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Store Shelves Can’t Be Full When Staff Rosters Are Empty

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skilled employees-retail employees-business leaders-retail robots-covid 19

Retail is a people business. Success requires skilled employees to maintain shelf inventory and high customer service levels. So, what happens during a talent shortage?

This is the state of the current retail industry. Last year, as stores and restaurants reopened as vaccines became available, those employers had trouble finding staff. Then, throughout the year, record numbers of workers across all industries quit their jobs, with the retail sector sometimes leading the pack. About 4.5 percent of retail workers quit their jobs in October and November 2021 ahead of the busy holiday season.  Compared with pre-pandemic employment, staff at sporting goods stores was down almost 12 percent in November 2021 versus November 2019. At department stores, employment was down about 5 percent. And experts don’t expect the labor shortage to be resolved anytime soon.

In many cases, workers switched to jobs that offered better pay, benefits, and schedules. Many of them needed more schedule flexibility to care for children, elderly parents, or other relatives. Women, who make up about 56 percent of the retail force, in general were more likely than men to have to quit their jobs to take over childcare. Others sought jobs that limited their COVID-19 exposure through less contact with the general public, such as e-commerce roles.

Those who stayed are still having to stay home if exposed to COVID-19 or to care for a sick loved one, which continues to temporarily reduce staff. All of this leads employees to become fatigued from working at a short-staffed employer.

Meanwhile, COVID-19-related labor disruptions and ongoing talent gaps challenge many tiers of the retail supply chain. Not enough products are being manufactured to meet demand, packaging is in short supply, products are not being moved to stores as quickly as before, and there aren’t enough workers at stores to unload and stock products.

All of these challenges have combined into a perfect storm of empty store shelves, rising prices, and retailers needing to reduce the number of services they offer or cut operating hours. This isn’t the customer experience any retailer wants to deliver, but it has unfortunately become the norm.

Changing the way stores work

The solution requires taking a step back to reconsider the employee experience. Workers are not interested in taking on jobs with low pay, high stress, and fluctuating hours. To attract talented people, retailers must first think about how they can become the employer of choice.

Some standard approaches include increasing hourly pay, offering sign-on bonuses, and providing tuition benefits. However, these steps only take retailers so far. To win the talent wars, employers must think about how they can use innovative technologies to make work safer, less stressful, and more fulfilling.

One interesting tech solution is blending the brick-and-mortar and e-commerce experiences. Some boutiques have piloted shopping by text message, in which a shopper texts a store what they need, including specifics such as color and size. Then, a salesclerk texts back photos of a few options. Shoppers select their desired items, pay online, and pick up the items curbside. Other stores offer video shopping, in which a salesclerk showcases or demonstrates products to customers via video chat. This is particularly suitable for sellers of luxury items, such as jewelry. Both solutions create a safer, contactless work environment for store staff.

Similarly, encouraging curbside pickup reduces contact and creates more efficient shopping experiences. Customers have their shopping done for them, with one picker being able to complete multiple orders at once. This also can ease the burden on checkout lines and stocking teams, as pickers can pick directly from boxes in the storeroom. By limiting pickup to certain core hours, retailers also can use their staff more efficiently and minimize the number of people they need for very early or very late shifts, thus establishing more desirable working hours.  

Optimizing retail technology

Retail technology also can create a smoother customer experience amid staff shortages. Self-checkouts and scan-and-go checkout technology — in which shoppers use an app to scan items as they shop and then pay from their phones before leaving the store — can help shorten checkout lines. This also adds more space between workers and customers.

In larger stores, kiosks for accessing certain services can effectively help customers hold their place in line while doing other shopping. For example, a shopper could place a deli order at a kiosk, pick up other grocery items, and then grab their deli order before leaving the store. This reduces frustration from long waits by enabling people to multitask.

Retailers also can leverage technology to reduce the burden on human workers. As in other industries, technology can help retailers automate mundane tasks and free up people to do more challenging and fulfilling tasks, such as customer service or problem-solving. Retail robots manage inventory by scanning shelves to ensure products are in stock, in the proper location, and labeled with the correct price. Others can clean and disinfect stores, pick orders, and transport orders to customers awaiting curbside pickup.

Be human too

One place where the human touch is still necessary is in management. The people business of retail requires leaders with empathy and emotion. Although key performance indicators are important, they cannot be the cornerstone of people management. Cheer for your workers when they do a good job. Partner with them to solve problems. Give them opportunities to grow. Be flexible and understanding when they need time off to care for themselves or family. And do what you can to ease the burdens of today’s challenging retail environment.

Recognition, communication, and leadership are among the top five factors that most influence employee happiness, satisfaction, and engagement. When business leaders can check these boxes and boost morale, workers will be more fulfilled, work harder, and even help recruit more employees. Effective engagement helps employers retain and grow staff. For retail to succeed, similar employee engagement methods need to be leveraged up and down the supply chain. When manufacturers, distributors, warehouses, transportation companies, and more can recruit and retain workers, they can carry out the critical supply chain activities that keep products moving from the source to store shelves. When each step of the supply chain flows as it should, then stresses are relieved throughout the entire network. But it’s the people of the supply chain who make this happen. Priority one must be creating a positive employee experience.

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