Operations Insights
January 12, 2021

Forward together: how retailers can thrive in a reimagined industry

The retail industry faced major disruption in 2020. Leading retailers found ways to thrive and reimagine their businesses by pivoting their strategies and relying on technology. Looking ahead at 2021, our SVP of Retail John Orr explores how the retail industry can move ‘forward together,’ the theme for NRF Chapter 1, by leveraging intelligent technologies and prioritizing the people that make the industry thrive.

Table of Contents

NRF Chapter 1 is here, but the event looks very different this year. The National Retail Federation’s Big Show typically gathers thousands of exhibitors, attendees, and presenters from across the world in New York City to discuss the latest trends and technology in the retail industry. Being entirely virtual this time around, the event looks different in format, as well as deeply different in content.

With the unprecedented disruption and change that 2020 presented, retailers have been affected disproportionately. No doubt, the content at this year’s event will reflect this disruption and explore what the future of the retail industry might look like. It’s been enlightening to see how organizations have found ways to overcome the challenges of this last year, but also find new ways to thrive going forward – with an expectation of returning to 2019 levels by the end of 2021.

This year’s theme at NRF Chapter 1 is ‘Forward Together,’ which is certainly fitting to the current environment of the retail industry. To successfully move forward in the future of work, retailers need to continue to prioritize digital transformation, implement strategies to mitigate business disruption, and create a stellar customer and employee experience. Here, I share how prioritizing the customer experience, the employee experience, and digital transformation, in partnership with modern technologies can help retailers propel themselves into the future of work.  

Create a stellar customer experience with a tech-enabled workforce

Many retailers have pivoted their organizational strategies to view the challenges of 2020 as opportunities to redefine their customer experience. Store closures, furloughs, online order management, curbside distribution, and overall health monitoring have presented them with a way to adjust their mindset and find success, despite these new challenges.

These organizations not only reevaluated the importance of e-commerce, omni-channel sales, and their approach to crucial first-contact experiences, but also took selfless and dramatic steps to prevent the spread of the pandemic by offering different formats and delivery, closing stores, re-fitting for new near-term purpose, reducing hours, and communicating openly with customers and employees.

A forthcoming study entitled Beyond COVID: The Role of Retail Employees In 2020, conducted by RSR Research in partnership with Ceridian, revealed that retailers’ number one priority is dealing with customer demand. In 2020, retailers redefined their strategies to keep their customers top-of-mind, but to do so, they needed to also pivot their focus on their employee experience and their overall approach to operations to help achieve their goals.

Improve your employee experience

To deliver a stellar customer experience, retailers must first elevate their associate experience. Retail associates are the people most often addressing the needs of customers, and prior to the pandemic, they were often the first point of interaction for in-store conversations with customers. This is important because the way an employee feels in their role will be reflected in the level of customer service they deliver. Disgruntled, unmotivated, or disengaged employees can have monstrous effects on your customer experience. Conversely, happy and engaged associates are known to improve productivity and profitability by directly impacting the kind of experience your customers have.

In 2020, more than before, employers have faced many adversities due to various lockdown orders and store closures. These challenges have also greatly impacted employees; reduced hours, loss of employment, financial worries and burdens, and physical and mental health stresses are greatly weighing on your greatest resource. Throughout these challenges, the way retail employers communicate with and care for their employees is critical in terms of engagement.   

On a related note, Ceridian’s recent study with RSR research revealed that the top challenges retailers faced all relate to consistency in the employee experience. Modern technologies help retailers establish consistency in a meaningful way. Easily facilitating employee communications, leveraging scheduling technologies that allow for safe and reliable coverage and easy maneuvering of people, and employee safety monitoring are all top-of mind. Mobile solutions that allow associates to manage their self-service tasks, availability, shifts, learning, time off, and pay (including real-time, on-demand pay) have also become a large driver of flexibility and agility in the workplace.

In preparation for the next major disruption, and to maintain confidence amongst the workforce, retailers need to continue to prioritize employees from a place of empathy. This not only bolsters brand recognition within the market, but it also encourages agility and motivation within employees. Focusing on associates means promoting modern, intelligent tools and processes that improve employee engagement, promote workforce assurance, and emphasize communication, learning, and financial wellness to drive productivity, improve the customer experience, and positively impact the bottom line.

The way leaders interacted with their employees was an indication of the success they’ve had in 2020, and the success they will find in 2021 and the future. Learn how Buehler’s Fresh Food rallied and supported their workforce to find success in this difficult year.

WATCH: Building a more intelligent workforce management strategy with DSW and Sephora

Drive digital transformation to prepare for retail’s cautious restart

To deliver on the promise of a stellar customer experience, retailers need to use a modern, intelligent platform that drives organizational efficiency and provides employees with more time to focus on customers. To achieve the goals of a harmonized retail organization, retail leaders need to have a harmonized HCM system in place that can tackle the complexity of normal workforce operations while also enabling swift pivots to crisis management and new operating models to keep the business agile. Further, employers need to be able to adjust the workforce deployment plan quickly to adapt to the new normal. This includes shifting the roles of employees to effectively cover various forms of consumer delivery like online demand, buy online pick up in store (BOPIS), and curbside pickup.

Intelligent workforce technology helps to prioritize workforce deployment based on not only forecasted sales trends and budget, but also the needs of employees. This type of technology allows employers to optimize collaboration and coverage to ensure they hit their targets while also embracing associates’ availability, flexibility, skills, and preferences when creating schedules. Current day solutions do this while also effectively monitoring and executing on fair work practices, monitoring health and safety, and properly coding pay for loans, grants, and subsidies. These streamlined and consolidated systems provide greater visibility, flexibility, and data accuracy while allowing retailers to be agile for known and unknown disruption in the future.

Retailers also need to reevaluate their talent strategy in this new world of work to drive continued success. In opposition to the beginning of the pandemic where understaffing, cuts, furloughs, and the elusiveness of consistent pay were common challenges, the race to bolster talent for the fast return of brick and mortar retail will be a key factor in determining the winners in this new reality.

In addition, talent sharing has taken on new meaning beyond cross-location borrowing. Leveraging associates across locations, brands, companies, and jobs has even enabled ongoing retail associate temp-agency models to close the skill gap and more effectively meet the needs of customers. With talent sharing, retail employees can choose to work across brands and locations in order to provide proper coverage, while at the same time help their employers earn what they need. Modern mobile technologies will continue to foster trends like this, while helping to build more predictability into both the lives of employees and employers.

The new normal is here to stay and the world of work will only continue to change. This means that retailers must continue to re-evaluate their technology offerings to help employers stay compliant, help employees stay engaged, and help both customers and employees feel safe and satisfied.

Book a meeting with us at our virtual NRF Chapter 1 booth to learn more about how modern, intelligent workforce technologies can help retailers successfully manage disruption and thrive amidst change.

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