Ask most people about their experience working in retail, and you're likely to get in-the-trenches tales from behind the cash register or from within the fitting room—and strong opinions about consumer electronics or the right way to fold a button-up shirt.
Listen more closely, and you're bound to hear showroom-to-boardroom stories from the uppermost tiers of how they got their start: as frontline associates.
Almost a third of our first jobs are in retail or food service, according to Greg Foran, President and CEO of Walmart U.S., speaking on a panel at the National Retail Federation’s (NRF) BIG Show. Perhaps, as a result, retail still carries a negative connotation for some—it was a job, not the first chapter of a career. But retailers are evolving their talent strategy to cultivate homegrown talent as soon as he or she walks in the door.
There are lots of reasons that’s a good idea. Though turnover costs time and money, there’s a customer-focused angle to this approach, too. Retailers are becoming hyper-aware of the impact of good customer service and positive customer experiences on their bottom line. As both service and experience become table stakes in the business of, well, everything, employees who are steeped in face-to-face interactions become a valuable knowledge base in a long-term strategy.
Plenty of ink has spilled over what some call a retail apocalypse, as brick-and-mortar shops shutter and legacy retailers overhaul store presentations and window displays—all in an attempt to capture an ever-elusive experience that brings foot traffic through their doors (literal and electronic) and happy hashtags to their social accounts. Many have even put a big C (as in C-level support) on their renewed focus on the customer; titles like “Chief Customer Officer” might ring a bell.
As brick-and-mortar shops shutter and legacy retailers overhaul store presentations and window displays—all in an attempt to capture an ever-elusive experience that brings foot traffic through their doors (literal and electronic) and happy hashtags to their social accounts.
A 2017 piece in The Atlantic points to a few factors contributing to the retail downswing. Ironically, one of the culprits is customers’ shifted focus on experience: the kind you have eating out with friends or hitting happy hour versus engaging in retail therapy. Pop quiz: Do #foodporn and #nofilter vacation selfies outnumber the tangibles on your Instagram profile?
Still, retail accounts for nearly one in every four jobs—some 42 million people, according to the NRF. Employment of retail sales workers is projected to grow by seven percent between 2014 and 2024, which is roughly on pace with all occupations tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Retail” is also a much broader term than we tend to give it credit for, as its umbrella covers everything from logistics and healthcare to finance, insurance, real estate, and IT.
“While retail is in the midst of a major transformation, it is far from dying,” says NRF spokeswoman Ana Smith. “In fact, the retail industry is growing and evolving in ways that will strengthen the industry and help us deliver great products and experiences to consumers.”
For customers, that means the industry is hearing you. For businesses, that means continuing to adapt to changes in consumer preferences, behavior, and technology, Smith says. A skilled workforce is essential.
“Consumers are looking to obtain unique experiences as part of their shopping ritual, whether it is leveraging an app-only discount from their favorite retailer, trying out new kitchenware inside a department store, to even booking family vacations via their favorite sporting goods company,” Smith says. “Retailers are adapting to these changes day-by-day based on their core customer base.”
The training track
One approach to improving customer experience is to design frontline functions to feel more like a career track—which has an established impact on associates’ happiness in their roles. For a number of large retailers, associates are put on that track on day one.
One approach to improving customer experience is to design frontline functions to feel more like a career track—which has an established impact on associates’ happiness in their roles.
As Kip Tindell, head of NRF says, “Great people make great businesses.”
There are great training models already out there: Walmart’s Pathways, an entry-level training program that boosts associates’ skill sets and, eventually, their pay. The NRF’s RISE Up initiative offers training and credentials that equip entry-level job seekers with the skills to develop meaningful careers within any of those disciplines. Gap Inc.’s This Way Ahead internship program aims to equip teens and young adults with critical life and workplace skills.
“You totally rely on your associates, how well trained they are, and how they interact with the customer,” said Foran said.
Macy’s, according to CEO Terry Lundgren, is focused on technology for talent attraction and retention.
“Customers have a point of view about the merchandise before they come into the stores and you have to equip associates to handle that,” Lundgren said.
For example, a traditional merchant’s instinct can be honed, and on-the-job skills can be learned: knowing what customers want, going to a vendor and collaborating with them to develop it, anticipating needs and trends months ahead of time. But Merchant 2.0 would need to balance those traditional skills with important tech-fueled variables. Customers are seeing trends a lot faster because of social media; what does that do to your trend funnel or their levels of expectation? How does it impact the store displays—or even the language an associate or a marketer uses to engage with a customer?
“What all of us are trying to do is to create a sticky relationship with the customer,” Foran said. “And the key to that is the interaction with the customer in the store and online. We’re building a relationship.”
Traditionally, the number of successful, “sticky” relationships was interchangeable with the number of zeroes on your balance sheet. Ashley Stewart Chairman and CEO James Rhee, also speaking at NRF’s BIG Show, describes a next-generation talent strategy that does (and must) go beyond sales. In his experience at the helm of the retailer, a period of significant turnaround, he emphasized that employees must care about the person they’re selling to before any bottom-line magic can be achieved.
In his [James Rhee’s] experience at the helm of the retailer, a period of significant turnaround, he emphasized that employees must care about the person they’re selling to before any bottom-line magic can be achieved.
“It’s all about kindness and compassion,” Rhee said. “And the minute our employee base felt safe, we became leaders in innovation.”
As Tindell says: “Focusing on people is not only good for employees. It’s not only good for communities. It’s also good for profits. Business is not a zero-sum game.”
Tara Ramroop is a content marketing manager at Zendesk and frequent contributor to Relate. A loquacious Libra lady of letters, she firmly believes the craft of storytelling makes the world a more understanding and, well, relatable place. A Bay Area native, English degree be damned, she has no qualms about saying or writing "hella." Follow her visual stories and occasionally cheeky captions on Instagram @roopisonfire.