April 30, 2021

Retail future of work: The omnichannel associate

Ceridian’s SVP Retail, John Orr, outlines his perspective on the pivotal role of retail associates in driving the omnichannel experience, and how workforce technology can help retailers harness their power and create real, quantifiable value.

Forward-thinking retailers have been working to create the ideal omnichannel experience for the better part of a decade. Early on, the focus was on standing up e-commerce solutions to help brick-and-mortar businesses reach customers in new ways and compete with digital businesses. Innovations like ordering apps that allow customers to skip the line became popular, along with technologies that helped retailers understand their customers to offer a more personalized and seamless “phygital” transition.

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic has once again disrupted the relationship between customer, location, and the web. Stuck at home, the “constrained consumer” was born, a shift that pushed even online-averse consumers to digital grocery shopping, and forced discerning buyers to replace behaviours like “webrooming” (browsing online and then buying in-store) and “showrooming” (browsing in-store and then buying online) with the world of online influencers and review sites.

Adding to the list of behavioural changes, the pandemic also increased the focus on the ethical side of consumption. Now it’s not only Gen Z-ers paying attention to social responsibility – after a year of supporting local and learning about the importance of buying from minority-owned businesses, many consumers are holding the brands they patronize to a higher standard. They’re interested in where products are sourced from, which ingredients are used, and employees’ right to work and working conditions.

So, taking all of these disruptions into consideration, what’s the next phase of the omnichannel journey?

The future of omnichannel

As we look toward the future, it’s clear that omnichannel will continue to be a top priority for many. But, this time, leading retailers will almost certainly pay closer attention to the associate’s role in driving it. Today’s associates need to have a deeper level of product knowledge and a greater awareness of company missions, goals, ethics, and brand promises. And the inherent uncertainty of a world in flux means organizations will need to keep a constant pulse on the workforce, ensuring they can quickly adapt to change while maintaining a positive customer experience.  

All this means it’s no longer strategic to have a revolving door of associates and treat them in a transactional manner. Nor is it effective to rely on traditional cost-cutting measures, such as call-in or clopening, as a primary way to improve margins. These tactics only harm morale and result in missed opportunities to drive customer satisfaction, loyalty, and increased basket size.

The two levers retailers should pull to improve margins are increasing sales and improving efficiency. Retailers that are winning right now have made the connection between technologies that drive workforce efficiency, skill, and engagement and the ability to create experiences that keep customers immersed in and loyal to the brand.

Put simply: A true omnichannel experience has a foundation of systems and culture to support a new type of associate in a new work environment, with technology that can elevate the entire experience – at work, online, and in-store – to new levels.

How today’s retail winners think differently about the associate role

In a 2020 survey by RSR Research, sponsored by Ceridian, retail winners (defined as those that reported sales growth above the industry average) “value their workforces more highly, compensate more equitably, and have an entirely different set of value perceptions, plans, and goals for the technologies they use to manage that workforce.”

RELATED: Learn what makes retail winners different in the report Outsmarting change: How retail winners succeed in disruptive times

These retailers were more likely to have a seamless process for all aspects of workforce management from hiring through evaluation, reported being better at giving associates relevant information and training, and believed they had a complete view of their workforce’s skills, among other measures. And in practice, we can see that difference in how top retailers support and leverage their associates to drive an exceptional omnichannel experience.

Lululemon is a great example of an organization with a seamless omnichannel experience and a strong attention to the role of the associate in driving it. The website and mobile app feature highly detailed online product descriptions, multiple ways to search, and a “Why we made this” note to help customers differentiate between products to find the right fit for their needs. Negative customer reviews get quick responses to help resolve any dissatisfaction, and the generous return policy removes any fear of ordering errors.

When shopping in-store, customers are catered to by associates – called “educators,” referencing their extensive product knowledge and personal experience – who write their name and sport of choice on the door of their dressing room to ensure anyone on the floor can quickly jump in and give personalized service. Educators are hired based on their ability to represent the brand’s values in their real lives, adding a level of authenticity and passion that come to life in customer interactions.

And the strength of that brand – which has landed on several lists of  top-valued brand rankings over the years – allows Lululemon to secure its dominance and premium pricing in a highly-saturated market. The company was also ranked eighth on recruiting site Glassdoor’s 13th annual Employees’ Choice Awards.

Starbucks, the coffee shop where everyone knows your name, is another example of an elevated associate experience driving omnichannel customer satisfaction. Another winner of many awards, Starbucks gives its people extensive training to be able to deliver that exceptional service and product knowledge (there are reportedly over 80,000 possible drink combinations), while also fostering a culture that helps associates develop their careers.

Starbucks baristas also help deliver an industry-leading omnichannel experience through the brand’s popular rewards program, mobile-app ordering and simple wallet reloading, which allows customers to skip the line and fully personalize their orders.

