retail associate experience

Why Retailers Must Create a Great Associate Experience—and How We Can All Help

As I write this, the retail industry is in the home stretch of the holiday shopping season, and the news is enough to make even the Grinch smile.

Retail sales are on track to rise between 8.5 and 10.5 percent this holiday—the largest growth rate on record. Shoppers returned to stores in droves this season, with foot traffic up 48 percent from last year (although still below pre-pandemic levels).

The retail industry has proven its resilience despite persistent supply chain challenges; leading retailers have become “logistical ninjas” in order to meet consumer demand, according to the president of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

By almost every measure, Holiday 2021 is looking very merry indeed—unless you’re a store associate.

The retail associate paradox

For many in-store workers, the record-breaking shopping season means extra headaches dealing with unreasonable customers, the stress of working harder, longer hours and only a brief respite before the onslaught of holiday returns and after-Christmas sales.

retail workers quitting

There’s a paradox at work here. Retail sales are soaring to record numbers, yet retail associates are leaving their jobs at an unprecedented rate.

According to U.S. Labor Department data, a staggering 721,000 retail workers quit in August, making up a large proportion of employees in the Great Resignation of 2021. And who can blame them?

Rude behavior wasn’t always the norm

The title of this recent Business Insider article says it all: “Rude shoppers are fueling America’s crippling labor shortage.” Rude treatment of store associates and restaurant workers is nothing new, but it’s gotten worse during the long pandemic.

As the article points out, while retail associates were hailed as frontline heroes in the early days of COVID-19, they’ve increasingly borne the brunt of shoppers’ frustrations with mask mandates, long checkout lines and product shortages. Grocery workers died from COVID while keeping the doors open to serve customers, and some retail workers have been killed by gunmen while trying to enforce mask mandates.

retail dehumanized

It wasn’t always like this. My mom spent her working years in retail, first in accounting and then in the credit department at Sears (back when it was actually a great retailer). She had stock options, decent pay, benefits and a job she looked forward to every day.

This used to be the norm for retail. But as retailers focused on cost-cutting and low labor costs, employees increasingly became “commoditized and somewhat dehumanized.” And the effects of the seemingly never-ending pandemic have led many retail associates to say “enough.”

Retailers are stepping up in response

To their credit, a number of large retailers have stepped up.

Retail Dive recently reported that retailers such as Walmart, Kohl’s and Amazon “are betting on higher wages, bonuses and even tuition assistance in a bid to woo potential candidates.” Nordstrom is one of many retailers that is offering competitive pay and generous employee discounts of 20%. Target’s new associate mobile app lets them add or swap shifts to better fit their schedules.

As Business Insider points out, ”retail businesses are realizing that they need to address working conditions, wages, and career prospects if they want their jobs to be seen as desirable.”

Some of the best retailers are taking a hard line against rude behavior.

retailers improve associate experience

“Dick’s Sporting Goods has a “zero-tolerance” stance regarding disrespectful behavior toward team members,” according to Fortune. “This includes a hotline number for employees to call if they feel they have not been treated with dignity and respect. Customers who shop in the store also can use the hotline. The stance empowers store managers to escort customers from the premises when efforts to de-escalate conflicts do not succeed.” Dick’s head of inclusion and diversity said that employees have been escorted from the store for using abusive language and some have been asked not to return.

After years of focusing on creating better customer experiences, retailers are finally paying attention to the associate experience. It’s essential, too, if the retail industry is going to carry over some of the momentum of holiday 2021 into the next year.

Shoppers can make a positive impact too

As shoppers, we have a role to play, too.

Every year the head of the school my kids attended told the students she expected only three things of them: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” The tagline for season two of Ted Lasso is “this year, kindness makes a comeback,” and it can’t come too soon for retail workers.

We may be impatient, frustrated and overwhelmed with the demands of life and the holiday season, but we can’t take it out on the restaurant staff, store associates, delivery people and countless other retail workers we encounter.

Working in retail has never been easy, but it’s especially difficult today. A little empathy on our part can go a long way in helping retail workers feel appreciated.

As a store associate told me this weekend, “It’s been a really busy day. People just need to be patient–and most of them have.” Hopefully that trend will continue, throughout the holidays and into the new year.

Happy holidays from all of us at Ketner Group!

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