By Richard Pedott

Retailers have been in a unique position for years having to deal with staffing stores domestically and internationally, building and retaining talent at corporate offices, scaling teams seasonally in warehouses/fulfillment and distribution centers, and managing remote/virtual talent for customer call centers and digital commerce.  Topping the list of the largest employers overall is Walmart with approximately 2.0 billion employees globally. With the post Covid shifts in consumer behaviors and the changes in the workforce at large, is it any wonder that the retail industry is at the forefront of defining the future of the worker landscape?

2021 marked the year of the “great retail resignation” and the start of a new decade in the retail workforce. The industry has already embraced remote environments, automations like self-checkout, chat bots and new norms in brick & mortar (BOPIS, black stores, showrooms), but is now facing a heightened level of staffing shortages. In addition, retailers are not only challenged with recruitment and retention, they are encountering an aging, less-technologically savvy pool of talent and a younger population with new value systems.  So, what does the future of the retail workforce look like?

Earlier visionaries saw a future where robots and automated sales help would be replacing live people on assembly lines and warehouses, sales floors and information centers.  Today, however, we are envisioning a new more blended mix of AI, hybrid working conditions and outsourced labor models. Picture staffing apps whereby workers can input their scheduling preferences across retailers and be called on based on availability, skill set and compensation level—on demand staffing. It works for companies like Uber, Task Rabbit, Roadie and others, so why not retail staffing?   Traditionalists are relying on more standard techniques such as sign on bonuses, retention bonuses, higher hourly wages, expanded discounts and benefits, but the future may lie in less formality and in more flexibility. So, what does this do for brands that try to hire individuals that embody the aspiration or culture of the company (think Ralph Lauren, REI or Lululemon). We all enjoyed shopping at Home Depot when we could ask a sales associate a question and have it answered by a licensed contractor, but those days are long gone and professionals are relegated to a booth or counter.  Indeed, diversity continues to get even more complicated when we consider all of the factors impacting retailers.

Corporate offices, in turn, are facing their share of transformation as well. The new hybrid staff of physical vs virtual scheduling is creating operational overhead waste and challenges in technology that are not well integrated to support a mixed environment team. Meetings run with half the group in person and the other half zooming or calling in are wrought with problems and not all functions are efficiently run remotely (like product design and visual merchandising). One innovative way to think is to consider using actual stores as remote corporate offices. They are equipped with the same intranets and systems as the single corporate office solution and allow for distant but physical access to a space (remote not virtual). Corporate employees can be on site experts in products and processes and help with high volume periods as well as training in specialty areas.

In addition to on demand labor and store reinvention, we may also start to see more condensed hours and days of operation to accommodate the new workforce. This year more retailers declared a true Thanksgiving holiday unlike the midnight madness and after feast savings events of not long ago.  Reducing hours of operation will allow for more flexibility during regular work hours (9-5) and the repurposing to brick and mortar for after hour operations like order on-line and pick- up at store front or same day delivery (employees make local rounds the last hour of their shifts on the way home). Whatever the future of the retail workforce looks like, it will most certainly not look like the shop-girls from the department store hay days. And, this may not be a bad thing. As expectations of the consumers’ change, so too do the needs of businesses and while retailers may be leading the charge into the next generation of labor staffing, they will most certainly not be alone when they get there.

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