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CSA Q&A: Fabletics avoids pandemic layoffs with ‘omni-associates’

An omnichannel activewear retailer transitioned store associates to digital customer service roles during the COVID-19 shutdown.

Ron Harries, head of retail, Fabletics, recently explained to Chain Store Age how the company decided to leverage virtual training to ensure brick-and-mortar staff retained their jobs while stores were shuttered due to the pandemic. Fabletics, which counts actress Kate Hudson as one of its founders, launched in 2013 as a membership-based e-commerce site. The company now operates 51 stores across the U.S. and no longer requires membership to shop.

What made Fabletics decide to avoid layoffs/furloughs during COVID-19 store closures?
Finding ways to cut costs at a time when store traffic and sales were going to come to a halt was important, but more important was preserving the livelihood of our retail associates. We mobilized quickly and adjusted our outlook to see the closures as an opportunity to improve and leverage the talents of our associates. 

Access to career development opportunities is something our employees appreciate across the board, so we jumped at the chance to roll out virtual leadership training to our retail staff. With the increased volume of e-commerce sales during nationwide lockdowns, we needed all the customer service support we could get. Who better than to help customers by phone than our retail associates who know the product better than anyone and are used to interacting with customers on a daily basis? 

So, we reallocated store staff to support our global member services team, taking customer calls and responding to inquiries from home. We even had employees sewing masks from home to donate to local communities. In the end, we didn’t miss a beat thanks to our retail workforce, and they didn’t miss a paycheck.

Not only did leveraging the time and talent of our retail associates help us maintain continuity, but we came out of the period with an even more highly skilled workforce. By taking on new tasks, our associates were able to broaden their experience beyond the store walls, setting them up for success in retail and beyond.

They are no longer simply store associates – they are what we now call ‘omni-associates,’ capable of much more than store sales. By seeking alternative solutions to layoffs, we have made strides in training, created a new, more adaptive retail associate and validated the importance of the retail associate to the broader brand, not just the in-store experience.

Why did Fabletics select virtual leadership training, and how was it implemented? 
The store closures gave us a rare and unique opportunity to offer virtual leadership training to our retail management. Seeing the benefits of similar programs executed in the past, it was something we’ve always wanted to do more of but never had the chance. 

From early on in the pandemic, it became evident that new safety measures would significantly impact the retail shopping experience for the foreseeable future. We pride ourselves on offering an unmatched shopping experience for store customers, so making sure changes to our stores wouldn’t lead to any sort of experience disruptions was critical.

Leadership training provided us a chance to not only continue improving how our teams manage stores, drive sales and so forth, but also swiftly adapt to the changing environment in light of the pandemic. It’s not often you get an opportunity to slow down, reflect, and identify areas to improve. Among the silver linings of this pandemic, having the chance to devote time and resources to employee development was certainly one of them for Fabletics. 

One of the first things we did in response to closures was utilize our internal rise managers program, which was facilitated by our leadership & development team, to implement a comprehensive virtual training. This week-long brand immersion and leadership training course for our entire retail management staff, as well as a three-week leadership program taken by 180 retail leaders, logged over 4,000 participant hours and engaged team members while physical stores remained closed.

What have the results of the training been, both during and after store closures?
The outcome of our trainings highlighted just how important it is to leave room for improvement. Prior to this pandemic, Fabletics already believed that we had the best retail staff of any company out there, comprised of unmatched talent and passion for a dynamic brand. We always felt special. 

Then when the pandemic hit, we found ways to make our retail staff even more special by redefining what it means to be a retail associate in the new decade. This is largely in part to the training we delivered, which yielded a multitude of positive results. Chief among these results is a reinvigorated passion for the Fabletics brand – we saw improved engagement at all levels as evidenced by rankings like ‘great place to work’ and participation in events like Glossy Retail Summit.

On the more technical side, by conducting training during the slow periods of the pandemic, the team was set up for success during and after the re-opening process, because they had been preparing for the new policies and procedures already for months.

If more closures are required due to a virus resurgence, will Fabletics once again have store employees work remotely?
In the event that state and local government officials mandate closing due to a virus resurgence, we plan to mimic our successful strategy of reallocating all of our omni-associates to corporate initiatives and additional training. We know we can always improve, and if we are forced to take another pause, we will find new ways to do so as we did before.

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