Circumstances that have pervaded over the course of the past couple of years, since the onset of the pandemic, have challenged humanity worldwide, providing us all with a host of hardships, inconveniences, disruptions and obstacles to overcome. It’s a period that’s been mired in uncertainty and disarray, resulting in a tumult that’s been felt by everyone, everywhere. Within the retail industry, the impacts of the COVID-19 virus have been far-reaching, negatively effecting numerous aspects of the business. With respect to store operations, these negative effects have been most dramatically emphasized by a labour and staffing crisis that’s only now, it seems, beginning to ease, with a recent surge in hires within the Canadian economy and subsequent decrease in unemployment. Despite this positive trajectory, however, there remains a sense of dubiousness within the retail sector. And it’s a dubiousness, according to President of Best Retail Careers International Inc. and retail staffing expert, Suzanne Sears, that’s rooted in challenges that extend beyond retailers’ struggles to simply fill roles within their organizations.
“The number of new hires that were recorded in Canada throughout the months of November and December were completely off the charts,” says Sears. “There was a number of them back in November as a direct result of an increasing comfort among the general public. People were becoming much more confident in their ability to safely head back out into public spaces, malls and other venues, as well as in returning back to the workplace. There’s a growing assurance among people because of the high rates of vaccinations in the country. They feel safer knowing that most people around them have been double vaccinated. Even after the spike in Omicron cases, that assurance continues to grow. This, combined with the fact that pent-up savings among consumers, who have greater access to product than services, are making purchases. This has created demand for work in warehousing, shipping, supply chain, buying, stores, e-commerce, and right on through the entire operation. When there’s a surge in business, more people are needed to process the orders. However, with so many new hires, are these roles being filled with the right talent?”
Shortage of appropriate skills
Recent data released within Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey reveals that an astounding 154,000 jobs were added to the country’s economy in November, far exceeding the 38,000 additions that were expected. In December, a further 55,000 new hires were recorded, leading to an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent and a near return to pre-pandemic levels. In addition, the survey finds that nearly all of the gains in employment were made in Ontario and Saskatchewan, with a distinct rise in full-time employment and subsequent decrease in part-time work. It’s a trend that is, as Sears points out, driven primarily by an uptick in consumer demand. However, it’s also representative of retailers’ need to now fill positions that were vacated as a consequence of the pandemic and associated mass lockdowns. And, adds the retail staffing expert, much of that need is showing up in skilled management positions.
“Since the start of the pandemic, there have obviously been a number of people who have dropped out of the workforce,” she recognizes. “Many have made the decision to retire. And others have found fruitful side gigs that they’re happy with. This has created more vacancies than retailers have ever seen, creating more opportunities in senior positions than could ever have been expected prior to COVID-19. However, the real need is in the middle of the organization within positions that require a high degree of skill and expertise and a real knowledge of the industry and the ways in which retail ticks. As a result, many organizations are finding that the pool of available talent to draw from to fill the vacancies has nearly been decimated. When there was a surplus of talent, which wasn’t that long ago, most organizations wanted to steal the top performers from other organizations. It allowed them to onboard people and get them to hit the ground running with minimal training. Today, they’re finding that they need to hire the people who simply want the job, hoping that they have relevant experience and skills that are close to what they’re looking for, and that they’re teachable.”
Store level stresses
Sears goes on to explain that as a result of retailers’ inability to attract the appropriate talent to their organizations, many are realizing that a substantial amount of training is being required to onboard most new hires. In some cases, drawing from a diluted talent pool means training from the ground up. It’s a reality that’s forcing many within the industry to at least start to reassess and enhance their current onboarding strategies and processes and the personnel within their organizations who can adequately transfer and impart the necessary information new hires require in order to perform and excel at their jobs. It’s something that, according to Sears, is placing a great deal of stress on many retailers and other businesses, causing a ripple effect through the entire organization, as the employment and talent landscape continues to evolve.
“If you just look at street level retail and individual store locations, there is suddenly an enormous amount of stress placed on retail managers,” she asserts. “They are typically not equipped to be trainers. It’s not part of their job and hasn’t been for decades. So, the pressures involved in their day-to-day activities are multiplied. Then, when you move up the chain to the district managers, they’re being torn to shreds because they’re the ones that are supposed to be providing the leadership for the store managers. How is anyone expected to execute an effective and accurate performance review when more than half of the retail staff aren’t adequately trained? And in many cases, it all leads back to the human resources departments which have traditionally not done a very good job of exploring and investing in training programs that address anything beyond running the cash register. And, when you consider issues like diversity and mental health, training has become a big umbrella that most HR departments just aren’t equipped to handle – something that’s been highlighted by our current shortage of talent.”
Greater emphasis on training and development
It’s a situation that, as Sears explains, impacts the entire organization, restricting their ability to grow and innovate. However, she also points out that perhaps the most detrimental effect that a dissatisfactory onboarding and training program has on any retailer is reflected in the levels of service that their staff have been enabled to provide. And, given the amount of focus that’s been paid by the industry over the course of the past number of years on developing ecommerce capabilities and digital service, a focus that’s only intensified throughout the pandemic period, it may be time for many within the industry to shift their attention to the experience that’s being provided in-store. And then, in order to deliver the exceptional service and experience that customers are increasingly looking for, Sears suggests that organizations conduct a formal review of the value that their brands place on training.
“Consumers have generally been giving retailers a pass for poor service of late because of COVID-19. But that won’t last forever. Soon, people will start to vote with their feet. Retail has always been about customer service. Most retailers and brands profess to know this and to be able to deliver an exceptional experience. But, the fact of the matter is that most don’t. Going forward, customer service is going to serve as an even greater differentiator for brands than ever before. And those who realize this will be those that will quickly separate themselves from their competitors. In order to create that separation, they need to hire more, hire sooner, hire faster and provide all new hires with a minimum 30-day classroom-level training program. In addition, they need to do a much better job of mentoring talent within their organizations to enable their employees for success. In short, they need to put much more emphasis on training and developing their talent as quickly and effectively as possible, viewing it as the most meaningful investment that they can make with respect to the future and continued growth of their brands.”