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The Labor Shortage: Is Your Brand Simply Surviving or Thinking About its Long-Term Impact?

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First, it was the shutdowns. Then came the slow, staggered process of reopening. Now, most retail stores and restaurants are open again — but are they thinking about the long-term impact these changes will have on their brand, or are they still in survival mode?

The past 18 months have seen a lapse in consumer confidence. In fact, Big Red Rooster conducted a recent study where we uncovered that 46% of customers are feeling less in control now than they did pre-pandemic. This is in large part due to a rapidly compressed innovation cycle. The pandemic forced alternative fulfillment to the forefront, but every brand interpreted it in a different way, which has left consumers reeling over the lack of clarity and control over their own experience.

The lack of clarity has also put more pressure on the physical experience, with 76% of consumers saying they go to brick-and-mortar stores or restaurants because they know exactly what to expect. However, the recent labor shortage is severely impacting the predictability of in-store experiences and continuing to throw the concept of clarity into flux.

Intrinsically tied with the rise of alternative fulfillment solutions, the labor infrastructure — and its current inability to keep up — is further complicating a scene that was already in disarray. It has all but erased consistency from retailers’ and restaurants’ schedules. We’re experiencing an environment where a single call-off by an employee can result in a closed dining room, a delayed open or an early close.

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Googling for a location’s hours is no longer a tried-and-true method, as many stores’ hours are erratic and changing on a day-by-day, employee-by-employee basis. And even if a store happens to be open, it’s impossible to guarantee that the full store or restaurant will be open, or if it’ll just be the drive-thru or pick-up services available.

For example, you used to walk into Starbucks and immediately know your place in line just by counting the physical people in front of you. Now, with the surge in mobile orders, it’s nearly impossible to estimate your wait time. The surge in mobile orders has not only taken away clarity from customers but has also tanked confidence. Customers are showing up to pick up and order in-store and finding out only the drive-thru service is open. They no longer know what to expect and it’s negatively impacting both their sense of control and the overall human aspect of the experience.

Our recent research underlined the importance that the employee has to the overall brand experience. Specifically, when it came to restaurants, 57% of consumers stated that employees have the most control over the experience, twice the level of control perceived to be held by the brand itself. We’re seeing brands continue to lose their footing, because in the rush to accommodate the immediate consumer demand, they’re failing to take the importance of the human experience into account for the long term.

Chick-fil-A is among the few brands that are managing to stay afloat while keeping its brand culture intact and customers happy: 30% of recent Chick-fil-A customers rated the brand “Excellent” on a series of key service attributes. The quick service restaurant is based upon strong, resonant values, which serves it well in attracting like-minded employees who feel good about their place of employment because it reflects their values.

Headed into Q4, businesses must be spending their money in the right places. We’re accustomed to seeing large advertising and marketing campaigns this time of year, but is that the appropriate response? Allocating the majority of the budget to such campaigns may be putting you at risk. Instead, consider the implications of continuing to ignore the impact that your employees have on the overall brand experience. Keeping your staff happy and healthy is more important than ever and may be the key to surviving through 2022.


Emily Albright Miller is SVP, Strategy & Insights, Big Red Rooster. She has been spent the past 20 years designing multi-channel retail solutions that break through to today’s consumers.  Miller’s experience includes leading brand strategy at Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch.  Her retail experience combined with her digital and branding agency experience have made her a thought leader in the consumer marketing space. Miller has worked globally to support clients across sectors inclusive of specialty retail, discount, restaurant, grocery, convenience and healthcare. Projects include work for Harbor Freight, Jack in the Box, Papa John’s, Wrigley, Nike, L.L.Bean, Scotts, American Express and Ross Dress for Less.  She has a Master’s Degree in Integrated Marketing from Northwestern University.

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