How come retailers suddenly want to talk about staff?

Retail store employees reading anything about the future of work can perhaps be forgiven for thinking, “Oh, so NOW you value me,” as the media fills up with stories about who will actually run the store of tomorrow.

The conversation was almost certainly started by BRC director general, Helen Dickinson when she talked, three years ago, about fewer but better jobs, in response to falling store footfall, the growth of on line and a digital first consumer.

Since then, things have moved on dramatically, to the extent that John Furner, president and CEO of Wal-Mart US now talks about good jobs, a layered but compelling definition based on higher wages, training, tech and moving staff out of the back office and getting them in front of customers.

Is better pay the way to go?

There are barriers to change for sure, notably recognising the importance of making changes. Retailers are nothing if not busy, and human capital management can quickly fall behind other priorities, because it is not valued. However, consider Wal-Mart’s experience, that higher wages and higher investment in systems, processes and training have led to higher productivity and higher net promoter scores.

This is not simply a matter of having more staff; customers say that what they want is staff that are experienced, which can mean a range of things. For Wal-Mart, it has been about recognising the value of team leaders, people that are popular with customers because of the respect both customers and staff have for them.

Wisdom from Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart has also shown that focusing on employee management must not be treated in isolation from other initiatives. The company processes customer feedback into data and uses this to validate a range of actions, notably an up to 30% reduction in SKUs. Naturally, this did not go down well with the merchandising department but actually reducing the number of products, enabled Wal-Mart to innovate around pricing, merchandising and promotions, which led to a sales uplift from customers who found products more appealing and easier to find.

Due to the size of the initiative, it came with lots of moving parts and Wal-Mart learned that introducing too many things at once can have unintended consequences, so it now phases projects one by one, observing how each affects the previous.

Gamification to engage staff

The wider tech industry has responded with a raft of tools that are designed to equip staff with data and devices that are familiar to them on their own devices, even to the extent of gamifying tasks so that they are more enjoyable and there are incentives for completing them.

The tech industry is also moving to a more collaborative model, recognising that no one company has all the answers, meaning that the larger incumbents will need to work with the smaller disruptors on integrated solutions. Because this is no longer just about isolated disciplines such as workforce optimisation, but about the entire human capital management cycle – get the right people in at the beginning and manage them through their entire careers in retail, until a small but growing handful of them assume the top leadership roles.

If you want to know how much I care about this subject, I am chairing the BRC event Building your Future Workforce on March 10 to talk about how to equip retailers to create a workforce fit for the future – with new roles, new skills and ways of working.

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