From hero to zero and back again

In the early days of lockdown, frontline retail staff were celebrated for their commitment to keeping the nation fed, and customers were happy to grin and bear the inconvenience of inevitable shortages. Lately, however, some customers have turned to verbal and even physical abuse directed against staff.

The main flashpoints have occurred when staff have tried to enforce company rules on hygiene and safety for both themselves and customers. When asked, store staff talked about being spat at, coughed at and sneezed at when asking customers to practise social distancing or wear masks, as well as being pushed and verbally abused when trying to enforce buying limits on in-demand products.

The extent of the problem is borne out by figures from the BRC retail crime survey, which showed that the number of incidents of violence and abuse against shop workers was 424 per day in the period from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. This is estimated to have more than doubled since March 2020. Workers’ own representative, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) also recently reported violence against retail frontline workers doubling over the course of the pandemic.

Many retailers have decided to take matters into their own hands and take action to protect their employees. UK grocery chain, Co-op, has said it will supply frontline staff at 250 stores with body-worn cameras in response to a “crime and violence epidemic” in retail. This has been shown as one way to de-escalate a potential incident, with most aggressors opting to leave the store once they understand they are on camera.

Shielding store staff from violent incidents is not always possible, but there are ways frontline employees can de-escalate a situation before it becomes dangerous. The current situation only stands to highlight the importance of the frontline and the critical role they play in modern retail, as customers’ expectations continue to rise.

Meeting rising expectations requires more effective ways to train staff for their ever-changing roles in the new normal, which demands greater flexibility in terms of schedules, skillsets and customer communications. Retailers need to enable staff to manage in this new normal by providing support in the areas of training and communications as laid out in our latest report, Building A Resilient Frontline Workforce.

How retailers communicate is a big part of embedding positive behaviours for the long term and motivating staff to comply. Digital communications are more effective than manuals and bulletin boards, particularly when they are delivered directly to an employee’s own device. And the immediacy of digital communications means that training and support can be given quickly when new situations arise, as has been so often the case during the pandemic.

In terms of delivering training, little and often is better than a one and done approach. People just don’t remember a lot of information that is delivered all at once, particularly if it’s not reinforced. Better to deliver two or three things that staff need to know and then repeat at intervals, which becomes even more useful once they’ve put their training into action and demonstrate improvement. This builds good habits and develops the right behaviours quickly.

Another useful training approach in dealing with the business disruption the pandemic has created is cross-training, preparing staff to quickly adopt new roles for both the short and long term. During the pandemic, this has meant moving some staff into managing queues, advising on hygiene and safety and delivering orders straight into customers’ car boots. Our experience has been that, with the right training, staff welcome the chance to take on new challenges to support where needed in their stores. This has also meant that many retailers have been able to minimise staff layoffs and eliminate lengthy hiring and on-boarding initiatives.

I think we can all agree that tomorrow’s new normal will be different from that of today. The one consistent theme through this pandemic is that change is constant. All areas of retail were changing long before Covid-19 came along, and the pandemic has simply accelerated these changes. Add hygiene and safeguarding to the mix, and it is clear that staff will need more support than ever in their roles in terms of how they are trained, recognised, rewarded and motivated. Staff that are looked after in the right ways, will return the favour by looking after customers.