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The Future of Working in Retail

With news titles of “Retail Apocalypse” lingering around in masses, a drop of traffic in many area of retail, that is driving a constant pressure on productivity in store, one of the key question for the professionals working in HR Retail is how can we make Retail attractive for today’s talents?  

The issue is even more complicated. Many agree now that the future of retail is in delivering experiences. But these don’t come easy, in an industry that for a lot of time has been used to often hire low skilled labor, focusing on basic customer service and “hoping for the best“. In a not so distant past, it was sufficient to have a decent product, and then a script for smile, greet, check the size and process the customer at the till. Sales would come.  

Omnichannel trends are putting more pressure on staff in stores.

In the omnichannel reality we live today, things have changed. A sales associate in store is asked to compete with customers that normally have already done all the product comparison at home before coming to store. She’s asked to do her best to deliver an experience, even while the customer is already browsing if there’s a better price online . And all this on minimum wage and reduced hour contract.

We see also other roles of Retail changing. All the management chain is asked to evolve in understanding customer journey beyond the physical boundaries of stores. Pick-up in store, order online, returns handling, often all these add a burden to the store operations itself, without necessarily being captured by the store P&Ls, way to often limited to what happens only within the bricks of the four walls.

if I were a young student today, looking to get my first job, why would I choose retail?

There’s definitely not one and only answer for this that is absolutely valid. Also because we need to skim through all those people for which retail is the only available option (still a reality in many large and small cities).

Asking people that are today starting their journey in this industry, with a motivation that is not just linked to the need for a basic income (a motivation we shall still respect and that will still drive a consistent part of the workforce for the year’s to come), there are some key discerning elements that people feel are relevant.

1. Have a Purpose

The ideal sales person capable to deliver an extraordinary experience is one that identifies with the sense of purpose of the brand she represents. Multiple facts enter into play around this, and whoever has read Sinek’s last book “Start with Why”, can immediately acknowledge the need for a company to have a strong sense of purpose, not just for their customers, but also to attract and retain key talents.

Also because, in an age of social media and communication, your Internal Culture is Your Brand.

2. Deliver Experiences

There’s an old saying that your level of customer service cannot exceed your level of internal service to your employees. I always think that luckily this sentence is purely aspirational. Because let’s face, the level of Employee Experience delivered in retail is normally pretty basic, if not poor at most. Dashed with cost concerns along the entire line, retailers have resorted into shrinking their staff to the minimum levels in a century.

In an age of rising and ubiquitous retail automation, one way to stand out? Go the other way and cultivate a high-touch, experiential offering that’s all about human contact, creativity and expertize.

(The Future of Retail: by TrendWatching)

This also means getting your teams to think in terms of Customer Experience around all possible touchpoints, not just what is happening at arm’s length. Digital, Physical, Social, all need to be understood as the web of MOT with your brands will increase.

3. Get the right Pay

Historically Retail is about underpaid, overworked and high turnover employement. Difficult to manage the delivery of a great experience under these conditions.

Retail Jobs Lag
Retail Jobs Lag (source: Bloomberg)

Retail talents need to be compensated for what it delivers. Minimum pay is rarely enough to guarantee a living, and more than often current incentive schemes in retail are more prone to cause behaviours not in line with the customer experience you want. What is needed is a Total Reward Strategy for retail that includes fair and transparent pay conditions, relevant benefits and incentives linked to real productivity. (I discuss this in further detail here).

Measure what matters

All of the above will not make much sense if we don’t adapt the was we measure success. Too often metrics are still held to the time where everything happened within the 4 walls of a store. We need new KPIs and metrics, and we need to ensure that people understand analytics and new ways of measurement that are relevant for their job.

Don’t think Millennial.

Last but not least, avoid falling into generation generalisations. Let’s face it: most of the traits of what has been defined “millennials” have failed to impress when these people entered the workforce. Moreover, more generations are appearing, and one of the element that people have in common today is their willingness to develop their own identities. A one size fits all approach is a guarantee for failure.

And above all, put this item on top of your list of topics for the years to come. No solution will be forever.

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This entry was posted in: Shopping Experience


I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. Over the years I have worked on many projects in different HR domains, gaining a deep understanding of all key HR processes, from Talent Management to Recruiting, from Organizational Design to Leadership Development, from HR Transformation to HR & Payroll Systems implementation at International level. Working with Fashion Brands, leading retailer as well as, through consulting, international brands in industries like Banking, Manufacturing, Professional Services at both Headquarter and local level. Last but not least I consider myself an eclectic and creative personality, with many interests ranging from technology to arts and poetry.

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