Labor shortages have hit the retail industry hard. COVID may have been the catalyst for many to leave the industry, but the conditions for this crisis pre-date the pandemic. Employee motivation in the retail sector has been on the decline for ages.
Conditions today are challenging for retailers: economic uncertainty, inflation, and supply chain issues are wreaking havoc. In addition, the breakdown of civility in daily social interactions puts undue pressure on frontline staff. It’s no wonder retail jobs ranked last out of 190 jobs in the 2022 US News study. It doesn’t have to be this way. There are many benefits to working in retail. If you look at best-in-class retailers, we can see proof that it is possible to engage employees in retail jobs.
Think of Apple’s multiple daily store huddles to ensure staff is pumped up and connected. Or Costco’s long-standing emphasis on paying staff well and giving great benefits packages. QuikTrip emphasizes employee empowerment through rigorous training and creating a sense of ownership. And both Trader Joe’s and HEB encourage store staff to make decisions on the fly to provide great service. These examples touch on some of the things that can work to engage retail staff. In this blog, we will dive deeper into what the youngest workers in the labor market, Gen Z, are seeking from work opportunities.
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The economic context has changed for the young workers that make up a large portion of retail store staff. Young people prioritize post-secondary education and training and yet face staggering tuition fees and tough competition. The number of teens in the labor market dropped about 17 percent from 2000, due to increased requirements to graduate from high school or enter university. 52 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds live with their parents due to the rising cost of living. Money has always been important to job seekers, but for Gen Z it is the single most important factor.
Compensation must be competitive; however, it is not the only thing they want. They also want to know if they will be able to grow their career. They want a vibrant workplace culture and are also more focused on issues like diversity, equity and inclusion, and sustainability. Flexibility is also key for many young job seekers. Here’s how retailers can improve on these factors to attract the best young workers.
According to a study by Deloitte, the number one reason young adults left a role in 2022 was to make more money somewhere else. Compensation, which has always been important, has become the single most important factor for younger workers. Simply put, you will get what you pay for and if your competitors are paying more, they will recruit and retain the best talent.
REFRAMING RETAIL AS A GREAT CAREER
Retail careers can be as vibrant, rewarding, and lucrative as careers in other industries, and yet they have often been viewed as less prestigious. This is something the industry can change. Actively promoting career path options and creating meaningful training programs are key to reframing retail as an option worth considering. Some workers may simply want a part-time job, but many may be excited by the opportunity to run a store or a corporate role. Creating a pipeline of talent is in every company’s best interest. And knowing there are opportunities for growth is critical in attracting and keeping younger talent.
Another tactic being used by many companies is to support post-secondary education for their talent. Starbucks partners with Arizona State University to offer tuition support for US employees. Staff can get up to 100% of their first degree paid for by the company. Cash towards tuition is a great perk to recruit students.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO FUN?
Retail used to be a blast. Many external factors are in part to blame for retail worker burnout and “quiet quitting”, but there are many ways brands can improve the culture in their stores.
Brand’s hyper-focus on productivity has meant staff have less time to engage not only customers but each other. Building in time for staff to connect contributes to the sense of teamwork and allows managers to impart the brand mission on a regular basis.
Key tips to bring back fun:
- Training should be enjoyable. Games and events to support brand-focused initiatives need to connect to the “what’s in it for me” for staff. Retailers should avoid complicated gamification – keep it simple and make sure the rewards are meaningful.
- Store managers need resources to celebrate their staff – for example, celebrating birthdays or rewarding specific achievements.
- Not every initiative needs to be linked to sales. No-strings appreciation goes a long way. (This does not mean ordering pizza. Plan something special.)
CREATING A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP
Retailers often bemoan store staff who stock products and dutifully check out sales without any enthusiasm (currently dubbed “quiet quitting”). The truth is, there will always be some slackers, but retailers have a lot of power to create a sense of pride and engagement in-store teams. It comes when staff understand their part in the brand’s mission, and feel both respected and empowered in delivering it.
Here are some ways brands can encourage staff engagement:
- Your employee value proposition should intersect with your brand position – this helps store staff understand their part in a greater purpose. Keep the message simple and consistent.
- Consider the role of the back of the store, specifically the staff room. White-collar offices are introducing everything from nap space to video game rooms for staff – what about retail workers? A break room says a lot about how much the company values store staff and is an opportunity most retail brands have overlooked.
