spend more time assisting customers, while artificial intelligence helps managers make more informed and timely decisions on re-stocking. Together these changes let frontline workers shift their focus from small, discrete tasks to broader, more stimulating objectives.
The advantages of digital employee portals
Apart from the in-store experience, technology tools can be useful for tasks that keep workers connected to the company on a daily basis. Digital frontline employee portals have emerged to centralize and seamlessly integrate information. These systems allow companies to streamline communications with workers, manage their schedules and assignments, and provide learning and career resources at their fingertips. Portal options include Yoobic, Nudge, Workjam, Beekeeper, and Staffbase.
A gas station chain with more than 1,200 workers across France is one example of how businesses can leverage a portal to good effect. The company used Yoobic for internal communications, workforce management, and training, as well as real-time visibility on task compliance for manual activities such as promotions and inventory control. Among other improvements, the initiative connected siloed departments and resulted in 100 times fewer emails between the network’s 300 stores and its headquarters.
Invest in employees for the long term
Employees remain companies’ greatest assets, and as with any other asset it takes some investment to see returns. In an environment where workers’ responsibilities are evolving and technologies are becoming more embedded, the need for upskilling and reskilling is intensifying. Nearly 30% of workers say they don’t have access to adequate training, our survey finds, and more than a third say a lack of training is affecting their day-to-day work.
Upskilling should be a holistic and continuous learning experience, with the most important component comprising experiential strategies where employees get to “learn by doing.” Some companies, for instance, have used virtual reality to create immersive experiences that help workers deal with challenging situations like the winter holiday rush and Black Friday.
Building a better workplace
When implemented correctly, these methods increase retention rates and help attract new talent. They also improve productivity, positively impact margins, and enhance the customer experience. No workforce policy or technology is simply plug-and-play, however. Optimization requires first accurately gauging your employees’ satisfaction, and then defining exactly how to make your business a more desirable place to work than your competitors.
Addtional contributors Katie Veneziano and Pegah Ehsani