Retailers: Here’s what you can learn from the grocery sector's leadership throughout the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic forced grocers to quickly pivot and figure out how to keep the workforce – and the public – safe and engaged. This is opportunity for other retailers to learn from their agility, says Ceridian’s SVP Retail, John Orr. Here, he shares the best practices top grocers employed for other retailers to follow.
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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, grocery stores were classified as essential businesses and their associates were deemed front-line workers. With the public being asked to stay at home, and restaurants closing for all but delivery, more and more people were flocking to grocery stores to stock up, driving up demand at a time when many other retail and hospitality businesses were experiencing the opposite. While grocery has boomed, online sales for apparel and footwear retailers has fallen significantly, according to Rakuten. And foot traffic to U.S. stores fell 58.4% in the third week of March. 
While keeping their employees safe, grocers needed to pivot quickly and solve challenges in real time so customers could continue accessing their products and stores. Grocers had to restructure their workforces, redesign their store layouts, and re-evaluate their revenue models all in an extremely short period of time.
And some have had an easier time than others being agile. Those that had already invested in technology to manage their workforces were better positioned to deal with the high degree of uncertainty and rapid change. Since the world is continuing to advance at an incredible rate of speed, they’re also better positioned for the future post-pandemic.
Here are three best practices fueled by technology that are helping successful grocers navigate the pandemic, and that I strongly urge other retailers to consider.
Open and clear communication
To adapt quickly and successfully to the boom in consumer demand and changing organizational requirements, we saw grocers employ widespread communications to their entire workforce. Naturally, grocery employees had many questions about their safety and how they were going to meet the increasing customer demand during the crisis.
Buehler’s Fresh Foods is one example. When the World Health Organization (WHO) classified COVID-19 as a global pandemic, senior leadership from Buehler’s sent out a
communication notifying all employees. They continued to send out mass communications in the coming weeks to keep employees informed of the changing demands of their jobs. 
Retailers can get value out of centralized communications platform beyond the pandemic as it will help them create an ongoing culture of transparency and openness. By communicating openly, frequently, and consistently with employees, retailers have a better chance at survival, as their employees will likely feel better informed, and therefore better equipped to serve customers. Clear, transparent, and open communication helps create a positively engaged workplace. 
Redeploying and reskilling employees
With stay-at-home orders in place, and people being encouraged to limit their physical store visits, online grocery shopping and contactless pickup and delivery have skyrocketed. Online order volume from full-assortment grocery merchants rose 210% in March 2020 year over year, according to data from Rakuten Intelligence. 
With this boom in e-commerce for the grocery sector, employers had to act fast in reskilling and redeploying their employees to help with fulfillment. Those that had already invested in technologies that support tailored, embedded employee training were better positioned to make the pivot quickly.
For example, Sendik’s experienced an extreme increase in online shopping orders, so it quickly staffed up its personal shopping team, hiring and onboarding over 150 new employees in April.  The company relied heavily on technology to redeploy and reskill their existing staff, while efficiently onboarding new hires.
Even beyond the pandemic, companies should be ready to swiftly onboard and reskill their employees in order to keep pace with industry disruption and changing customer behavior. Investing in the right technologies that help you reskill your employees can also help with workforce agility by equipping employees with a varied and flexible skill set.
Compensate and appreciate your employees
There are many ways to show appreciation for your workforce. During a crisis, it is crucial for retailers to show their appreciation for their employees, and to truly empathize with them. This is especially important within the grocery industry, as associates are front-line workers who are putting themselves at risk daily to ensure their customers are well-served and well-fed.
We saw grocers appreciate their people by giving raises, extending leave policies, and supporting employees’ safety. Having the right technology in place helped some grocers make this process much easier to manage. For example, Sendik's leadership team implemented a 10% bonus for front-line workers, which they were able to do quickly because they had access to the right data and reports to calculate it systematically, all without disrupting payroll.
Companies across the retail sector should follow the grocery sector’s lead in showing appreciation to their workforces – not just during the pandemic, but always. Data plays an important role in doing this well, from allowing employers to create benchmarks for fair compensation to helping them identify and correct engagement challenges. Having access to the right data helps organizations understand their people, even when the circumstances surrounding them are changing rapidly.
The constant change and uncertainty of the pandemic has been difficult for the workforce to navigate. In order to keep your people happy and healthy, you need to be thinking about them as more than employees, but as people. These tactics that some forward-thinking grocers employed are actions that other retailers should follow, not only to remain strong throughout the pandemic, but to increase workforce agility and resilience in a world that refuses to stand still.