Posted August 31, 2022

The Future of Retail Work

By Sarah Rodriguez

The retail industry is undergoing significant changes, stemming from shifting consumer habits over the past several years. As brands look for innovative ways to engage their customers and enhance their in-store experiences in order to compete with e-commerce, the role and responsibilities of retail workers are evolving. In order to stay afloat, employers must recognize these industry changes and find ways to attract and retain the best retail employees, as they are often a customer’s first impression and experience with a brand and can ultimately make or break sales. Concerns such as flexibility and company culture are important factors that retail job seekers look for in a company and will be at the forefront of employers’ hiring strategies as the industry continues to evolve. As brands look to their frontline employees to create unparalleled customer experiences, they must first start with giving their employees an unparalleled experience. These industry changes stand to benefit retail employees everywhere.

The digitalization of retail is well under way, and employers must seek to understand these changes and what it means for their company and their employees. While the rise of e-commerce can be exciting for retailers that are either fully online or hybrid, it can be hard to navigate for more traditional brick-and-mortar stores. In-store experiences must be elevated in ways that incentivize customers to shop in-store and provide an unforgettable experience. Whether that means offering programs like buy online, pick up in store, or hosting in-store events that are promoted on social media, brands are constantly looking for new ways to wow their customers. Because of these new customer expectations, there is more weight being placed on retail workers to not only provide excellent customer service and process transactions, but to create and nurture genuine connections with customers that will keep them coming back. Many retailers have begun updating traditional retail front-of-house roles to be more involved, and to include other job functions such as being a brand ambassador and collecting and reporting customer feedback that will in turn influence product decisions. Not only can this benefit the company by providing authentic customer experiences and real-time feedback, it opens more opportunities for retail job seekers.

According to GE Capital Retail Bank’s Major Purchase Shopper Study, 81% of consumers do research online before going to a retail store to make a purchase. What does this mean for retail employees? Customers typically already have a good idea of what they want to purchase when they walk into a store, especially for large purchases. If they choose to buy in-store rather than online, they expect the retail employees to be experts on the product and be able to answer any and all questions or concerns they may have. Maybe they want to see a demo of the product before committing, or maybe they just need to be reassured that they are making the right purchasing decision. In any case, it is more important than ever for retail employees to build trust with their customers, and go above and beyond the typical retail employee role and be product experts and brand ambassadors. One way that employers can support this change is to let their products speak for themselves, by providing their employees with products either free of charge or at a discount, letting the brand ambassadorship occur naturally and allowing employees to represent the brand’s values and mission. Consumers are looking to support brands that align with their values, and it is important for employers to realize that the way they treat their employees will influence what those employees say about the brand online and offline, and there is a huge opportunity for employees to be the biggest advocates of their brand.

Retail job seekers also want to work for companies that they trust and whose values align with their own. Flexibility is largely important to job seekers, and is not something that has been traditionally offered in the retail setting. With schedules changing week-to-week and many employees receiving their weekly schedule with only a couple of days notice at most, the retail industry is being forced to reexamine this model to determine if it really is the best strategy. Some companies have adopted scheduling apps, where employees can log into a portal and see available shifts, signing up for the ones that work best for them. Others have begun to schedule shifts based on specific tasks that need to be done rather than a set number of hours, allowing employees to more efficiently manage their workload. It can also be as simple as offering predictable schedules that employees can depend on staying consistent, in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance. According to a study published by Management Science that examined the effects of responsible scheduling practices at Gap Stores, including consistency, predictability, adequacy, and employee control, utilizing these scheduling practices increased store productivity by 5.1%, increased sales by 3.3% and decreased labor by 1.8%. Given these results, it seems like a no-brainer for other companies to adopt these flexible scheduling practices for the benefit of their organizations as well as their employees.

Company culture is another make-or-break for potential retail employees when they are applying for jobs. With recent staff shortages, a lot of the power is in the hands of retail employees, allowing them to be more selective with what opportunities they pursue. Brands that focus on creating inclusive work environments that are supportive and welcoming are more likely to have loyal customers and employees because they align with their values. With so many different brands and products for consumers to choose from, retailers must find a way to set themselves apart and can do so by fostering a positive work environment that will in turn create a positive shopping environment. Another way for companies to attract the best retail candidates is by creating and communicating a clear career roadmap. Job seekers are more likely to choose roles that have a clear path to advancement and continual training that the company is transparent about. As the role of the retail worker changes and becomes more robust, training is especially important to ensure employees can give the best possible experience to customers.

The future of the retail industry looks bright for retail workers. With employers offering more flexibility, comprehensive employee training programs and prioritizing a positive and inclusive culture, as well as expanding roles and giving more responsibility and credit to retail workers, job seekers can apply to companies that they are passionate about working for and feel more fulfilled in their careers. When companies create brands, products and work environments that their employees are truly passionate about, an organic brand ambassadorship is created that can go very far in convincing consumers why they should also be passionate. Retail employees are essentially the face of a brand, and employers are realizing just how much they truly influence sales and how vital they are in creating loyal, returning customers. After a sharp increase in e-commerce sales over the last several years, which is only expected to continue, it is more important than ever for employers to adapt their strategies to the new digital landscape and find ways to make their brand stand out and exceed customer expectations for in-store experiences. Keeping customers happy starts with keeping employees happy, which has always been true, but is only recently being seen as a top priority for retail companies in their hiring strategies. These industry changes are a win-win for employers and employees alike.