4 Answers To The Hardest Problems in ‘21 Back-To-School Retail

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Committed workers are the latest in fashion this back-to-school season. And for many retailers, the accessories that will pull their operational outfit together are trending beyond the predictable pay and benefits.

In April, a reported 650,000 workers quit their retail jobs – the largest figure in more than 20 years – contributing to shortages not just in stores, but also in retail distribution centers and call centers.

By June, the unemployment rate in the retail sector reached 6%. That compares with an overall unemployment rate of 5.9% – evidence that retail workers who quit or were laid off during the pandemic are rethinking the careers they come back to. 

Without changing the potential of what retail careers can offer, merchants risk staff shortages and/or high turnover rates during the crucial back-to-school season, with a through-line of low engagement. That will cost sales. The annual turnover rate among retail workers rose to nearly 70% in 2020, from 58.4% in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Many left in search of better-paying, brighter-future jobs with predictable schedules and safer conditions (safer, due to the pandemic). A lot of younger workers are choosing education over work. 

As a result, retailers – in particular, those competing with online-only rivals – are at higher risk of staffing their stores with inexperienced workers who lack product knowledge, authority and service intuition. 

Retail Workers Are Not Too Cool For School

While retailers have been able to lean on innovation, such as contactless payments, to offset worker shortages and expenses, they still need human presence to enrich the shopper experience. Someone needs to troubleshoot high-tech device problems, provide feedback on how a piece of clothing fits or pull an item out of a display case. 

Retailers could find the answers to attracting the best of these workers in the following formulas.

  1. Comprehensive compensation. Wages have long been a competitive issue for retailers, contributing to the industry’s high turnover. In May 2020 (most recent data), the median hourly wage for retail worker was $14.87, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That breaks down to a median average pay of $12.03 for cashiers, while salespeople and stock clerks earned $13.20. Some retailers, including Kohl’s, are addressing this challenge on a market-by-market basis, as shortages are worse in some regions than others. Kohl’s also plans to give bonuses to workers who stay on through the holiday season – a one-time payoff that could reduce turnover rates into 2022. Target recently awarded $200 bonuses to each of its hourly employees in recognition of their work over the previous six months – the sixth bonus it paid since the pandemic.
  2. Train the focus on tailored perks. Intangible benefits, including discounts and long-term training, are a form of worker pay that could compensate when higher wages are not achievable. The Gap, for example, is adapting its training and onboarding resources to individual employee skills, including those from outside retail, a tailoring approach that could result in longer-lasting careers. The company told WWD in a statement that it is appraising individual skills over industry experience and background as part of a strategy to “widen the top of our recruiting funnel.” In doing so, Gap states, it can develop a more dynamic training program – and likely one that will flex with the changing workforce. 
  3. NextGen care. Following more than a year of working and schooling from home, more parents are reluctant to pay for, or simply can’t afford, child care. Twice as many women in 2021 as 2019 cited child care as a reason not to return to work, resulting in nearly 1.5 million fewer mothers of school-age children working. Further, twice as many women than men cited a lack of child care as the reason they lost their jobs during the pandemic. Best Buy and Carters are among retailers offering services and reimbursements toward care and tutoring. Amazon in 2020 began offering nearly a year of subsidized backup care to 650,000 Amazon and Whole Foods workers through Care.com’s [email protected] services. Another idea: offering equal parenting leave for male and female workers.
  4. Personalize the hiring. Retailers are highly effective at personalizing customer experiences, thanks to shopper data gathered through rewards programs. That same engagement efforts can help build a prospect pipeline. Talent relationship management technologies, including interactive candidate databases, enable companies to customize their searches. Personalized efforts, such as reaching out to candidates throughout the hiring process, will improve their impressions and keep them engaged – even if just to say a decision has yet to be made. A study by Talent Board found that candidates given job-related feedback within a day of their interviews were 52% more likely to accept the job, apply again or refer others. 

If You Don’t Get An A, You’re Getting An F

Make no mistake, back-to-school job recruitment is a pass-or-fail assignment for retailers this year. And it’s not just a matter adding workers – it’s replenishment.

The better the effort merchants put into their recruitment strategies now, the more likely they will provide A+ customer experiences throughout the school year, and beyond.

This article originally appeared in Forbes. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more on retail, loyalty and the customer experience.

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