Operations Insights
June 6, 2023

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 unified retail commerce experience, and how workforce technology can help retailers harness their power and create real, quantifiable value.

Table of Contents

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 endless aisles, interactive window displays, and QR code adoption, 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 experience.

The last three years have permanently disrupted the relationship between customer, location, and the web. While 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 behaviors 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 behavioral 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 and 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 executing a unified retail commerce experience 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 organisations 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

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,” as found in an RSR Research survey, sponsored by Ceridian.

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. They also 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 unified retail commerce experience.

Lululemon is a great example of an organisation 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, Educators write the customer's name and sport of choice on the door of their dressing room to ensure anyone on the floor can quickly jump in and give personalised 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.

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 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 deliver that exceptional service and product knowledge (there are reportedly over 80,000 possible drink combinations), while also fostering a culture that leads with flexible schedules and growth opportunities.

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 personalise their orders.

While these retailers epitomise the value of investing in the workforce to constantly evolve and improve the customer experience, many organisations 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.   

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: Optimise the workforce to increase productivity and change management

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.), health and safety 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 behavior, which can then inform rostering 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 rosters. All this helps to create higher engagement, better customer service, and increased sales.

Strategy #2: Upgrade talent management to promote upskilling

As the associate role continues to evolve, finding the right approach to talent management is essential for retaining your best people. Delivering a great, unified retail commerce experience means being ready and able to prepare the workforce for continued industry disruption, as well as changing consumer behaviors. 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 opportunities.

According to Ceridian’s 2023 Pulse of Talent Survey, less than half (48%) of respondents globally said their employer offers training to help them stay current in their skills for their current role. Associates are often left to find their own way through change rather than having their organisation thoughtfully steward them through it.

Employee learning and development is also an important influence on retention. The latest Pulse of Talent Survey also found that 84% of respondents said that having a clear career path makes them more loyal to their employer. 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 customised 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. 

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.


This post was originally published on April 30, 2021 and was updated on June 6, 2023 for recency and to include new perspectives on the topic.

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