Shopfloor staff have been particularly affected. In addition to reduced shifts or lost jobs, they have had to deal with well-documented examples of customers behaving badly. In Melbourne it’s worse, where most stores are closed and home schooling has returned.
The result is an uncertain future for many shopfloor staff, particularly the high proportion who are on casual contracts. There is some good news, with announcements from some retailers that they will continue paying staff during Melbourne’s lockdown including Wesfarmers, Ikea and Repco. Importantly, this extends to casual employees to different degrees, depending on their normal rostered hours. Other retailers like Big W are instead redeploying staff to Woolworths, where there is an immediate need.
These initiatives are undoubtedly beneficial for employees on the shopfloor. However, they are not merely a sign of goodwill. They are also a recognition that these people are a key success factor for retail now and in the future. In fact, as technology and automation continue across the sector, they are becoming more important, for a few reasons.
The evolving role of frontline staff
Customers judge many of their retail experiences based on the interactions they have with retail employees. When we survey retail customers about a recent exceptional shopping experience they have had, and what made it exceptional, the vast majority of responses relate to staff. This could be as simple as providing prompt and friendly service, to more engaging interactions reminiscent of a personal shopper.
As retail has evolved in line with the experience economy, the expectations of staff have continually increased. In addition to traditional roles, shopfloor staff are now being asked to deliver engaging, educational, and even entertaining experiences to consumers. A global study by Avanade recently found that 58 per cent of retailers are already turning bricks-and-mortar locations into showrooms, while 60 per cent plan to utilise theme-based stores in the next two to three years. In addition, many consumers now research products prior to coming into store, a process known as “webrooming”.
The result is that staff now need to be highly technical product experts, while also providing an engaging experience for consumers. A recent study by academics from Monash and Swinburne universities quantified these challenges. To deliver excellent customer service, frontline employees need both creativity and attention to detail. Too much of one without the other can have detrimental effects. The authors of the study concluded that brands therefore need to empower, and train, their staff to be “ambidextrous” across these different skills.
These trends highlight a few important things for retailers when thinking about these employees. First, they are crucial to customer service and customer experience, and should be valued as such. Second, staff are being asked to do more than ever before, which requires a range of skills and abilities. This means retailers need to look carefully at how they select and hire staff, as well as whether their training is adequate to allow staff to deal with these challenges. Third, considering these increasing expectations and associated skills required, retailers should be aiming to hold onto retail employees as much as possible. As one of the main conduits to customers, these team members hold a wealth of knowledge and insights that should be leveraged, not abandoned.
Retail’s essential frontline
The Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the essential role shopfloor teams play not only in retail, but the overall economy. Through the pandemic, many retail staff have been deemed essential. This means going into public places and interacting with customers, increasing their own personal risks. This has also led to new responsibilities. In grocery stores and pharmacies, staff have been tasked with overseeing purchasing limits to ensure equitable access to products. Even in other categories, staff have taken on responsibilities for limiting the number of customers in-store, temperature checking and sanitising. More recently, staff have also played roles in encouraging customers to wear masks where this is either encouraged or mandatory.
Unfortunately, staff on the frontline have also had to bear the frunt of frustrations from certain consumers. Some examples have been well documented and reported. Woolworths employees have been wearing additional name tags with labels like “I’m a father”. It’s an attempt to personalise the staff members and encourage empathy, but it’s also a sad reality that these measures are required to protect retail staff performing these essential roles.
Staff and technology
When discussing the role of shopfloor employees, it is important to acknowledge the rise of technology and automation in the retail sector. Online shopping has steadily grown, changing the role of physical retail. However, ABS figures from June suggest online retail is still only roughly 10 per cent of the retail sector, so bricks-and-mortar is certainly not dead – assuming stores in Melbourne can reopen in the hopefully near future.
Even in-store, technology has been used to automate many processes and change the way staff work. Self-checkouts are now commonplace and examples like Amazon’s grocery stores suggest the potential for staff-less outlets. Even in customer service, the use of AI-driven conversational agents or ‘chatbots’ is increasing. From these trends, it is justifiable to question what role staff will play in the future of retail.
However, it’s important to remember that humans are inherently social creatures. While there are many things machines do well, they are still less skilled at human interactions and creativity. In fact, a study from PwC found that over 80 per cent of Australians desire more human interaction as technology increases. So instead of thinking about technology replacing staff, we should consider how technology can allow staff to provide the type of experiences customers now desire.
There is a useful model for this that is used in higher education when considering technologies to use as part of a learning environment. It’s called the SAMR model, which stands for:
- Substitution: Technology acts as a direct substitute for traditional options, but with no real benefit or change to the interaction.
- Augmentation: Technology replaces traditional options, but with an added benefit.
- Modification: Technology allows for a specific task to be changed in a beneficial way that would not be possible without the technology.
- Redefinition: Technology leads to the complete redesign of a set of tasks, and even the creation of new tasks or experiences.
The idea of this model is to think carefully about the purpose of using technology, and aim for higher levels (modification or redefinition) wherever possible. For instance, the rise of online and digital shopping channels has led to the redefinition of some stores into showrooms – creating a new way staff can interact with customers in a more meaningful way. In other words, technology doesn’t have to, and in fact shouldn’t, be a substitute for employees. Instead it can be used to augment the role they play, or even modify or redefine their roles for the better. Staff themselves already see these benefits; research from Fujitsu suggests over two-thirds of them see technology as improving their productivity, not replacing their roles.
This is undoubtedly a devastating time for many retailers – particularly those in Melbourne faced with stage 4 restrictions. With sales declining, it is natural to look at options to reduce costs. However, retail staff, including those on the shopfloor, will be crucial for the future success of retailers. Those who support their people now stand to benefit in the long term.
Dr Jason Pallant is a lecturer in the department of managing and marketing at Swinburne University of Technology.