Smart holiday hiring now can lead to sustainable success for retailers

James Mason

By James Mason

In the past, major retailers ramped up holiday staffing levels to stay ahead of the end of year shopping rush. Now, however, the sector has been rocked by a labour shortage that’s impossible to miss.

We are in a period of societal mismatch between supply and demand for labour. With 8.8 million job openings in the US but only 6.3 million unemployed workers, according to the US Chamber of Commerce, finding workers (even before the added demand) was going to be a difficult task. When forced to confront the difficult economic picture, some companies, like Sam’s Club, have pre-emptively adjusted their strategies to embrace innovative ideas to supplement lost labour – with surprisingly positive results.

To hedge against the risk of an extreme labour crunch this holiday season, retail and service firms can incorporate some basic elements of transformation in the here and now — and position themselves for a leaner, more dynamic future. Here are four key priorities to get you there:

Explore your customer’s journey

Before retailers start implementing any innovative solutions, they should investigate and ultimately rethink their customers’ experience with them, from end-to-end. By spotting pains, system bottlenecks, and notable feelings along that journey, they can capture an objective view of how value is being delivered for the customer. By focusing on this full ecosystem of customer engagement, retailers can contextualise what’s possible and develop an ideal experience for their customers. Based on a survey conducted by Harvard Business Review, only 15 percent of business professionals said their organisation is very effective in delivering a relevant and reliable customer experience. Clearly delighting customers isn’t an easy feat. But some companies are taking it head on and finding success. Take a recent example at McDonald’s. While frictionless customer experience has become the norm, they examined their customer journey and realized that some friction had a positive impact. Based on customer feedback, the traditional ordering process can sometimes be a hasty, stressful affair. By replacing this with self-service kiosks, it created a more relaxed experience. This gave McDonald’s the confidence to pursue a deployment strategy for the technology – and now they’re leading the charge for Quick Serve Restaurants more generally. Other retailers lack the scale of a McDonald’s, but their customers’ journey is no less important to thoughtful innovation.

Embed automation to free up your people

It’s likely that somewhere in the customer’s (or employee’s) journey, opportunities for automation will stand out. Tasks that require little value added via human-to-human interaction spring to mind. With the advancement of camera, sensor, robotics, and computer vision technology, employees can focus less on physical tasks that are tedious or cumbersome for employees to carry out (like inventory counting, such as the Sam’s Club example above). Likewise, back-office tasks that risk being mundane or redundant (payment processing, for example) can be tackled by technologies like Robotic Process Automation or Artificial Intelligence. Investments in eCommerce platforms and self-service applications also take the onus off the frontline workforce. By shifting the focus toward the relationship with the customer, you enable more fulfilling roles and responsibilities for your team, as well as revenue-generating opportunities. John Lewis, a retailing giant, pursued an aggressive expansion into eCommerce to capitalise on shifting consumer trends and shuttered a significant number of stores as part of that strategy. However, it found that a noticeable source of value came from services you could only experience in-store (like personal styling and events). So, it focused its efforts on building an in-store team that could maximise these capabilities. In a lower headcount world, retailers should think of their employees as assets to build customer relationships and let automation tackle the jobs no one really wants to do.

Harness data to nurture an intelligent organisation

Data is vital to supporting a smaller workforce. It is the lifeblood of modern business. With so much flowing around us today, there are numerous ways for retailers to discover and drive powerful insights. Be it through supply chain optimisation or in-store decision making, well-defined analytics hold the potential to unlock a highly productive workforce. In fact, in June at the Consumer Goods Forum Global Summit, Unilever and Microsoft shared their combined perspective on the power of analytics, built on the ocean of data that firms have at their fingertips. New tools are creating pathways to structure and take advantage of this data. Rentokil, a pest service provider, found that their customers could benefit from a more proactive approach to their service. So, Rentokil launched an Internet of Things solution that allowed it to monitor pest activity in real-time, without the need for in-person technician appointments, and intervene before larger issues occurred. Much like this case, retailers of all varieties can take advantage of the data they collect and deploy it in their teams for more powerful insights to support customer relationships.

Harmonize digital and physical to scale your operations

The current retail landscape is no longer online versus offline. Customers expect a synchronised experience across the brand ecosystem. While this may not be a simple structure to erect, this has benefits for the company as well as the customer. Enabling digital experiences can open opportunities for enhanced loyalty and recurring revenue, as well as customer self-service. But customer touchpoints should be viewed as an ecosystem of interactions (not just standalone journeys) across in-store, pre-purchase, and alternative purchase pathways. This will help avoid a transactional relationship and create affinity toward the brand. Pret a Manger conducted a digital transformation in this way. In partnership with us, it assembled a customer data platform, revamped their loyalty program, enhanced online ordering capabilities, provided digital tools for store operations, and aligned their product data. The net result was a more in-synch and focused organisation with a more technologically savvy brand affiliation. What’s more, digital platforms like this have the advantage of labour economies of scale, allowing retailers to expand their business more easily into new markets.

The labour shortage is a systemic issue that, by all accounts, likely won’t be receding. The holiday season simply exacerbates this issue. To compete in this new world – in a sustainable way – retailers need to satisfy their customers’ true needs, make their leaner teams more productive, and aggressively pursue scalability. Innovation holds the key. If aligned well with your company’s strategic aims, it can be a springboard for growth. By embracing it now, you might even experience some holiday cheer.

About the authors

James Mason
James Mason PA digital strategy and experience expert

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