COVID and Retail: Solving 4 big challenges ahead

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered one of its most devastating business blows to the retail industry. Millions of retailers, large and small, shut down completely as states issued stay-at-home orders. Amid store and mall closures in March, retail sales suffered its largest month over month plunge since 1992, the Wall Street Journal reported. And according to another report, retail traffic was down nearly 98% year over year for the week of March 27.

Even in this climate, leaders are mulling when and how they will reopen stores, and that means HR managers and recruiters must hire, retain, and motivate large numbers of hourly workers and at the same time, create a new culture that may be markedly different than the pre-COVID work environment. “The road to recovery could be long and slow,” warned Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz of the National Retail Federation in an April 15 press release.

Retail has always posed unique challenges for HR, but that will mean troubleshooters have to take aim at even more troublesome issues, and use different tactics to overcome them. Here are 4 major challenges that we’ve identified, and some solutions to help you overcome them:

Challenge 1: Rebuilding retail all over the map

Maintaining a cohesive culture across locations is a challenge for any organization. A software company might have 1-2 offices per region, but a retail organization could have 10+ stores per region, in addition to their corporate offices. And each of those locations may be facing different regulations and logistical hurdles before they can open back up for business. This makes creating a shared employee and culture experience even more difficult.

Solution: Align around mission and values and empower regional managers

COVID-19 has created a pivotal moment for corporate culture, a time to ensure your actions now reflect the purpose and values your company stands for, and to unite your workforce in a common mission.  For example, grocery chain WaWa is committed to supporting its employee “heroes” with paid time off programs and safety measures, emphasizing that store associates “continue to serve as the heart of our company.”

Many other retailers are creating values-driven programs that are motivating employees during these hard times, from using fashion expertise and equipment to make masks and gowns, to donating a percentage of sales to food banks.

The key to balancing this natural (and welcomed) variation with a cohesive culture is to align around the mission and values as a common compass, while empowering local management to make the best decisions for their region. As things get back to normal, these programs will leave an imprint on employees that will increase engagement, loyalty and motivation. By combining a culture of gratitude for employees and the community at large, retailers will create a culture of trust that can bolster their business in hard times, and when things get better.

Challenge 2: High turnover for hourly workers

According to pre-pandemic research, turnover for hourly retail workers is high, a shocking 60% for hourly store employees compared to 15% for all industries. Now, it is likely that turnover rates may increase depending on the culture and safety measures that stores adopt. Even worse, HR managers and recruiters may be powerless to change work conditions. But what HR managers can do is listen, and use that information to make their employees and their business more resilient.

Solution: Give all employees a voice by collecting ongoing employee feedback

It has never been more important for retailers to give their hourly workers a voice. These workers are likely to have suffered the damage from this pandemic, and many are on the front lines – risking their own health to make sure customers have food, fuel for their cars and medicines when they need them.

The best way to understand the pressure these heroic employees are under, and what your organization can do to help them stay, and stay safe, is to ask them and take action accordingly. Collecting regular feedback and consolidating it in a single platform will empower you with data to align stakeholders and make informed decisions that will boost retention and speed business recovery. Perhaps more importantly, hourly workers that might not usually have a voice in these matters will feel heard and valued.

Take some time to understand and account for any potential barriers employees might face when providing feedback. For example, do employees feel comfortable providing their honest opinions? Partner with a third party to make surveys anonymous. Are employees having a hard time getting to a computer to take the survey? Provide mobile access to the surveys, or even designated time for employees during their work days. Or maybe some team members don’t feel comfortable taking the survey in English. Provide the survey in multiple languages and allow individuals to choose their preferred language.

While a responsive culture starts with a great employee survey, it doesn’t end there. Use the results to craft clear follow-up communications and action plans tailored by location.

Using the buy-in you’ve developed, communicate your action plan, and the positive results it brings about, through divisions, branches, and store managers so that employees across locations understand how their feedback contributed to change. And remember, not all positive changes require big spending. For example, a high percentage of hourly employees are just as interested in soft benefits, like a flexible scheduling (80%) relaxed dress code (30%), and opportunities for growth (56%). Providing benefits like these-especially flexible scheduling while schools are out, grocery lines are long and family members may need support, is absolutely critical to retain workers. They will remember you when stores begin to open up in full force, and competition for workers will become more intense.

Challenge 3: Boosting morale amid pandemic upheaval

The pandemic has already had a profound impact on company culture in the retail industry. Besides managing the loss of staff that has come from furloughs and layoffs, you are managing a new normal for how remaining staff conducts business and interacts with customers. A recent Forbes article says retailers should prepare for a permanently altered business landscape that includes more competition and consolidation, and some dramatic shifts in consumer behavior and loyalties.  All of these changes will affect how your workers perform.

Solution: Create a transparency plan and coach employees through change

As your company reacts to seismic changes in your retail business, your culture and engagement strategies need immediate triage.  Focus on company communication: explain as much as you can about the details of new business plans, customer relations policies, store closures or reopenings, store-hour reductions, new safety policies and further layoffs and furloughs if they are in the works. Pay special attention to who is delivering the message of any resulting changes to employees. Changes that affect employees on a business/professional level should be communicated by key leaders. And changes that affect employees on a personal level should be shared by a leader who knows the employee well, such as a direct manager.

Transparency costs nothing, and it’s especially beneficial when you can gain so much from it (and lose so much when it’s missing). In a guide centered around layoffs, MIT’s Human Resources recommends you hold regular meetings to hear how team members are doing, shoot down rumors, and set clear, attainable short-term goals. There are plenty of suggestions in this guide you can use to adapt other disruptive or crisis situations that may develop in your organization.

It’s important to remember that many of these business changes likely will add to the personal toll on employees. Leaders at all levels need to be committed to coaching employees through these workplace changes, and supporting employees who are suffering personally. We’ve created a resource hub that can help you get a sense of your workforce’s needs and help navigate them through the coronavirus crisis.

Challenge 4: Balancing customer service

In retail, customer service is everything. So how, in this new retail world, do you balance the needs of customers with the needs of employees? Luckily, these two considerations are more aligned than you might think.

Solution: Happier employees make for happier customers

It’s a simple idea: You can’t have happy customers without happy employees. The culture you choose to build after this crisis will be the culture that your employees will reflect out to customers. If you support your team, care for their safety, give them a clear, compelling mission around your company’s business goals, and make sure they know they are central in carrying those goals out, you’ll give them the tools they need to be successful and serve your customers well. Creating this culture of customer-centricity is giving your retail business both the stability to get back on its feet and the agility to stay ahead of any changes that come its way.

The one slogan that has become a rallying cry against the pandemic is #AllInThisTogether, and if you take that slogan to heart in your business culture, you can make it a rallying cry for your continued success, no matter what challenges your organization faces.

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