10 Ways to Stop the Retail Employee Exodus

Retail workers are quitting in record numbers at a staggering cost to retailers. Here are 10 ways to keep your team happy & engaged.

Wow. The challenges keep on coming. We are on the downside of the pandemic but now we are fighting related issues like supply chain disruptions, cost increases (both covered last week), as well as crazy levels of employee turnover. Given our mission of providing actionable content for retailers everywhere, we are devoting our lead story to creating stronger bonds between your team members and your business. Take a look.

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10 Ways to Keep Employees Happy

You have seen it in the headlines for months now. Retail employees are quitting their jobs in record numbers.

“Some 649,000 employees gave notice in April, the sector’s largest one-month exodus in over 20 years, a reflection of pandemic-era strains and a strengthening job market” – The Washington Post

The cost to merchants is staggering. Reduced store coverage, shorter operating hours, investments in hiring & training new employees, lower productivity, the list is long and troublesome.

Why is this happening now? Frankly, turnover in retail has always been a problem. However, it’s been magnified by the pandemic, as employees have been exposed to many new challenges including longer hours, understaffed stores, unruly customers, pay cuts, and the need to “police” social distancing and masking rules. The results are clear:

In early June, the Labor Department reported nearly 1 million open retail jobs.

The obvious goal is to minimize the impact of this worker exodus on your business. In Issue #5 of All Things Retail, we discussed how people are the lifeblood of every company. There is no greater asset. So, the question is what can be done to get your employees to the point they believe they are respected, valuable, engaged, and yes, happy at work?

We know how much a team member is paid impacts turnover (your people need to earn a competitive wage), but surprisingly is has less impact on team morale than one might think. It’s a starting point, but by itself, it will not solve this challenge. Just like when you compete on price alone, your advantage is only effective until some other business lowers their prices below yours (or in this case, raises their wages above yours). So, offer fair pay rates for your markets, but read on.

Before going into the 10 Ways to Keep Your Employees Happy, let’s start with a few pandemic related opportunities that will lower the stress levels for your team and hopefully strengthen the bond they feel to your business:

Open Your Stores: many retailers are still limiting access to their stores even though this is no longer required by local regulations. Stop it! Open up! No metering of guests, no blocked entrances, no closed fitting rooms. These only result in consumer confusion and frustration which is often taken out on your team (plus it’s simply bad for business). Clean all you want but stop the nonsense.

Stop Mask Requirements: this is another confrontation waiting to happen between shoppers and employees. If masks are not required in your market, do not require them in your store. If employees want to wear them that’s fine but drop the requirement for guests (I was in 2 malls this week with no masking requirements yet approximately 25% of the mall stores required them. How confusing is that?)

Managers Handle Customer Issues: at the first sign of a frustrated, confrontational shopper, tell your team members to call a manager and let the manager handle the issue. Of course, we would like team members to be able to address problematic situations, but there are so many now, it’s better to protect your people. They will appreciate it and develop a greater respect for store leadership.

OK, let’s jump into our Top 10 Ways to Keep Employees Happy & Engaged:

  1. Onboarding New Team Members: begin your team culture messaging on day one of employment for every new associate. Beyond proper team introductions and communication of the job responsibilities, expectations, and business philosophies, create a swag bag or similar as a welcome gift for each new employee. Include a welcome note from the manager, some branded elements like a t-shirt, notepad, sticker, water bottle, and even a gift card for a local lunch spot. This small investment can go a long way in making your new people feel great about joining your business.

  2. Say Thank You: it’s amazing how many employee efforts are taken for granted. Don’t be that person. Go out of your way to verbally show appreciation for a job well done (large or small) by thanking your people for their efforts loud (let others hear it), often, and in a sincere manner. It’s a sign of respect that will strengthen the bond between you and your people.

  3. Food: this one targets the team rather than the individual, but it works. Provide a bagel platter for early shift team members, or a pizza lunch / dinner for workers later in the day. Do it randomly so it doesn’t become expected and be sure all team members know it’s simply another way for you to thank them for their hard work and dedication to the business.

