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Labor shortages and workforce challenges

Transform Retail Employees Into Powerful Community Builders

By Laure Charpentier

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Now more than ever, people are looking for their tribe. They have an increased focus on communicating with others in groups and communities that they are comfortable with, a trend that accelerated when so many were isolated during the pandemic.

This shift also extends to the business world. The more a brand and its salespeople resonate with a customer’s culture and what they believe in, the more loyal the customer will be and the more they’ll spend. Research from the Oliver Wyman Forum, for example, finds that more than 90% of Gen Z consumers are willing to pay extra for brands that support the causes they care about. Savvy retailers have begun taking advantage by enlisting their employees to build tailored communities around their stores through social media and other outlets. Striking the right tone can provide a significant sales boost, as well as vastly improve loyalty and reduce customer acquisition costs.

Winning the talent wars through company values

The foundation for improving customer retention in this way starts with a loyal, engaged workforce. Even more than customers, workers want to be aligned with the company’s purpose. Employers must clearly communicate what the company stands for and demonstrate a commitment — to environmental causes, civil rights, or other important social and political issues — through real actions. There is 27 percentage point difference in employee retention between companies that provide purpose and meaning in their work and those that do not. Stronger sense of meaning and purpose also has a positive cascading effect on the customer experience.

This helps to build an emotional connection with employees and gives them a sense of belonging. It also fosters a greater feeling of achievement when they can see that their work really matters.

On the flip side, businesses that fail to adequately uphold their values and make meaningful connections put themselves at a considerable disadvantage in the war for talent. Salary raises and flexible schedules are not enough to placate workers as the quiet quitting trend gives way to what business author and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman calls “an era of conscious quitting.” For example, more than half of US employees say they would consider resigning if their company’s values did not line up with their own, Polman’s February 2023 survey finds.

Fortunately, empowering workers to build store-based communities (and even encouraging them to become micro-influencers of a sort) goes a long way toward addressing these difficult labor issues. Not only is it an excellent way to increase their engagement, but it also serves to attract new employees who are energized by the company’s purpose and values. Workers who are truly bought in to the message will pass it along to friends and social media followers, which can help attract new hires and lower recruiting spend.

The blueprint for a community-building campaign

Workers who can serve as the company’s “value champions” also will perform their jobs better and be extra valuable as community builders. Finding the right people is usually the responsibility of store managers, who should find staffers that spend a lot of time on social media and are already well-versed in creating content on Instagram or TikTok. Taking on the role doesn’t usually come with a direct incentive for salespeople, but it can be a way for them move up the ranks more quickly and get opportunities outside of their regular department.

A large cosmetics chain provides a good model for how to implement a community-building program. The company’s stores empower one of their beauty advisors to run their Instagram accounts; that person is responsible for attracting an audience of like-minded clients to the store by making them aware of special offers and inviting them to events. Often the salesperson will bill the store as not just a retail space, but an enjoyable destination for members of the community to gather. A store might throw parties, host product launches, or in the case of the cosmetics company, bring in makeup artists to give clients free makeovers.

In some cases, multiple people from the same store could be assigned as representatives for different communities. For example, one salesperson reaches customers on TikTok who are young and identify as trendsetters, while another focuses on clients who use Instagram and are more interested in self-care products.

The store ambassadors must make themselves highly identifiable. There is no magic bullet for doing so, but perhaps the best way to start is by engaging with clients directly when they’re at the store. To help, the store can post signage encouraging shoppers to follow the salesperson on social media.

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How stores make community building successful

The effort to bring customers together is especially effective in smaller cities that offer fewer opportunities to meet people. Of course, the concept is not to target just any customer; if the salesperson’s reach is too broad, the community aspect will get diluted. Finding the right mix is easier for brands whose customer bases are relatively narrow and well-defined. The store can organize its communities in a variety of ways and may designate a different day for each one to be the focus of its events and social media attention. Ideally the parent company will leave the planning to the local stores, which have a better sense of their clientele and foot traffic.

Throughout the process, proper messaging is key. The store manager controls the communication strategy but should give the employee a lot of freedom within it. Again, people will respond only if the salesperson’s message resonates well with their convictions and the type of products they’re looking for. Among other guidelines, messages should keep the brand highly visible, use language that’s properly tailored to the audience, and be mindful of diversity. Whatever the channel, the company’s image must be maintained, so the store should designate someone as a community manager to review content regularly.

Several metrics are available to get a picture of how successful a community-building initiative has been. Every store manager needs to check Google comments and ratings. They can also monitor comments on Instagram, TikTok, and other social platforms, and calculate engagement rates of their employees’ accounts. Promotions that were specifically advertised to a single community can also be tracked by traffic and revenue.

Developing closer customer relationships

Many companies are further generating word-of-mouth business by empowering sales representatives to step up their one-to-one interaction with customers. Luxury businesses in Asia have been using this technique for the past few years. Salespeople contact their clients on WhatsApp whenever there’s a new product coming into the store, eventually developing more personal relationships akin to real friendships. In China for example, 61% of Gen Z shoppers are in contact with their sales assistant at least twice a month through instant messaging, according to an Oliver Wyman study.

Retailers and brands in large cities in Europe and the US have begun following suit more recently. It seems clear that efforts to develop such connections will only become more personalized and granular in the future. Building this level of client loyalty, the strategy will still depend on the company’s ability to first establish a solid bond with its employees mainly from its purpose, value, and ways of taking care of them. From that foundation will come the intended savings in talent or client acquisition costs and bigger numbers at the cash register.

Labor shortages and workforce challenges

Overcoming Workforce Hurdles

Retailers and suppliers are navigating a changing industry workforce — including high turnover levels — by focusing on strategies to boost recruiting, hiring and retention, as outlined by data from FMI’s The Food Retailing Industry Speaks 2023.

  • More than 90% of companies provided increased wages and salaries to full-time employees in 2022, the most recent full year measured.
  • More than 70% offered improved benefits.
  • Close to 70% offered flex time.
  • Top recruiting channels for retailers and suppliers included job fairs, colleges/universities, and local high schools.

Reaching out to Younger Generations

FMI has been partnering with Junior Achievement on a pilot workforce initiative designed to bolster the food industry’s recruitment reach to younger generations. This nationwide program, executed on the local level, uses professionally designed development experiences to encourage students to explore the many meaningful vocation possibilities available in the food industry. By fostering engagement with food industry professionals and helping equip young people with the skills necessary to launch their professional careers, this program aims to enhance consideration of the food industry as a viable vocational destination.

Training Future Leaders

FMI’s Future Leaders eXperience offers food industry professionals a chance to gain cutting-edge leadership training tailored to this industry’s needs. From relationship building to identifying emerging trends, the Future Leaders eXperience offers a detailed curriculum that sharpens skills critical to future business success and leads to a Food Retail Leader Certificate. A recent survey of those completing the program showed that 64% “improved my skills to coach and help develop my teammates” and 53% indicated that it “improved my skills as a leader for my peers.”

Saluting Food Industry Employees

The food industry will continue to rally around strategies and investments to support its workforces. One of the simplest and most effective strategies is recognition. A relatively new opportunity is Supermarket Employee Day. In recent years, the world has acknowledged how truly essential these community heroes are to our daily lives. Many states and localities have officially proclaimed February 22nd as a day to celebrate these employees. The fourth annual Supermarket Employee Day will be celebrated in February of 2024.

Transform Retail Employees Into Powerful Community Builders

Transform Retail Employees...