July 13, 2020

An agile workforce driven by modern technology is the key to thriving in the retail sector

In the post-COVID-19 era, retailers must build a more agile workforce that is ready to keep pace with the rapidly changing definition of a good customer experience. Here, Ceridian’s SVP of retail John Orr reflects on the retail industry today, and shares how investing in modern technology can play a key role in driving workforce agility and engagement.

The retail industry has always evolved in response to ever-changing consumer behaviors. We’ve seen major changes to the industry driven by a variety of factors: political climate, health trends, urban sprawl, safety guidelines, and major events, to name a few. But change is happening at an even quicker pace now. Shopping patterns and customer expectations are now changing constantly as we move through the COVID-19 pandemic. Keeping up means suspending what you think you know and redesigning the customer experience, over and over again, in real time.

The retailers that will thrive during the pandemic and beyond will be those that are able to constantly track and adapt to patterns in consumer behavior. Here are some of the trends we’ve been seeing in the retail industry that are changing how companies interact with customers.  

Consumer behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic

Consumers’ patterns, habits, and activities change when their personal health comes into question. A recent Deloitte survey, conducted in mid-May, found that personal health informs how safe a consumer feels doing very ordinary activities, such as grocery shopping. However, the statistics are trending positively month over month: across the countries surveyed, nearly half of respondents reported feeling safe going to the store, up from 35% from April. [i]

What these statistics suggest is that the safety precautions retailers around the world are implementing have helped consumers adjust to this new normal, and therefore feel safer returning to daily activities like grocery and clothes shopping. However, retailers that want to thrive and see continued success in this will have to stay agile in responding to change.

The typical consumer’s priorities have seen many changes throughout the past four months: household essentials like groceries, cleaning supplies, and medications are thriving, especially for those retailers that can offer these essential services through delivery or no-contact pick-up. Unfortunately, this has also meant a significant decline in certain areas of retail like fashion, events, and tourism. As what some may deem as ‘elective’ spending continues to decline, the demand for these essential household items will continue to rise. For example, Adobe Analytics found that online shopping for fitness equipment and computers in March saw 55% and 40% boosts in sales respectively. [ii]

How to build a more agile workforce in retail

In response to these changing consumer demands, upskilling and reskilling workers to build expertise in other areas of the business (e.g. customer service, e-commerce, fulfillment), along with effective staff coverage and instilling confidence within your workforce, will be critical.

For retailers to actively adapt to an environment that is in flux, they’ll need to change how they manage the workforce to build agility into their culture and processes. Here are key actions for achieving this.

Embracing modern technology to prepare for evolving customer and workforce needs

Retailers need to find the harmony between creating an enjoyable, safe consumer experience while letting go of some of their old processes. Attempting to preserve legacy systems and strategies will prolong the negative implications of this pandemic. [iii] That’s why retailers need to create new strategies, enhance already established ones, implement new systems, and reinvent their way of operating, and do so quickly with the help of technology. To create the experiences that consumers need and want, retailers will have to equip their workforces with modern systems to better serve their customers,

We’ve seen many retailers innovating and responding to what consumers want, such as less in-person contact with more shopping options like delivery, curbside pick-up, etc. In fact, BOPIS (buy online and pick up in store) and BOSS (buy online and ship to store) are now common methods amongst retailers, at least those who have been trying to better appease their consumers. [iv] In reaction to these new ways of shopping, employers have to prepare and manage their workforces in a new way to accommodate this change in behavior – and that starts with workforce management. By leveraging innovative workforce technologies, retail employers and employees alike will be better prepared to handle the change in customer demand and fill in coverage and skills gaps that may be present.

Workforce management and scheduling

To adapt quickly and successfully to these new consumer demands and organizational requirements, employers will need access to real-time workforce data and communication methods for flexible scheduling to meet fluctuating demand. Modern workforce management technology can help inform retailers’ business planning with data-driven decision making and scheduling.

As well, labor costs are going to be top of mind for retailers as they reopen (and labor costs are typically always top of mind). Modern workforce management and scheduling software can help with labor planning and costs in an industry with already razor thin margins. With effective WFM and tracking employee information and availability, retailers can effectively and efficiently reallocate labor resources to other essential areas of the business or specific tasks.

With the changing coverage needs, workforce scheduling technologies can significantly improve employees’ confidence in returning to work, along with providing a sense of ease for employers. With modern scheduling technologies, employers can easily manage, track, and adjust schedules and tasks to ensure that they are meeting the new customer demands, while reducing the risk of non-compliance to hour and wage, labor laws, fiscal governance, and operational policies and procedures.

As well, mobile scheduling technology empowers staff to quickly see/change their shifts and take control of their own schedule. Managers can swiftly ensure that there is proper coverage along with safe social distancing protocols in place.

Lastly, with modern scheduling technologies, employers automatically reduce contact caused by the high-touch nature of manual scheduling and availability changes, which are often paper-based. Within this new normal, retail employers and employees alike need to rely on technology in new and innovative ways – and scheduling is one that should be prioritized.

Leveraging technology to promote workforce confidence

The right technologies can help build a confident, capable, and productive workforce – especially in response to constantly evolving consumer and employer expectations. In this strange economic climate, it’s crucial for customers to be able to expect a certain level of service in their retail experience. To accomplish this, retail leaders can rely on certain technologies to help instill a sense of confidence, independence, and service levels within their associates. This starts with a focus on learning and upskilling employees.

Learning

Embedding modern learning technologies to help train your associates will help them stay on top of safety precautions and changes. Equipping retail employees with the knowledge and resources to safely work in this new normal is mission-critical to provide the best customer experience. They'll also need to re-educate associates on how to meet the changing needs of consumers and deliver the (new) best experience, as well as adhere to changing protocols for workplace safety. Intuitive workforce learning technologies provide a platform for all employees to learn and help maintain proper health and safety guidelines in an easily accessible platform.

With many retail employees, there already exists a prominent skills gap – whether it’s proper tech training, interpersonal skills, etc. – but now, with the new customer demands and expectations for retail experiences, the skills gap is going to undoubtedly expand. It’s important for employers to establish confidence within their employee base to ensure they feel prepared to manage customers’ needs in this new normal.

Learning management software, along with being a hub of resources for employees, can help create this culture of growth and confidence within an organization. Employees must feel prepared and confident in the safety precautions and new procedures they must follow when serving customers. This protects the employer, the employee, the customer, and the brand. By relying on intelligent learning software, re-skilling your employees is a less daunting task and is available at the point and time of need.

Financial wellness

Engaging and caring for your workforce during and post the COVID-19 pandemic is vital to employee wellness and productivity. A well-cared for and productive workforce will help instill confidence within customers. In an uncertain economic climate, allowing workers to access their earned wages anytime, anywhere, with on-demand pay software, will contribute to workers feeling more secure, cared about, and financially stable. By thinking beyond the typical twice-monthly pay period and giving employees the freedom and flexibility to access their earned wages on-demand, retailers will instill a sense of confidence within employees. This in turn can positively impact the customer experience, inspiring associates to go above-and-beyond for customers.

Consumer satisfaction and employee satisfaction go hand-in-hand. And just as fast as consumer needs and desires can change, employee demands will follow suit. This is why the retail workforce needs to have strategies and modern technologies in place to act with agility to adapt to the ever-changing environment – amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and in preparation for the next major disruption. 

John Orr

John Orr is SVP of Retail at Ceridian. John is a passionate advocate for Dayforce as the best HCM solution that empowers retail and hospitality organizations with real-time visibility for talent, workforce, and payroll management.

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