Redefining the Role of the Retail Worker (2022)

The role of the retail worker is changing. Over the past two years, brands have increasingly turned to store staff to meet changing consumer demands. 

For many employers, meanwhile, finding and retaining retail talent has been challenging. In a study by Korn Ferry, over 90% of retailers said they had difficulty hiring employees. Retail also has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry.  

Staff shortages often lead to higher recruitment fees and poor customer service. Over a year, this can result in 230 million days of lost productivity and $19 billion in recruiting and training expenses.  

As brands look to the future, retailers must recognize and support the shifting responsibilities of their store staff.  

Meeting new consumer expectations

As noted, shifting consumer habits have placed new demands on retail associates. For Ethan White, Director of Retail Operations at outdoor clothing and gear provider Cotopaxi, the role of the store employee “has become more critical than ever.”  

Customers now expect convenience, personalization, and an exceptional experience from store employees. As online shopping continues to grow, retail staff will play a key role in fostering an offline connection for customers. 

“With this acceleration, Retail Guides are not only responsible for processing transactions and providing great service, but also for creating truly authentic connections and relationships between the consumers and the brand,” says White. 

For Tonia Soteros, owner of R[eco]ntained, a zero-waste store in Santa Monica, California, consumers are looking to stores to find community. “That’s what people are missing, especially after the pandemic,” she says. 

Her store employees focus on building relationships with clients. “It’s not just sitting there working at a retail store all day. It’s a bit of a social hour. We even know our customers’ dogs,” she says. 

future of the retail worker


Redefining the role of retail workers

As brands continue to open new stores, they must rethink the various roles of their store employees

Brand ambassador

Sales associates are crucial to building a connection between brands and customers. With increased competition online, staff can help bring the brand’s values to life. 

“Now more than ever, customers are seeking to form a deeper level of trust with brands they spend their money on,” says White. “That starts with our Retail Guides.”

Customers now use stores to learn about and engage with products. 63% of customers will research a product online before purchasing in-store. As a result, staff members must also be product experts. 

Cotopaxi offers discounts and bi-annual “Gear Allowance” to employees. With access to the latest products, “the ambassadorship comes naturally,” says White. 

Jim Miller is the co-Founder and Director of Business Development at Respect Outside, a consulting agency that provides training and HR solutions to businesses in the outdoor industry. He argues that employees are brand ambassadors inside and outside the retail store. 

“Consumers are very much watching and looking for organizations that are expressing their values,” he says. “Your employees are out there talking. They’re on job boards, [and] talking to family and friends.” 

As physical retail evolves, in other words, employees will play a crucial role as brand representatives. 

Greater focus on clienteling

Most brands used to view customer service as reactive: store employees answered shoppers’ questions or helped them find the right clothing sizes. Now, store associates must take a proactive approach to customer service

For White, employees should focus on building long-term relationships with clients. “We believe if we’re able to form a strong connection with the customer, then a conversion will happen, either that day, down the road, online, or at a retail store.”

Similarly, Soteros looks for opportunities to engage with customers outside her four walls. This includes texting, virtual shopping, and home deliveries. 

For brands, store employees will need to continue to focus on clienteling to deliver a personalized experience. 

Optimize store operations 

Retailers have also started using stores as mini-fulfillment centers. Options like curbside pick-up or buy online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS) have created new responsibilities for staff. 

As retailers find new ways to serve customers, store staff must also focus on maximizing store efficiency. 

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Contribute to strategy

Understanding consumer preferences is vital. With rising privacy concerns online, associates will play a significant role in collecting customer feedback. 

“Our Retail Guides are often the source of our most important product feedback,” says White. “[They] have guided product development over the years as a result of the real-time feedback they collect with the customer.”

At R[eco]ntained, employees use Slack to communicate customer suggestions or feedback. “R[eco]ntained has developed so much based on customer feedback,” says Soteros. 

Feedback from store employees will be crucial to refining marketing and product strategy in the future.

 future of the retail worker

Source: Tonia Soteros, Recontained 

How can brands support store staff? 

For retail employees, the past two years have been challenging. Teams have struggled with staff shortages, longer hours, and enforcing public health guidelines. Personal health and safety have also been a concern.

In 2020, retail ranked fifth among all occupations in nonfatal illnesses and injuries.

Creating a valuable customer experience begins with great employee experiences. Brands will continue to look to their frontline employees to foster brand loyalty and engagement. 

1. Lead with purpose

According to a recent study by Nudge Co, 58% of retail associates say a sense of purpose makes them feel more motivated at work. By sharing the company’s values and long-term goals, store employees can feel part of the brand’s journey. 

Soteros stresses that this must begin with leadership. When she opened R[eco]tained, she wanted to create a supportive and encouraging environment. “If someone walks in with a plastic cup, there is no shame. There’s an atmosphere of trust among customers,” she notes. “That mentality has carried over to my staff and their work.” 

future of the retail worker


2. Hire for passion 

Brands with a clear mission are said to be more likely to attract and keep qualified candidates. Soteros agrees. “Everyone I have in my store is from the local community. They’re passionate about saving the planet and making it a better place for animals and future generations.” 

Cotopaxi looks for “individuals that are passionate about Cotopaxi’s mission and adventure.” For White, this fosters an engaging environment for staff and customers. “You can train on product information, brand guidelines, [and] customer experience. But you can’t train passion,” he says. 

future of the retail worker


3. Create an inclusive work environment 

An inclusive work environment is vital for employees to thrive. Over the past two years, retailers have focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet, brands often confuse representation with true inclusivity.

“Too many companies put the D before the E and I,” says Miller. Unless you do the equity and inclusion work first, you’re throwing different identities at your organization. It’s going to be very challenging.” 

For White, creating an inclusive work environment is key to brand loyalty among consumers. “There are so many brands and options to shop out there,” he says. “If you can create a welcoming and inclusive community for both employees and customers, you’re more likely to generate that loyalty and repeat customers that keep coming back.”

future of the retail worker


4. Rethink benefits, including flexibility

Employees across industries seek better pay, healthcare benefits, and flexibility. The desire for flexibility is especially true in retail. Often, retail employees will have less than 48-hour notice before shift schedules are announced.. 

 A study published in Management Science examined the effects of flexible scheduling at Gap stores. Stores that adopted more flexible scheduling practices increased efficiency by 5.1% and sales by 3.3%. 

  • Scheduling apps enable employees to see available shifts and design a schedule that fits their lifestyle.
  • Retailers can create shifts around specific tasks rather than set hours. This strategy can help employees plan their workload. 

5. Communicate options for career advancement and focus on training 

Brands can also foster an engaging culture by creating a clear career path. For Miller, this includes transparent milestones for growth, including timing. “People want to know, what are my opportunities here? What is my path?” he says. 

Training is also crucial to employee retention. Most retailers provide training on basic tasks, such as working the POS system. Yet they often fail to teach the skills to create a great customer experience. 

“A lot of retailers don’t have 101 sales training in place,” says Miller. “They hire people and assume they know how to be good salespeople when they really don’t. People, especially the young workforce, need to be told and shown.” 

Miller also stresses the importance of coaching employees on emotional intelligence. “The ability to connect with coworkers and customers is just as important as other skills,” he says. “Helping people gain that understanding and training is really important.”

The future of retail workers 

Retailers will continue to rely on associates to provide a store experience that meets changing consumer needs.

Companies must shift their thinking about the daily responsibilities of store staff. Brands must also adjust their policies and procedures to best support retail employees. 

According to Miller, the most important thing brands can do is make people feel valued. “That’s what people want. To be seen and recognized for the work that they’re doing and that things feel fair in the organization.”

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