Retail Outlook for 2021: Empowering an agile, balanced, collaborative workforce

John Orr
John Orr

2020 has created a retail landscape unlike anything we ever experienced or expected. From increased adoption of BOPIS to a surge in e-commerce (and the earliest holiday shopping season we’ve seen to date) – it’s clear retailers had to shift quickly and act decisively.

According to a recent McKinsey survey, “Most digital and contactless services have seen increased adoption since April, with more than half of new and increased users reporting an intent to continue post-COVID-19.”

While no one has a crystal ball to accurately predict what’s in store for retail, or any other segment of our economy for that matter, we can learn from trending behaviors and share some thoughts on what 2021 and the retail new normalmight look like.

#1: From In-Store Brick-and-Mortar to Online Pick-and-Order
Heading into 2021 and beyond, retailers will continue to pivot and embrace new technologies, such as predictive and/or prescriptive data science, voice assistants and digital wallets, to augment the online shopping experience. New tech will range from recognizing the rigidity of the disparate systems in place and lack of flexibility to enhancing an already streamlined topography.

On-demand, voice-activated, and seeing the customer as the channel (1:1 journey) are just some of the many ways retailers can stay ahead of the curve. Next year’s winners will be the ones who have a culture of innovation and agility and have either benefitted from being essential and growing or those hit hard but who were already seen as digital darlings of retail (i.e. Sephora, DSW, Lululemon, to name a few).

#2: Retail’s Digital Dilemma
Today the channel to the customer is growing and changing, and what was an evolving online shopping and social media marketing world pre-pandemic has turned into a digital battle for the hearts and minds of consumers who, for the most part, are stuck at home for the foreseeable future. However, we must not remove the human element that contributes to the proverbial magic moment, and caution businesses from moving to a completely automated and impersonal system.

Preserving a balance and avoiding replacement of the workforce with technology will be the beginning of a new retail normal at some point in 2021. Customer satisfaction will be achieved when retailers, and most importantly, their associates, are able to continue to make that magic moment connection whether online or offline and keep their businesses afloat despite the odds.

#3: Building a More Agile Workforce  

Consumer satisfaction and employee satisfaction go hand-in-hand. This is why the retail workforce needs to have strategies and modern technologies in place to act with agility and adapt to the ever-changing environment amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and in preparation for the next major disruption.    

Organizations need to continue to embrace modern technology to prepare for evolving customer and workforce needs -- leveraging new tools to promote workforce confidence, with a focus on workforce training, learning and financial wellness.

#4: Collaborative Work Models, Skills Consolidation to Become Hallmarks of Retail in 2021 and Beyond
When COVID-19 hit hard in the spring of 2020,most retail establishments were forced into a 100% staff reduction. As we began to open up and things gradually started to normalize, those establishments were, and still are, at 40% staff at best. The result of these unfortunate forced changes led to the development of more collaborative work models and a consolidation of skills among employees.

Those who once specialized in a certain task or function now had to expand their skillset and perform cross-functionally for the staffing to work and the retail establishment to remain solvent. We’ll likely see this model continuing through next year.

#5: Talent-Sharing is on the Rise
The pandemic not only took away our basic freedom to move about at will, but it also took routine and predictability out of our daily lives. For the retail worker in particular, working hours were cut severely, if not eliminated, and the ability to count on consistent pay became equally elusive.

As a result, a new practice we’ve witnessed coming out of the pandemic is the tendency to talent-share. Increased access to and use of mobile technologies will continue to foster employee self-service and engagement, strengthened by a desire to build more predictability into their lives, especially during uncertain times. Armed with these tools, together with a desire and ability to work cross-brand and cross-location, retail employees will opt to share their talent to survive financially, while at the same time helping their employers operationally to optimize the labor pool.

Looking back on retail operations in 2020, what used to be integral to their brand promise simply but radically changed. Consider the dimensions of service quality: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy.

The degree to which the brand promise meets or exceeds each determines the brand equity and loyalty – as most are not brand loyal but experience loyal and you have 2-3 strikes before you lose a customer’s life-time spend. So, no matter the catalyst or circumstance as we head into 2021, those organizations that are able to remain agile, flexible and collaborative while staying focused on meeting or exceeding these critical service dimensions will have embraced the secret to winning in a post-COVID world.

John Orris senior VP of retail at Ceridian, an award-winning human capital management technology company serving organizations across the globe.

More Blog Posts In This Series