It has been almost nine months since the coronavirus brought the country to its knees. It’s clear that the retail industry is still learning to adapt to the changes necessary to ensure the health and safety of customers and employees.
I saw this very clearly in my company’s analysis of NAPCO research data that looked at health and safety compliance at 100 leading omnichannel retailers. While there were some bright spots, most retailers were unable to execute well across all categories that NAPCO investigated, including safety, traffic, signage, friendliness and technology. In fact, the average compliance score was around 48%.
Let that sink in.
This tells me the industry is failing at health and safety. Should we be surprised? Frankly, no. Even before Covid-19, store execution was low. That means the majority of tasks coming down from headquarters weren’t being done correctly and on time. In my experience, headquarters teams were frustrated but typically accepted the status quo.
In March, retail workers were selling products. Today, they’re being asked to do that, as well as disinfect counters regularly, monitor traffic in the store, ensure everyone is wearing a mask, make sure people maintain social distancing and more. Working in retail just got infinitely harder.
One of the toughest aspects of compliance for chain retailers is staying on top of government regulations that vary from city to city and state to state. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press, for example, shared new regulations issued by Michigan labor and safety officials around precautions that employers need to take to have employees return to work and stop the spread of Covid-19.
Why was this story newsworthy? These new regulations came days after rulings from the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated months of executive orders from the governor around health and safety regulations. Why did I take notice? It showed me how agile retail businesses need to be in their Covid-19 response.
Imagine, for a second, what it’s like to be a store manager in Detroit. You think you have your marching orders from HQ, based on current regulations. But then the rules are changed again, so you go back to business as usual. Just as you begin to let your guard down, new rules come down from the government and HQ tells you that you have to add signage, put up plexiglass barriers and limit traffic into stores. All of a sudden, you’re not just a store manager; you’re a steward of safety, and you didn’t sign up for this.
As the co-founder of a communications and task-management platform, I believe the retailers that are best equipped to manage these constant changes are the ones that have improved their approach to communications between HQ and the fleet, as well as their approach to task management to ensure everything gets done. These businesses are, as a result, more agile.
But there’s more to it than that. Given the large number of retailers using store communications solutions, if it were that easy, the industry wouldn’t be struggling as much as it is. Retail work is very different from other work. Store associates are the face of the brand and are tasked with delivering a great shopping experience 100% of the time, regardless of circumstances. They need to feel supported and motivated to do so.
So beyond investing in communications solutions, how can retailers motivate their teams to keep up with the industry’s constant changes?
1. Share context. Before you tell your associates what you want them to do, you need to clearly explain and help them understand why they’re being asked to do it. Without context around why any given task is important, associates might feel left in the dark or like their work doesn’t matter, which could negatively impact execution.
2. Give constructive feedback. The only way to implement operational changes and move quickly is through good communication and a feedback loop that keeps the entire team aligned. Making sure employees know what is expected of them, where they excelled and where they can improve can smooth out operations.
3. Keep communication human. One easy practice that might seem silly but actually works is keeping communication fun — and human. HQ leaders aren’t robots; they’re people. But stuffy, text-heavy corporate memos can make it seem the opposite. What I found while leading the communications team at Old Navy for years was that sometimes, the best way to engage a workforce is to personalize messages and communicate visually with pictures, videos and GIFs.
Before we accept a failing grade as an industry, let’s level the playing field. Let’s not only put the right store execution tools in place for associates to be successful but also make sure we’re communicating to teams in a thoughtful and holistic way. It begins with better store communication and intentional support of retail’s very important workforce.