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What Retail Employees Hope Will Change After COVID-19

We Scoured the News and Chat Rooms to Find Out What Retail’s Frontline Hopes Employers Will Improve Upon After the Pandemic

  • By Sarah Murphy

Retail has changed dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year. Major chains went bankrupt; stores were forced to furlough staff; face-coverings indoors and curbside pick-up became commonplace; retail workers got declared heroes for helping essential businesses run smoothly. 

Store associates have stepped it up big time and seen special measures and changes brought in during the pandemic to help them (and their businesses) cope. 

But despite major headways in retail, panicked hoarders and rule-flouting customers have also highlighted some of the areas that still need to change. 

Here are some things retail employees secretly hope will change once COVID-19 and this year is over.

 

More Co-Workers

Thousands of stores have closed since COVID-19 began. Even though some temporarily laid-off workers returned to their jobs once lockdowns and restrictions got lifted, more than one million retail jobs have been lost in the U.S. alone, and many stores are operating with a leaner staff. 

Speaking to CNBC, Forrester analyst Sucharita Kodali warned that “if retailers discover that they can do more with less, we may see a permanent decline in the total number of retail workers.” That means the brunt of the work will fall on frontline workers—who, on top of regular duties, have additional tasks like cleaning and sanitization to complete—for the foreseeable future. And when associates get laid off, their workload increases even more.

In a time when stress and fear are already rampant amongst retail workers, many are hoping additional hirings during and after the pandemic could lighten their loads.

So far, there have been some glimmers of hope, with retailers like grocery stores hiring additional workers to keep up with demand—in many instances, new hires have been brought on to implement and enforce COVID-19 protocols

Hopefully, with many states continuing with their reopening plans, it will only be a matter of time before more retail employees return to work.

 

Less Rigid Jobs

One solution that could reduce stress during—and after—the pandemic is to make job descriptions less rigid. 

Training staff for multiple positions and giving them transferable skills not only advances their professional development (a significant draw for today’s retail staff) but benefits the employer and their business, too.

One of the biggest changes retail employees have seen during COVID-19 is the huge increase in online curbside pick-up orders. 

The New York Times reports that the surge in curbside pick-up orders “has implications for preserving retail jobs,” and fulfilling orders has become a major part of associates’ daily tasks in-store.

Training associates across roles like sales, merchandising, shipping and receiving, and fulfilling online orders helps stores stay relevant and keeps workforces agile in a time of uncertainty.

If this year has taught us anything, it’s that being adaptable is key to survival in retail. Having an array of qualified individuals who can step into a different role if another employee is sick or on leave not only breaks up the monotony of everyday shifts but makes workplaces more resilient.

 

Improvements to Curbside Pick-Up

Speaking of curbside pick-up, many retail workers feel that there’s still room for improvement. 

Since March, many retailers have scrambled together makeshift curbside pick-up solutions. Since then, they’ve ironed out the kinks, with many moving to efficient text and email communications and other digital solutions to connect with customers out in the parking lot and fulfill orders.

“Americans are used to their cars and actually do like stores, so this is kind of a hybrid where you’re getting the best of both worlds,” retail analyst Oliver Chen told the New York Times, insinuating that curbside pick-up is here to stay.

Some things to consider for creating an efficient curbside pick-up system include:

  • Create/maintain an online store with clear product descriptions
  • Streamline the ordering and payment process
  • Promote the option for curbside pick-up
  • Create a designated space for packing, storing, and delivering orders
  • Train staff on the new protocols

Once the system is in place, you and your team will be able to gauge what can be improved. Don’t be afraid to make changes until you find the optimal solution for your store—like everything this year, developing an efficient curbside pick-up system is an ongoing process.

 

Associates as Rule Enforcers

As public health guidelines sought to control customers’ behavior, retail workers were put in the precarious position of upholding the rules, while also preserving their own safety. Many will breathe a sigh of relief when they no longer have to provide rule enforcement in addition to customer service.

Some stores have hired security to enforce mask-wearing policies, while others are positioning staff members at doors, or simply using signage, to encourage shoppers to follow the rules.

CVS rightfully opted to put the onus on customers. “To be clear, we’re not asking our store employees to play the role of enforcer,” Chief Operating Officer Jon Roberts said in a statement. “What we are asking is that customers help protect themselves and those around them by listening to the experts and heeding the call to wear a face covering.” Since then, many other retailers have followed suit.

But despite the varying approaches, there have been some extreme examples of in-store employees trying to enforce the rules and unfairly suffering the consequences.

Sadly, there is no easy solution to this problem. For now, the best thing to do is to continue posting signage in and around your store advising customers to wear face coverings and physically distance where mandated—check your local public health agency for resources.

 

More Benefits

Another topic that became a hot button issue during the pandemic is benefits.

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four in ten hourly workers do not have access to paid sick leave, with many being forced to choose between going to work and risking their health (and the health of others) or staying home and losing income (or in some cases, even their jobs). 

At the start of the pandemic, as reported by Business Insider, Apple gave their full-time and part-time hourly employees unlimited sick leave, and paid all employees while Apple Stores were shut down for a few weeks in March. Starbucks tacked on “catastrophe pay” to workers’ paycheques, and guaranteed workers 30 days of pay regardless of whether they came into work or not. Walmart waived their attendance policy until the end of April, told its employees that if they contracted COVID-19, they would receive up to two weeks pay, and informed staff that if they felt uncomfortable coming to work, they could take unpaid leave.

Not every retailer will be able to offer similar guarantees and benefits. But as our CEO wrote in Total Retail, putting “employees and customers first” is essential to building brand equity during this difficult time.

 

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