Re-Opening Retail Playbook: Short-Term Staff Management Strategies

reopening retail

Retail stores across the US are beginning to re-open, but even as the danger of COVID-19 lessens, many shoppers will likely continue to opt for e-commerce or curbside pickup options that require far less interaction as a safety precaution. 

As a retail business owner, ensuring that your staff feels safe at work should be your top priority. In the short-term, this means adjusting staff management strategies to reflect a shift toward online-first shopping experiences. 

In Part Two of our Re-Opening Retail Playbook series, we’ll explore phased strategies for staff management and training that align with the “new normal” following COVID-19. 

Rethinking retail hiring strategies 

Many retailers have had to reduce staff throughout COVID-19. Now, as they re-open, it’s time to consider how this will impact hiring practices or if it would be beneficial to outsource some tasks instead of handling them in-house. Here are a few things to consider.

1. Recruit lost staff back to work

Some retailers may have lost staff whose hours had to be reduced, and as a result, may struggle to bring them back to work. Other employees may be hesitant to return as it may increase their likelihood for exposure to the virus, or in many cases, may be earning more on government assistance than they did from their job. 

The most effective way to encourage employees to rejoin the workforce is to prioritize their health and safety. 

Ricardo Belmar, the senior director of Global Enterprise Marketing at Infovista, recommends that merchants build trust by having a robust set of health and safety procedures. 

New employees will want to know what your procedures are before they commit to a new job for their own health and safety. While there is no doubt unemployed people want to get back to work, there is also a high level of concern about health and safety that remains during the pandemic.

Note: If you struggle to bring staff back to work and eventually do need to hire new team members, be sure to implement a remote interviewing process to limit in-person meetings, as this helps minimize unnecessary face-to-face interaction.

2. Get creative with compensation strategies

Along with advanced health and safety measures, retailers may want to consider new compensation strategies to encourage their trained team members to return to work or to recruit new hires. This includes things like hazard pay, temporary raises, bonuses, or gift incentives. 

The reason: Floor staff in retail stores act as representatives for your brand, handling direct customer interactions that have a major impact on the customer experience. As such, it’s important to keep them safe and motivated.

As you consider various compensation strategies or added perks for floor staff, keep in mind that a study from Harvard University found that paying minimum wage workers an extra dollar to perform a task didn’t improve their performance or overall productivity. However, another group of employees were given an unexpected “gift” of higher pay after agreeing to perform a task at a lower base pay, and this group was about 20% more productive.


3. Outsource work to third-parties

Some smaller businesses may not have the means or time to hire and onboard new employees. In this case, retailers should consider outsourcing a specialized aspect of the business to a third-party company (including things like order fulfillment, customer support, or administrative tasks.)

Megan Brophy, a retail analyst at Fit Small Business, says it’s important to consider the big picture when thinking about handling tasks in-house or outsourcing work.

Some retailers are fulfilling online orders for pickup, local delivery, and shipping from their shop. Having associates with shifts dedicated to fulfillment can help streamline this process. However, others are opting to deliver local orders themselves instead of shipping or using a third-party service. This is a wonderful gesture, just be careful of what you ask of employees.

One of the most common ways to outsource is to hand over fulfillment to a third-party company, or if you're an existing Shopify customer, through Shopify's Fulfillment Network. Another area that is readily outsourced is customer service. Dozens of companies offer outsourced customer service support, including email, social media, call center, and live chat. Hiring a virtual assistant can also help offload repetitive administrative tasks to free up more bandwidth for leadership team members.

How you decide to get extra help during a growth phase will depend on what feels most comfortable for you and your business needs. 

Regardless of the capacity it entails, bringing on extra staff will require scalable training and onboarding materials. This process will help get new team members up to speed efficiently on everything from customer experience to more technical training like how to use the store’s POS system.

How to provide work from home support (and why) 

Employees and companies around the world have discovered that it is possible to work from home long-term. In fact, some companies have even been considering offering their employees a permanent work from home option. 

And while a work-from home option isn’t realistic for all retailers, it can be deployed for a variety of roles with some creative restructuring and with the help of technology. Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, founder and publisher of Retail Minded, says it’s never been so important to embrace flexibility and to allow retail teams to work remotely. 

“By leveraging solutions that bring connectivity and clarity to their stores and staff, retailers welcome opportunities to enhance team morale, improve operations, and boost customer engagement. Whether from the comfort of their home, traveling, or even in their offices, delivering trust and delivering ease to employees should be the goal of those retailers looking to confidently embrace the future of retail,” she said.

