Engaging & Recognizing Retail Workers That Deliver the Immersive Experience Consumers Today Demand

By: Tanya Fish
retail employee working during covid-19 pandemic

We are all consumers—and I bet each one of us can attest to our shopping habits changing over the past few years; specifically, the past year. Research validates this, suggesting that over the time, consumers have shifted an increasing share of their purchases to e-commerce, and COVID-19 has accelerated this trend, leading to ever-growing declines in physical store traffic.

As consumers, we also have had a shift in our expectations on how retailers ought to support our new demand for buying differently—more options, greater safety measures and enhanced in-store experiences (if we shop in-store at all). As a result, retailers are being pushed to move beyond in-store customer engagement to using physical locations to create immersive experiences that drive foot traffic while also providing innovative new omnichannel offerings.

According to McKinsey research, as a core component of an omnichannel journey, store associates of the future will need to play more of an advocate role for customers, listening to their needs and delivering a high level of service and expertise in each interaction. While much of the conversation right now is on creating a consumer/customer journey that draws them to shop a specific retailer, ensuring employees are engaged, equipped with the right skills and knowledge, and happy is a critical aspect of the equation that gets less focus.

“The employees must love the company before the customers ever will.” —Simon Sinek

So let’s dig in and identify how to engage those retail workers who when engaged, according to Gallup, will drive a 10% increase in customer ratings. To tap into ITA Group experience for achieving high engagement of retail associates, I asked some colleagues to highlight what has worked in their experience with our retail clients.

Build in Recognition & Incentives Tied to Desired Behaviors

First and foremost: Fully commit to engaging your employees if you hope to see results. I have worked in a number of retail settings, and it can be a thankless grind. To make a difficult situation even worse, half-baked engagement strategies actually hurt engagement more than they help drive it. When designing a long-term strategy look to your data to build in recognition and incentives tied to top employees’ desired behaviors and automate tracking of these behaviors so they are recognized day-to-day. Make sure customers are a part of this strategy—they interact with your employees more than anyone else.
To do this, steal a lesson from automotive and repair shops by giving customers a resource (like a website or mobile app) to use while shopping to address questions like, ‘Do you need any help?’ and ‘How was your service?’ Lastly, employees are only as good as the leadership that guides them. Hiring leaders that have a strong cultural fit for your brand, training them and recognizing/rewarding them for their team’s performance is a must!
Max Kenkel, Insights & Strategy Leader

Ensure Information Is Visible to All to Create Higher Levels of Engagement

Deskless employees, like front-line retail workers, are often hard to reach and do not receive many organizational communications that speak to goals, product focus initiatives or performance, unless their manager trickles that information down. To bring visibility to this information and create higher levels of engagement, and ultimately a better customer experience, I have seen personal success with the following four tactics:
  1. Start each shift with a kick-off meeting to get employees aligned on store happenings. Be sure to include any information from corporate emails, daily/weekly/monthly goals and progress-to-goal.
  2. Break goals down into digestible, small bites. A lot of these workers are only there for a short shift and will be more engaged if they have an understanding of what they can impact during their time on the floor. Reward goal achievement of individuals, teams and stores!
  3. Use data to hyper focus on efforts that result in high impact. POS data provides a lot of information that often times gets stuck at the manager level. Equip the sales team with top performing products at the store level, district level and company level so they have easy go-to items.
  4. Implement micro-recognition into your daily routine. Recognition posted in the breakroom, employee highlights during a kick-off meeting and recognizing staff members to upper-management are all ways to create a feeling of appreciation for front-line workers who are often overlooked.
Karli Quesinberry, Strategist

Storytelling With Timely, Actionable Engagement Data

A great way to engage and nudge recognition within a retail audience is to present managers with actionable and timely engagement data. But first, accept reality— they’re a busy bunch—safety/security, marketing, operations, sales, hiring/training to name just a few of their roles and responsibilities. Retail leader margin is razor thin, yet the expectation for the use of data, across any role, continues to climb.
So how do you present data to someone who only has two minutes to spare? You tell the story. Remove the need to interpret graphs and charts, and present variable messaging that provides three elements:
  1. Their current state (current engagement level)
  2. A reiteration of the goal (reminder of the target to work toward)
  3. A prescriptive path forward (real recommendations and strategies to promote great behavior or potentially get back on track)
By packaging data in a story, you exponentially increase its approachability. And when people approach data willingly, they own it, and great things happen—we’ve seen it!
Mitch Stearns, Analytics Advisor

Direct Outreach & Messaging Support From Leadership & Peers Is Crucial for Recognition

Think of the journey your retail team members take during their usual work day: the employee entrance, check-in, back halls and break spaces are key areas. But it’s equally helpful to literally walk the path of your audience and look for unconventional employee-facing spaces where your messaging would be noticed.
Considering retail employees are on the move, think of ways to communicate to them quickly and concisely, wherever they are, along well-traveled paths or through texting or digital notifications. But, be mindful that a retail employee might not be able to be on their phone to read a communication when there are customers to support and work to be done. A short notification message doesn’t take much of their time and reinforces there’s important info or a recognition message ready for them to check out on their email or online when they do get that chance.  
Outside the ‘what’ of considering non-traditional communication elements, make sure you’re also focused on the ‘who.’ Direct outreach and messaging support from leadership and their peers, is crucial for recognition. Arm leadership with the best practices and the know-how to support the program. Identify team members that can champion the program as ambassadors. Utilize store meetings and gatherings for recognition in front of peers and demonstrate the program isn’t something that lives only on a platform. It’s something you do.
Tim Gass, Creative Director
To hear more about the importance of engaging employees to drive customer experience, check out this Q&A with Max and me on this topic, and learn more about the impact a good employee experience can have on the customer experience.
Tanya Fish
Tanya Fish

Tanya Fish is the Leader of Employee Experience Solutions for ITA Group. She drives the insights, strategy and evolution around employee experience for the organization while offering advisement for client engagement and employee programs. Tanya loves inspiring passion in people, something she believes impacts the individual, the organization and the community. Tanya’s past work and studies on organizational leadership in business, employee health and well-being, culture and health insurance guide her unique perspective on organizational health and success. Tanya is energized by achievement, learning and empowerment and balanced by time with family and friends and being outdoors. Bonus points if it’s by a body of water.