- Empower staff to make decisions on the spot to support customer service – for example, staff at Trader Joe’s are allowed to open a package of products for sampling upon request without the manager’s approval.
- Ask store staff for input on their store experience. Indigo features a wall of books recommended by staff, framing them as expert readers while bringing a sense of community into the stores.
Being able to work part-time while in school or managing another career has traditionally been one of the benefits of retail work. However, the industry has developed a bad reputation around scheduling abuse. For example, requiring staff to be on call or scheduling split shifts that only amount to part-time hours but prevent staff from working another job are practices brands must stop immediately. Cutting costs this way may have been tolerated by workers in the past, but in today’s market, it will cost brands the best talent.
How can retailers be more flexible?
- Retailers do typically offer flexible hours – promoting this (transparently!) is important.
- Retailers can address the desire to work from home by giving store staff shifts for managing online chats and other customer service calls.
- Moving front store staff around in different roles within the store can make the job more interesting.
Gen Z, even those who identify as Conservative, have more liberal values than their older peers. Gen Z is racially diverse – in the US 52% of Gen Z is Caucasian, while in Canada immigration from India and China is driving population growth. Therefore, demonstrating your brand is welcoming to all is more important than ever. Beyond racial diversity, Gen Z also values body positivity (the celebration of all body types rather than the worship of an “ideal” body type, including differently-abled bodies), LGBTQ+ rights, and sustainability.
Promote shared values to prospective talent by:
- Clearly communicate your brand’s climate goals and DEI policies on your careers page and corporate communications.
- Give store staff opportunities to participate in various social causes as part of your regular CSR initiatives, including paying them to volunteer for partner charities.
- Allow for personal elements in uniforms or dress codes, including gender diversity and pronoun labeling on name tags. Ensure you are actively inclusive when it comes to cultural dress. You can learn more about the benefits of personalised lanyards here.
GEN Z – THE FINAL WORD
Of course, within every generation, there are multitudes of types. That being said, the context of the economy and labor market strongly influences why workers choose one job over another. For younger generations, these opportunities are key for retailers, in order of importance:
- Competitive compensation
- Flexible hours and opportunities to work from home
- Promoting opportunities for growth
- Engagement through ownership
- Bringing back fun
- Action toward shared values
BEYOND GEN Z – RETAIL AND THE AGING POPULATION
An interesting topic often comes up when talking about the labor crunch – the wave of Boomers moving into retirement. Many countries are trying to raise the retirement age to offset the impact. As Boomers do inevitably retire, they face longer life expectancy and are healthier than any previous group of 65-year-olds. They represent an untapped pool of talent and are ideally suited for retail jobs.
Many seniors are interested in staying active and engaged while earning money. For some, it is an essential part of their retirement plan. The flexibility of retail, as well as the opportunity for daily interaction with others, make these jobs attractive to older workers.
Reasons to recruit older workers:
- Mature workers have many years of experience, have a strong work ethic, and take ownership of their work.
- Intergenerational teams work better – in fact, research has demonstrated that once teams have experienced working in a mixed-age group, they prefer it.
- Mature workers often find the social interaction of retail work enjoyable, making them ideal to deliver great service.
- If you sell products or services to older consumers, older employees will help you better serve this demographic. Many older consumers feel ignored by brands and report experiencing discrimination in retail experiences.
- Statistically, older workers will stay longer with you than younger hires.
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Things to consider when integrating older workers:
- Job design will need to be flexible, potentially creating shorter shifts, ways for people to sit during their shifts, or more regular breaks.
- Ensure you use age-inclusive language in job postings (for example, referring to “recent grads” or “digital natives” may suggest that your company does not welcome mature workers).
- Communicate clearly to teams that ageism is a form of discrimination. Intergenerational bashing may be acceptable on Instagram but it is not acceptable in the workplace. Communicate the benefits of intergenerational teams to your staff.
- Many mature candidates will have leadership experience – but not all will be looking to lead. Have up-front conversations about their goals for their role and ensure you are aligned about how much responsibility they will take on.
BECOMING A WORKPLACE PEOPLE ACTIVELY PURSUE STARTS WITH THE “WHY”
The most important place to start reimagining store staff engagement is with the employee value proposition. Having a solid foundation to build on will ensure that your employee recruitment and engagement strategies are connected intrinsically to your brand purpose.