Retail needs the human touch to recover


Many online retailers experienced a huge increase in sales during lockdown, and economic uncertainty means many customers are still wary of revisiting the high street. Adapting training to focus on the customer experience can ensure frontline employees are giving the best possible service and boosting sales, says Liam O’Meara

If retail stores are going to survive and thrive in retail’s new normal, on-the-job training and communication with frontline staff must be at the heart of their recovery roadmap.

Online retailers won a record share of shopper spending in June, up 33.9% year-on-year – a new 12-year high since March 2008, according to IMRG and Capgemini.

Yet at the same time, consumer confidence is at near-record lows, according to the GfK Consumer Confidence Barometer. All of this means that the in-store customer experience (CX) will be the critical differentiator in the recovery of Britain’s bricks-and-mortar retail industry.

A make or break experience

Behind the masks, hand sanitiser and the socially distanced queues, frontline staff remain central to delivering excellent CX.  According to our latest report ‘Building a resilient workforce for the retail revival’, almost two thirds (64%) of UK consumers say highly skilled store staff make them more likely to visit a retail store or site. And three quarters (75%) of consumers say good customer service encourages them to spend more.

Despite the critical role frontline employees play in delivering an outstanding customer experience for the UK’s £394 billion retail industry, a recent research poll among 1,000 frontline staff by Ipsos and Axonify reveals nearly one third (33%) don’t receive any formal workplace training.  This increases to 36% for part-time employees, which has implications for the retail industry with half of all employees now working part-time.

This lack of training is very likely to get even worse as many companies struggle to meet a variety of increasing demands, including  shifts in customer behaviour and the need to re-skill staff for new roles in queue management, sanitisation, click and collect and kerbside delivery. And a number of retailers have announced that they will be employing large numbers of new people, on both permanent and part-time basis.

Attracting and retaining new staff will require an understanding of what they now seek. More than three-quarters (76%) of employees feel the opportunity to complete additional training designed to develop their skills for the future would make an employer (present or prospective) more appealing to them.

Changing how we train

There’s a lot of talk about the “new normal” in retail but, despite the obvious shifts, store associates will continue as they always have working hard to give customers the products and experiences they want.

What must change is the way store staff are trained, motivated and equipped to succeed, because serving the customer has become more challenging than ever. Yet investment into training can feel like a hard pill to swallow at a time when UK retailers were only able to pay 14% of the £2.5 billion quarterly rent bill.

Here are five practical steps to help ready store staff for the short- and long-term needs of the consumer, which we outline in our report.

  • Keep your entire frontline on the same page, no matter how fast things change. This means sending consistent information directly to your entire frontline in real-time, on their work or personal devices, not via managers or bulletin boards.
  • Give them the tools to stay safe. Build compliance into ‘reboarding’ and onboarding as stores reopen to get your entire frontline workforce up to speed.
  • Make sure the information sticks. Rather than trying to get employees to remember everything in one go, focus on the top 2-3 things they need to know to keep safe and productive on the job
  • Get them ready to perform in any role. Cross-training allows the workforce to build the right skills, so any role can be filled quickly as operational demands and customer needs shift
  • Support them on the devices they love. By delivering communications and training on the devices associates already carry in their pockets, such as smartphones, frontline staff can be kept informed and engaged right in the flow of work.

With 80% of the global workforce on the frontline, it’s clear that businesses are entirely dependent on them to deliver great customer service. It’s the single biggest differentiator in a competitive market.

Overall footfall in many formats may be falling, but this is where the opportunity lies to serve and sell better, using a workforce that’s trained in ways that motivate them to always perform at their best.

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