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6 Keys to Empowering Store Associates During the Holiday Season

Retailers are expected to be more conservative with holiday hiring. By focusing on associate engagement and empowerment, they can ensure success.
Photo credit: thejokercze - stock.adobe.com

This is Part 2 of The Holiday Readiness Series, which will feature tactical tips and takeaways from experts that retailers can still apply to rev up their sales results. Looking for even more data and insights to power your approach? Check out Part 1, which focused on improving CX.

Last year, holiday sales grew a modest 5.3% over 2021, according to the National Retail Federation. These results fell below initial predictions due to economic volatility driven by inflation and high interest rates, which explains why retailers are extra cautious this year. While the NRF has yet to release its total sales projections for the season, its early consumer research reveals that consumers plan to spend an average of $875 this holiday season, in line with the five-year average — and most of that money will be spent online.

Consumers’ ongoing shift to digital channels, and the unpredictability of their purchasing behaviors, is driving retailers to be conservative with their holiday hiring. Additionally, the extended holiday season — with more consumers doing their shopping prior to the traditional peak selling season’s start on Black Friday — is likely encouraging some retailers to rely less on holiday hires and more on their existing staff.

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According to analysis from global coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, U.S. retailers will add 410,000 seasonal positions this year, which is the lowest number of jobs added in the quarter since 2008. The company based their predictions on non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the forecast aligns with the broader difficulties retailers are facing as they seek to attract, hire and retain quality talent. Results from Retail TouchPoints’ 2023 Store Operations Survey indicate that hiring and retaining associates, at 70%, and high employee turnover rates, at 67%, are their top challenges.

However, as employee expectations shift and evolve, “some things remain constant: creating variety in the work, cultivating a positive and social workplace, and authentically recognizing hard work are enduring keys to success,” said Erica Grant, Partner and Head of the Leadership Talent practice at Lotis Blue Consulting, a business transformation advisory firm in an interview with Retail TouchPoints.

Experts shared six best practices retailers can apply to cultivate a positive and social workplace as the holiday season picks up:

1. Put managers front and center.

To keep employee engagement and performance at their peak, retailers should ensure that management is always present on the sales floor, according to Michael Brown, Partner and Americas Retail Leader at Kearney in an interview with Retail TouchPoints.. “Consumer traffic and behavior during the holidays is not predictable, therefore, experienced leadership presence is critical to success.”

This presence will do more than keep associates focused; it also will demonstrate that managers are invested in their success. That is why Brown believes managers also should provide ongoing recognition and positive feedback.

2. Create digital synergy.

Although it is too late in the planning cycle for retailers to implement any new in-store tech to support associates this holiday season, Brown noted that they can leverage their owned digital properties, from branded ecommerce sites to social networks, to provide content and resources to support customers in their unique journeys. “Recently, consumer self-help applications have been very successful in helping consumers navigate stores and find the products they need,” he said.

3. Provide flexible scheduling.

Lotis Blue’s recent Future of the Retail Workforce Study analyzed data from more than 1,000 hourly retail workers. The results indicated that associates are increasingly focused on getting the number of hours they need to make a sustainable income. That’s one reason that associates prize schedule flexibility: those citing the lack of it as a reason they consider leaving their employer is up 14% from 2022.

With these results in mind, “we recommend that retailers engage in strategies to ensure that all associates have an opportunity to be scheduled a predictable minimum number of hours per week, while creating opportunities to pick up additional hours and shifts to meet their individual needs and account for anticipated traffic spikes,” Grant explained.

4. Allow associates to focus on their strengths.

Established store associates are no strangers to the complexities of omnichannel. They also know how to effectively serve shoppers because they understand the unique wants and needs of the market. That’s why Brown believes retailers should have holiday hires focus on simpler tasks, such as bagging purchases, stocking shelves and managing fitting rooms, while more experienced employees can focus on getting more face time with customers and completing revenue-driving tasks.

“Understand who has the skills to engage customers and who is better suited for non-customer-facing jobs,” Brown advised. “If they’ve been on the job for several months or longer, they know that their time is split between serving in-store customers, as well as picking, packing and fulfilling online orders.”

5. Train early and train often.

Training beyond the basics might seem to be a luxury during the time-starved holiday season, but it’s well worth the investment for virtually all associate roles in the store. In fact, ongoing training and education is an adult learning best practice and should be applied particularly during the holiday season, when stress reaches an all-time high.

“Frequent training refreshers are critical to training retention and demonstration of the right behaviors,” Grant explained. “Implementing a micro-training strategy, which is a less than five-minute training on one specific skill, at the beginning of a shift once a week can help retailers equip associates with the skills that they’ll need to respond to the holiday surge.”

6. Assess technology gaps and make better use of what you have.

Grant noted that many retailers are actually underleveraging the technology they already have in place, which makes the holiday season a perfect opportunity to “identify whether there are any barriers to usage with current technology, opportunities to reduce the manual burden on associates, and reskilling to ensure all associates are equipped to be successful,” she explained.

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