By Caitlin Gibson
As retailers reopen and calibrate their return-to-work plans, the holiday season looms. Historically, retailers make about 20% of their annual sales during this season between November and January. But, after the worst year on record for retail sales growth as a result of the pandemic, retailers are understandably apprehensive about the holiday season ahead. Not only are most retailers still figuring out the safest, most efficient ways to reopen their brick-and-mortar stores and keep them open, many are also navigating the rapid acceleration of their e-commerce services, particularly online ordering. Moreover, retailers from every industry are grappling with the changed shopping habits of consumers. People aren’t shopping as much at the places they used to, if they are at all, and they’re not buying the same things.
So, how can retailers prepare for the holiday season ahead in the face of so much uncertainty and change? As the pandemic continues to make abundantly clear, it’s all about engaging, supporting, and uplifting frontline employees.
How to Mitigate the Uncertainty
First, retailers have to contend with the very real challenges of hiring and rehiring hundreds of thousands of frontline employees while still facing a pandemic. For prospective and furloughed employees, returning to work means risking their health or even their lives, as well as the health and lives of their families. Realistically, many won’t be able to take that risk. That’s why retailers have to assemble a diverse, agile workforce that enables a smaller group of frontline workers, who bring with them a variety of skillsets, perspectives, and experiences, to serve in different parts of the business.
To hire and retain such a diverse workforce, recruitment and retention practices need to be refreshed, so they’re more thoughtful and inclusive. When it comes to recruitment, that can mean, for example, using more inclusive language in job descriptions and working with organizations that serve marginalized communities to advertise open positions. Then, to retain employees from marginalized communities, in particular, retailers have to actively prioritize their wellbeing and advancement. That can mean training all employees to recognize and address bias in the workplace or organizing a mentorship program. These and other ways to create a more diverse workplace can not only help engage and retain valuable team members, they can boost revenue and help retailers outperform their competitors.
In addition to refreshing recruitment and retention practices, onboarding and training programs need to be revamped, so they’re more efficient and focused on health and safety. That way, new frontline employees can get to work faster without compromising their safety or the safety of customers. Additionally, to create a more agile organization, retailers should focus on cross training their frontline employees, so they’re prepared to adapt to the changing needs of their customers and work environment. For example, someone hired an installation consultant in an electronics department could also be trained to fulfill curbside pick-up orders. Cross training also offers frontline workers opportunities to expand their skillset and learn different roles, which can help them feel more fulfilled at work.
Once employees are trained, it’s crucial that retailers foster innovation, so they can be more prepared to address the inevitable, new challenges of managing a retail business during a holiday season and a pandemic. As a well-known retailer understands, “Of all our employees, our frontline team members interface with our customers the most, so they have to be included in our problem-solving efforts. When encouraged, these particular employees are well-positioned to come up with the creative solutions we need to address the evolving needs of our customers during this uncertain time.”
Next, retailers have to harness the power of effective change communications. They’re the key to navigating periods of significant, or even constant, change—like the one we’re in now—cultivating a culture that employees are excited to be a part of, personalizing the employee experience, and more. Specifically, retailers should seek out mobile-friendly change communications solutions and software to reach and engage their diverse workforce. These types of online platforms can link frontline workers to the most up-to-date information about public health guidelines that affect their job, upcoming change initiatives, return-to-work policies and procedures, and more. This allows those employees to adapt more quickly, avoid potentially costly mistakes, and be reassured that they’re doing the right thing. These platforms can also help corporate leaders relay positivity, empathy, and honesty through consistent, personalized messaging designed to reach every employee, particularly those on the frontline. This can have a very powerful impact on company culture and help frontline workers feel more positive about going to work. When retail employees feel more confident and supported at work, they can create better experiences for customers, which is even more crucial now.
Although retailers can’t predict exactly how the upcoming holiday season will affect them, they can mitigate some uncertainty by embracing and supporting their frontline workers while looking to the future. By prioritizing inclusive hiring practices, efficient and cross-functional trainings, and personalized, effective change communications, retailers can ensure their frontline employees are poised to face the unique holiday season ahead. And with this prepared and focused workforce, retailers can bring about boosts in sales, productivity, and customer satisfaction and end a challenging year on a more reassuring note.