Here are a few strategies to consider implementing to provide work from home support.

1. Bring tools and materials to staff members’ homes

The key to working from home successfully is making it easy for employees to do their jobs there—which will likely include shipping some materials to their homes. For example, intimates brand Knix sent to their fit specialists every product Knix carries along with a clothing rack to nicely display all the products during the virtual fitting sessions the offer that are carried out from employees’ homes. 

2. Move fulfillment and inventory to staff members’ homes

If you choose to keep fulfillment in-house, you may be faced with employees who don’t yet feel comfortable returning to a warehouse or retail store to ship orders where they’re more likely to come into contact with others. Instead, offer employees the option to fulfill orders from the safety of their homes. 

For example: Jewelry brand Melinda Maria brought inventory to a staff member’s home garage so they could continue fulfilling orders from home.

If you choose to go this route, just be sure to have plenty of clear sanitizing instructions to keep customers safe as well. 

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3. Strengthen communication channels for work from home

As retailers and employees settle into working from home as a long-term solution, now is a good time to invest in extra communication and digital collaboration tools. The goal should be for every employee to know exactly what’s expected of them in the coming months and how to navigate new work-from-home challenges that may arise. 

For inspiration, look to furniture brand Article. Duncan Blair, Article’s Director of Marketing recently detailed their fast-action plan to help employees work remotely, including immediate updates to communication and training materials. 


Filling the gap: Getting creative with staff training

Some retailers have found new ways to utilize staff during a pivot or have changed the way they operate entirely. Shifting your staff’s responsibilities could save time and resources needed to hire new staff members or to outsource tasks. 

Let’s take a look at some specific examples. 

1. Move staff from different teams to shipping and fulfillment

For many merchants, the radical shift to ecommerce has meant that their shipping and fulfillment teams are now overloaded. This may mean that existing staff resources need to be shifted and re-allocated to support teams that are becoming overworked.

In one example, instead of hiring new team members, tea company Teapigs decided to move some of its staff from various departments into its shipping and fulfillment department. Similarly, gifts company Maker House shifted its in-store retail staff to the shipping and fulfillment team as well. In doing this, both were able to stay agile while working with their existing human resources.

2. Cross-train for coverage

Cross-training employees is a wise idea so there is additional coverage should an employee become sick or need to request leave. If you haven’t already, be sure to train your retail staff so they know how to do various essential tasks in-store. 

For example: Employees who work in the back-of-house operations should be trained in front-of-house (and vice versa.) There should also be additional training on opening and closing your store as well as on critical tasks like dropping off daily deposits so that store managers have a back-up plan should they be required to self-isolate.

3. Train sales associates for digital marketing 

Most retailers report that their behind-the-scenes staff has not been strongly affected, as they can work from home in most cases. On-the-floor retail staff, on the other hand, are likely to have had their work reduced or eliminated due to COVID-19. While they will begin to return to work as stores slowly re-open, it’s also important to keep these valuable employees engaged until then. 

Many smaller retailers don’t have a dedicated marketing department, which means that when foot-traffic plummeted during the pandemic, they were left scrambling to drive sales online. 

Fortunately, there’s a solution: Retrain your on-floor retail staff in ecommerce marketing. Because sales associates are already familiar with customers’ pain points and desires, they’re often a natural fit for online marketing. 

For example: Women’s activewear brand Exoticaathletica enlisted its store staff to start doing live videos on social media to drive online sales.

Raj Nijjer, VP of Marketing at Yotpo, suggests that online marketing will be from now on a core part of a retail sales associate’s job: 

The retail staff of the future will serve as an online and offline brand concierge which necessitates hiring well-rounded individuals that exhibit humility, curiosity and optimism, enabled by technology for the ‘everywhere’ customer. 

As such, on-the-floor retail staff can be retrained in social media, clienteling, email marketing, and other digital efforts as they return to work.

Invest in taking care of your staff in this new normal

By now, you likely have figured out how to keep customers engaged and shopping amid this pandemic. Now, it’s time to invest in your staff, especially as your store or stores are re-opening.

Use the strategies in this article to make sure your staff members feel safe, know exactly what to expect, and are never underutilized or overworked. Not only will this investment keep your most valuable staff members on your team, but it’ll also help your business run more smoothly and efficiently. 

We’ll continue our Re-Opening Retail Playbook series next week. Look out for Part 3, on how to reconfigure your physical store for the future. And if you missed it, go back and read Part 1, all about the essential policies and tools you’ll need to succeed in this new normal.