The other night I saw a Big Lots TV commercial. Instead of the usual, slightly sad COVID-era piano soundtrack, it opened with an upbeat version of Put A Little Love in Your Heart. It showed real employees cleaning, sanitizing, stocking shelves with toilet paper, and smiling. It ended with the tagline “Your Neighborhood Discount Store.” The result? A warm and fuzzy feeling. And … I went and bought some toilet paper and other supplies from my local Big Lots the very next day.
Then I got to thinking, “Great job on reaching out to consumers, but what are you doing to engage with employees?” Right now, I have several retail clients who are at least partially shut down, with employees on furlough. If you’re a retailer in a similar situation, you probably have a lot of concerns right now. You may be optimizing inventory for when you reopen, investing in digital retail, negotiating rent, or working with suppliers on special pricing.
Are you giving that same attention to your people strategy? Are you communicating that strategy so your best employees WANT to come back when you’re ready to reopen? Here are a few key points to consider:
1. What additional in-store or online roles are you going to need?
If you have a physical presence, it’s pretty obvious you’ll need one or more people cleaning and sanitizing before, during, and after store hours. Is this new role minimum wage, with little or no expectation for greeting and interacting with customers? Or, are you better off paying these folks a bit more and giving them some basic customer service standards and training, so your customers feel great about shopping with and buying from you? Should you staff each store with a human being near the entrance to explain the store’s health and safety procedures, in addition to signage?
At my local Trader Joe’s, they do a masterful job of this. There is upbeat music playing at the entrance while I wait outside. When it’s time for me to enter, a happy, mask-wearing, smiling human being offers a freshly-sanitized cart and sincerely tells me to enjoy shopping while reminding me to stay six feet apart. A TOTALLY different experience from my local supermarket, where everyone is so serious it feels like I’m walking into a hospital ward. I’ve been shopping a lot more at my local Trader Joe’s lately when I need something. It just feels better.
If a grocery store can consistently create exceptional customer experiences, so can you. What opportunities to capture market share might you miss without the right roles, the right people in those roles, and the right compensation for those roles?
2. What roles may go away?
Checkout lines can be frustrating, especially when you have to stand six feet apart. And exposing a cashier to customers in rapid succession and in close quarters may not be the best choice, even with a plexiglass shield, a mask, and gloves. So, perhaps you’re adding self-checkout stations or implementing BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in store). If that’s the case, should you take your best, friendliest cashiers and train them how to sell, either online or in-person?
Then, if online sales are up, should you ramp up staffing slowly, until you can truly assess in-store customer traffic? Or will having too few people on the floor limit sales, because you need a high-touch approach to creating sales? Either way, your focus should be on retaining top performers, whether you need them for sales, ringing transactions, curbside pick-up service, delivery, or something entirely different.
If some roles are going away once you open back up, what will you do with top performers working in those roles? Can their talents be used elsewhere to increase sales, decrease costs, and/or capture market share through exceptional service?
3. Will top performers come back when you reopen? How do you even know?
This is a HUGE issue. Your very best people may be looking for or have already found another job. How are you communicating with existing employees about plans for ramping back up, new job/career opportunities, assuring their health and safety, temporary increases in pay, changes to commission structures, and more?
How are you going to get back the people you REALLY want and need? What can you do right now to reach out and create a dialogue, to let them know what’s happening and assess their level of interest in returning to work?
4. How are you communicating with your employees, and not just your customers?
Here are some employee communication strategies to think about. Even small retailers can do any or all of these things extremely well.
- Leverage consumer communication.
If you are already reaching out with social media, traditional advertising, and/or e-mail campaigns, why not include information for employees? Your employees are most likely customers anyway, and showing everyone how you plan to take care of employees when stores reopen says a lot about your culture and how you fit in as a valued member of your local community. Be sure to let both customers and employees know the best ways to contact you, and respond as quickly as possible when they do.
- Leverage your website. If you’re not proactively communicating with employees as often as they’d like, they may visit your website to see what you’re up to. Don’t limit yourself to a written message. That’s not very personal. For very little money, you can put together a quick video. Include a sincere message from someone employees know and trust that shows true care and concern, along with what your reopening plans are and how additional information will be communicated. Then, make sure to let employees know who to contact and how if they need more information. Make sure your point(s) of contact check messages often and respond right away.
- Leverage e-mail. I realize that many retailers limit their use of e-mail to management level employees and above. That’s fine. E-mail store management, and include information they should share with their teams. If they’re good managers with a store or stores that are about to reopen soon, they will use their relationships with their employees to reach out. I know: “If they’re not being paid right now, we can’t tell them to do anything!” And you don’t have to. Simply e-mail them with status updates and let them know it’s fine to share the information.
- Consider using Zoom or a similar tool to offer up meetings online using a web camera. There’s nothing like reconnecting in person. Web meetings also allow you to share visuals like store re-opening schedules, training materials, safety protocols and more. If you don’t have a learning management system that organizes and tracks online training, you can upload materials to shared folders for people to access. You can also record meetings for people who miss them. Larger companies could have district management or store management lead each meeting. Smaller companies could have the owner, the human resources manager or another person at the head office do it. Make sure to offer a variety of convenient times for people to choose from, and if you’re not a virtual meeting expert, be sure to practice in advance. Just remember: If you don’t keep people informed, they’ll make stuff up. A little communication can go a long way, and if you care about your employees, they’ll be more likely to care about your customers.
Liz Cichowski is a learning & development professional with over 20 years of experience, specializing in the retail industry. Her company, Learning Means Business, Inc., helps retailers optimize revenue, profit and market share through exceptional customer experiences, efficient store operations, goal setting, and more. For more information and to contact Liz, please visit: https://www.linkedin.com/in/liz-cichowski-65b46710/.