Covid-19: The future of the frontline

There’s been a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ in retail. Despite the obvious shifts, many things in retail will not change. Behind the masks, the hand sanitiser and the distanced queues, store associates will continue as they always have; working hard to give customers the products and experiences they want.

What will change is the way the store associate is trained, motivated and equipped to succeed, because serving the customer has become more challenging than ever. Before the crisis, customers were viewed as demanding, connected, sophisticated and vocal. After lockdown, they’ve now acquired a whole new set of behaviours.

Take online shopping, for example. The pandemic forced people who never, or very rarely, shopped online to embrace eCommerce. Along the way, they discovered it was easier than they thought it would be and they liked it. While this group will inevitably come back into stores, how will their expectations have changed?

Many pundits are predicting stores will now be just one part of their shopping journey. And this means store associates will need to adjust their behaviours to meet the expectations of customers who are browsing, choosing, paying and taking delivery of goods in real time and online. 

No going back

The digital-savvy consumer, who was already comfortable shopping online, will also accelerate many of their pre-Covid-19 behaviours. Not least, we’ll see a greater shift to online shopping for many additional categories as they have become very used to the convenience of home delivery. Due to this, these consumers are certain to demand an even more seamless journey across channels, which will stress retailers even further in terms of managing store associate schedules, roles, locations and technology tools.

During the crisis, the frontline store associate has risen to the many challenges of keeping essential shops open in ways that have amazed both customers and their employers. There are many good reasons to keep the positive momentum going, but that means frontline associates need the right-fit support to learn, grow and thrive in their roles.

But, what tools will they need to keep delivering a superior service to the customer as lockdown eases?

Our most recent report, ‘Building a resilient workforce for the retail revival’, offers practical steps to build an action plan to make  retail associates ready for anything — both in the short term, as stores reopen, and for the longer term, as retailers need to meet the demands of the increasingly multi-channel customer.

5 ways to support the future frontline store associate

  • Keep your entire frontline on the same page, no matter how fast things change.  This means sending consistent information directly to your entire frontline in real-time, on their work or personal devices, not via managers or bulletin boards. And giving managers the ability to see who has and hasn’t read messages for easier follow-up

  • Give them the tools to stay safe. Build compliance into reboarding and onboarding as stores reopen to get your entire frontline workforce up to speed on the new, coronavirus-related processes, policies and procedures they must follow to do their jobs safely. And rather than overburden them with the universe of things they might need to know, focus only on the topics and compliance training they need to confidently perform in their new roles - like communicating with customers and proper sanitisation procedures

  • Make sure the information sticks. What was safe yesterday may not be safe tomorrow, so continuous reinforcement of processes and procedures will ensure they don’t forget. It’s also a great way to rethink and adapt pre-Covid-19 habits. Rather than trying to get employees to remember everything in one go, focus on the top 2-3 things they need to know to keep safe and productive on the job. Work on getting employees to remember those key concepts and put them into practice.

  • Get them ready to perform in any role. In the future, store associates may be required to take on a greater variety of roles, and even working in multiple locations. Cross-training allows the workforce to build the right skills, so any role can be filled quickly as operational demands and customer needs shift.

  • Support them on the devices they love. By delivering communications and training on the devices associates already carry in their pockets, staff can be kept informed and engaged right in the flow of work. It may also reduce their stress around personal safety when a bring your own device (BYOD) strategy is implemented. Data security concerns can be removed by issuing disclaimers, providing single sign-on, and restricting access beyond a store’s Wi-Fi boundaries. However, retailers should ensure shared access points are available to staff who don’t have, or want to use, their own smartphone.

Despite the changes, retailers will continue to count on frontline associates to keep things running smoothly as retail reopens, so customers enjoy an experience that keeps them coming back in the long-term after lockdown. And those on the frontline will be counting on retail businesses to make sure they have all they need to stay safe, confident and productive on the job. The right training and communication will be key in creating an environment where everybody thrives.