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Retailers' next challenge: Bringing consistency to the frontline

Retailers experienced tremendous challenges over the last year as they coped with the pandemic. 

Requirements, processes and responsibilities all shifted on a dime, and retailers heavily relied on their employees to meet the challenges. And for the most part, they did.

Now, as retailers anticipate life post-pandemic, it can be tempting to assume the heavy lifting that prepared frontline employees for their changing jobs is all done -- but that's not true. Just like in 2020, businesses in 2021 and beyond will keep changing rapidly.  

That's why retailers must prepare for the next hurdle: to build an agile and resilient workforce through consistent and engaging training. 

Establishing consistency while preparing for recovery
Since March 2020, retailers have operated in crisis mode. Some retail chain locations were more prepared technologically and physically to quickly offer longer store hours, BOPIS, or curbside pickup than others. Various grocery stores in the same chain and the same city were better able to keep supplies like paper goods in stock than other ones. 

Initially, consumers understood when they encountered these inconsistencies in delivery, pickup, out of stocks, or customer service wait times. But eventually, even the most loyal customer can become frustrated. And retailers didn't have much leeway for making mistakes. 

Consumers were more likely to try new stores or new products if their favorite one was not available. And once they found a satisfactory substitute, they were more likely to stick with it. A McKinsey study found that of the 75% of consumers who tried a new store, brand, or shopping method during the crisis, most intended to continue with that change after the pandemic is over.

All of this is to say that retailers, especially grocers, can't assume that their pandemic-induced sales boost they've enjoyed will continue as people return to offices and restaurants. 

This means that retailers need to ensure they are front and center in their customers' minds as life finally begins to normalize and consumers have more options. Retailers in all segments must have a strategic approach to ensure consistent experiences for customers and employees, regardless of the store location or shopping channel used. 

Invest in cross-training and upskilling frontline employees
Certain aspects of retail purchasing that gained popularity during the pandemic, like BOPIS and curbside pickup, are now conveniences consumers won't give up in the future. Businesses will need to ensure they are in alignment for doing this effectively long-term. Putting those processes in place requires training employees to prepare for new responsibilities as they evolve. 

When online ordering threatens overload, retail store employees may need to move from frontline retail to distribution center roles. But retailers can't assume employees automatically know how to do these new functions, or know how to do them well. 

One of the major reasons retailers have high employee turnover is because of a lack of effective training. Often, an employer will deliver a firehose of information to a new employee and send them out to the floor, and the employee doesn't know what to do. They're afraid to ask, so they quit.

Instead, retailers have to get employees engaged with learning and give them tools that they can use daily, so if they don't know what to do, they know where to get the information they need. This ensures employees understand the most critical aspects of the job. 

When retailers invest in their people, they keep them much longer and benefit from their expertise. When stores provide consistent training to employees, the processes, messages, and even the culture are spread throughout the businesses, leading to a consistent outcome.

Enable frontline employees to create a consistent customer experience 
For the last year, customers shopped where it was most convenient, even if it wasn't their preferred retailer. As time progresses, they will feel more comfortable venturing to stores that may not be as close or going to multiple stores to check off the shopping list. 

Retailers must find ways to entice customers to shop with them, online or in-store. As they do that, the experience employees provide will influence those consumer choices. And I can't say it enough, how companies treat their employees affects how employees treat their customers. So if retailers want an outstanding customer experience, they have to prioritize their employees. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, some of this prioritization occurred. For example, some companies offered frontline employees hazard pay. Although many companies ended that practice months later, they did recognize the importance of the frontline. As work returns to a more normal state, we can't forget their importance or treat them as expendable. 

Having a friendly employee who is there to greet and help customers and who is willing to go that additional step is a big piece of the customer experience and can make a difference in where consumers choose to shop. 

Think about the online shopping experience at the grocery store. Suppose when a customer's groceries are delivered, the associate who filled the order selected bruised fruit or made an illogical item substitution. In that case, the customer isn't going to order online again and may not return to that grocer. 

On the other hand, if the associate has the knowledge, tools, and encouragement to fill the order accurately, text the customer to inform of any substitutions, pack the order on time, and politely take the order to the customer's car, the experience is a good one. It seems simple, but if retailers don't do things right by first treating the employees well, customers can be lost for life.

With so many changes coming out of the retail space, retailers and their frontline employees must be agile. They must have training methods that work in this fast-moving environment. What's more, those training methods must ensure frontline employees feel engaged, appreciated, and prepared to adjust, perform their roles while providing an outstanding customer experience.

Christine Tutssel is VP of strategic initiatives at Axonify.

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