  4. Celebrate Milestones: we all want employees to stay with us for the long term. So, why not celebrate the steps to achieving this goal? 30 days with the business? Perhaps a branded hoodie or backpack to recognize this achievement. 1 year? How about a gift certificate for a fancy dinner out for the employee and their significant other? 2, 3, 5 years? Wow… plaque, pin, watch, days off? Be creative, be generous, and recognize the achievement in front of the entire staff. Honoring the commitment and loyalty of your team members will pay huge dividends.

  5. Invest Time: get to know your people beyond the 4 walls of your business. Make a commitment to spend 30-60 minutes with each new hire after the first few weeks. Schedule overlapping coverage and take them for coffee, one on one. Ask them how they enjoy their job, what could make it better, and in general get to know them, their aspirations, what they do for fun, etc. This small investment in time will strengthen the bond with your associates, create greater loyalty and most likely will help you learn a bit more about your business. Repeat this every year or so (more frequently if you prefer) and keep it informal and casual.

  6. Recognize Wins: in many workplaces, employees certainly are made aware of when they mess up. Let’s flip that and spend more time recognizing wins, both large and small. Chat with your team for 5-10 minutes each day. In addition to discussing priorities for the day (the value of “Daily Huddles” will be in a future issue), call out the achievements, successes, and wins from the previous day. Ask your team to pile on and mention other achievements they may have participated in or witnessed. It could be a great selling effort, converting a return into a sale, super-fast freight processing, identification of a cost-saving idea. You get the point. Create a culture of success and it will feed upon itself.

  7. Written Thank You Notes: if you take the time to hand write a thank you note, your team will take notice. While you cannot write notes as often as you verbalize “thank you”, chances are you can do it more often than you do now. Invest the time in hand-written notes and I’ll bet you many are saved by the employees for years to come. They are that impactful. How should you deliver these notes? How about attaching to the team member’s paycheck? Or mailing to their home? Better yet, mail one to their significant other saying what a great job they are doing.

  8. Company Apparel: people love to feel part of something, a team for example. You can build that team spirit by offering various forms of company apparel (or similar swag) to your associates. The products should be high quality and should feature your branding in a cool manner. These offerings should be a step-up from what is provided in the onboarding swag bag and can be provided free from time to time (possibly as a means of celebration) or even for purchase (ideally at your cost). Again, this makes the bond between the employee and your business a bit stronger.

  9. Town Hall Meetings: otherwise known as “all hands” meetings, these are a superb way to communicate the same messages / updates to all team members and allow for open and honest two-way communication, Q&A, etc. Coordinating these is a bit tricky for retail businesses but early mornings, pre-opening can work well. Begin by highlighting company and individual successes, discuss priorities for the next several months and then open the floor for questions and feedback. It may be quiet at first but keep at it and before long you will have a meaningful dialog happening. The bond will become even stronger. I’d do these meetings 2-3 times a year at minimum and please be sure all employees are paid for their time.

  10. Scheduling: time is our most finite resource, and your team members are as entitled as anyone to be able to plan their personal lives around their work commitments. This means that you need to use best efforts to provide your associates their scheduled shifts well in advance and then stick to them. I know, it’s not easy, but work hard at it. It’s a meaningful sign of respect for your associates. When you do need to make short-notice changes, say thank you loud and often and consider other types of recognition if an employee needs to step up to fill scheduling gaps on a regular basis.

As usual, there are plenty of ways beyond these 10 ideas to keep your team members happy and engaged. These are my top ten based on years of experience. That said, what is most important is that you recognize the need to proactively address this challenge and then walk the talk.


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Quotes of the Week:

"Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first."

- Angela Ahrendts (former SVP, Apple)

"There is little success where there is little laughter."

- Andrew Carnegie

“To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.”

- Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell’s Soup

“Research indicates that workers have three prime needs: interesting work, recognition for doing a good job, and being let in on things that are going on in the company.”

- Zig Ziglar, author, and motivational speaker