While these retailers epitomize the value of investing in the workforce to constantly evolve and improve the customer experience, many organizations have yet to realize the impact of such an investment on their bottom line. The RSR Research survey found that retailers with average or below average sales were less likely to see the value in investing in workforce management technologies, or see the connection between their associates and sales.   

WATCH NOW: See how retail brand Ashley Stewart transformed operations

Supporting, developing, and engaging the omnichannel associate

Elevating your associates and overall workforce approach starts with a mindset shift and investing in the right technology. Here are three key strategies that can help you create a happier and more efficient workplace to support, develop, and retain top performing associates.

Strategy #1: Optimize the workforce to increase productivity and agility

To build an effective omnichannel experience, retailers need to move from a reactive approach to managing the workforce to a proactive one. The key is having access to data in an accessible format to be able to make informed decisions quickly. Effective workforce management in retail is about continuously tweaking a host of different factors to influence productivity, spend, and efficiency, in real time.   

Retailers need to invest in technology that can take a variety of inputs – sales, traffic, transactions (physical and virtual), delivery options (pack and ship, curbside, etc.), COVID-19 protocols (i.e. cleaning) – and use them to indicate the type of work that needs to be done, where, and when. All of this goes into effectively predicting customer demand and expected behaviour, which can then inform scheduling to ensure the right people are working on the right things at the right times.

This detailed, just-in-time approach to workforce management benefits customers in a clear way through better service and a more seamless omnichannel experience, but it also benefits employees. Overtime and absenteeism can be better managed to not only control costs, but also to lessen the strain on associates and offer fair schedules. All this helps to create higher engagement, better customer service, and increased sales.

Strategy #2: Upgrade talent management for the new reality

As the associate role continues to evolve, finding the right approach to talent management is key. Delivering a great omnichannel experience means being ready and able to prepare the workforce for continued industry disruption, as well as changing consumer behaviours. Retailers need to have the right technology to support skills training, align associates’ work to business goals, manage location performance against those goals, and guide associates toward interesting career paths.

According to a survey of 2,000 frontline employees in the U.S., the UK, and Australia by Axonify, only 58% of frontline employees said they received regular training. And less than half (48%) received training when taking on a new role during the pandemic. Given the breadth of change in 2020 when the survey was conducted, this surprising result shows how associates are often left to find their own way through change, rather than having their organizations thoughtfully steward them through it.

Employee learning and development is also an important influence on retention. LinkedIn found that 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it offered learning opportunities. And while the importance of retention is sometimes overlooked in the retail sector, losing associates – especially top-performing ones – comes at a cost.

Strategy #3: Apply customer experience best practices to the workforce

Employee engagement is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating a great experience for customers. The RSR Research report showed that retail winners were more likely to believe employee engagement is crucially important to profitability (66%) than other retailers (48%).

Retail winners understand that their associates are not separate from consumers; they are consumers. Much like your customers, your people want to be heard. They want the convenience of mobile tools to make their work lives easier. They want to feel connected to the business and each other. And they especially want to be treated fairly with a predictable work life.     

Many retailers understand the value of capturing the “voice of the customer.” But how many are regularly seeking out feedback from their associates? In our current reality of constant change and uncertainty, it isn’t sufficient to survey your people once a year and then spend weeks or months trying to make sense of the data. Regular pulse surveys that can be customized and deployed quickly can help retailers stay on top of the challenges, needs, and expectations of their people in real time, so adjustments can be made to the associate experience before top talent departs.

It’s also important not to overlook the value of making the day-to-day work life easier for associates – and especially managers. Self-serve, mobile workforce tools are especially useful, as they suit associates’ work lives and allow them to complete simple tasks, such as requesting time off or swapping shifts, right from their phones. Managers also save time on admin work, giving them more time for coaching and problem-solving. On-demand pay is another key differentiator that can help with retention. Ceridian found that customers using our Dayforce Wallet solution for on-demand pay had a 42% lower turnover rate than non-Wallet customers.

WATCH NOW: See how Buehler’s Fresh Foods supports financial wellness through on-demand pay

Looking forward

If there’s one constant in today’s world it’s that nothing stays the same. Winning in the new world of retail comes down to how well brands can anticipate change and deliver experiences that customers want, right now. And succeeding in that goal means investing equally in your internal customers – your associates – with the right strategies, technologies, and support to make work work for them.

Ceridian Institute

The Ceridian Institute provides forward-looking insights that build awareness and advocacy of the trends and challenges facing the workplace. The Institute is composed of industry leaders from Ceridian’s Industry, Value, and Solution advisories, reflecting the team’s research into the future of work and business intelligence.

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John Orr

John Orr is SVP 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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